ORHS Raku Pottery Firing

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On Friday, May 25th, Oyster River High School pottery students finished up their final raku firings, a technique derived from ancient Japan for firing ceramics.  While in official ceremonies the Japanese used “branch kilns,” the process has been slightly modernized to what is known as “Westernized Raku.”  The ORHS Art Department began raku firing a number of years ago small scale and in trash cans. “We saw the process happen and we thought, we’ve really got to show our kids this; we gotta get them introduced to this,” said ORHS art teacher Tim Lawrence.

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The firings began as an all-day event Friday, May 18, with pottery students spending the day outside grilling burgers and hot dogs as they monitored the firing.  The class continued firings, but on a smaller scale, throughout the following week. After the first day of firing, Lawrence switched to using his smaller, homemade versions of the kiln, as opposed to the industrial sized kiln (as seen above) that was used on Friday.  “I think [the large kiln] was designed by an engineer who never actually used it. I actually use the kiln, so I designed mine for my purposes. Everything that was wrong with the other kiln, I made sure wasn’t wrong with mine.”

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Above is one of Lawrence’s handmade kilns.  Of several differences, perhaps the most important is the ability for inside viewing.  “I can see every square inch of the inside of my kiln,” said Lawrence. “It’s definitely a visual thing; you have to be able to see into your kiln.  The temperature will give you a rough idea of how things are doing, but you’re looking for key signs to know when you need to remove the piece. It’s totally visual.”  Lawrence’s kiln has not one, but two removable patches to allow for viewing of the pieces.

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Nathan Moore (‘18) center, prepares to remove a piece from the recently-opened kiln.  At left, Lawrence removes a piece, and at right, Samuel Davis (‘18) reaches to cover a piece in a garbage can.  Once the pieces are fired, it is imperative to remove them quickly and cut off the oxygen supply. As Lawrence said, “Once it’s overfired you can’t go back.  We can get these out of [the kiln] and into the reduction bucket really fast for the optimum results.”

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Above, smoke issues out of the cracks in the garbage can lids of pieces recently removed from the kiln.  “There’s an ion exchange happening in there,” said Lawrence. “It needs oxygen to burn, so when we put them into the buckets and don’t give them oxygen, it tries very desperately to take the unavailable oxygen from the elements in the glaze.  When it takes the unavailable oxygen from these elements, it gives you these metallic lusters. You’ll never get a metallic luster from an oxidation kiln.”

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“I enjoy it because it’s just so thrilling,” said pottery student Elise Hanley-Miller (‘18).  “You get in there and you can’t think about anything else. You’re literally holding something that’s burning hot; you touch it and you’re scarred for life.”  Here, Lawrence reaches in to remove a piece from the reduction bucket before cooling it in water.

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Here, the previously mentioned “metallic lusters” are evident in this student-made pitcher and jar.  Moore enjoys the responsibility that comes with raku firing, and feels that the process has provided a valuable learning experience.  “The whole raku process is empirically controlled and determined, rather than having an electric kiln preprogrammed to do the exact same thing,” he said.  “It’s much more rewarding when we are responsible for making sure the process is well executed, and it’s a hell of a good time to pull the piece from the kiln when it’s glowing orange. I’ve learned more applied chemistry this semester doing raku firings than I did in my chemistry class, and that’s the truth. By knowing how to undergo the whole process I feel I’ve really learned a valuable trade that I am passionate about.”

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Due to the raku kiln’s low firing temperature of 2300°F, different chemicals are used in the production of the raku glazes.  “Silicon doesn’t even melt until 3000°F, and that’s what gives pottery its shine,” said Lawrence. “In raku pieces, the glaze is almost 80% boron because it’s a low-melt substance.”  However, these metallic colors come at a sometimes dangerous price.

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“It’s like five minutes of the most dangerous experience you have with art,” said senior Abby Croot. “Mr. Lawrence burned his eyelashes off, someone’s hair caught on fire once… there’s just so much excitement that comes along with it,” she added.  Above, the singed tips of Lawrence’s eyelashes.

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Above is Croot’s freshly removed raku skull.  In removing the pieces, it’s often a luck of the draw as to how they turn out.  “You never know what you’re going to get,” said Lawrence. “Twenty pieces turn out twenty different ways.  Try to get one piece to look like another. Good luck.

To see more raku pieces, along with many other ORHS student works of art, be sure to come by the senior art show this Wednesday, May 30th from 5:30-7:00pm or during school hours Thursday May 31st and Friday June 1st in the ORHS multi-purpose room.