Thursday, February 8, 2018
I rarely think of it anymore, but there was a long ago time in my art school days when I got obsessed with Raku. The ceramics department had some large plaster molds and there was one simple two-piece mold I liked of an old, squared milk jug. I made up a ton of these old milk jugs and then bisque fired them in the school's huge gas kiln. These were just a pretext for my Raku glaze experiments.
In the courtyard of the art department was a ragged little gas kiln with a door one could pull up by a jury-rigged metal side handle. This was the Raku Kiln. I found old ceramic raku glaze recipe books in the College Library and mixed up dozens of different raku glazes to slather over the milk jugs. The only ingredient I remember now from any of them is Tin Oxide. I'm pretty sure Tin Oxide was important. I could fit one of my jugs at a time in this little kiln. It took awhile to get to temperature, but I had to pay attention to it. There was no thermometer or cone (an object used to measure heat in kilns) so I had to eyeball when it was ready. It was blinding hot when I opened the door to check, and the jug glowed bright orange. I could tell it was ready by the liquid look of the glaze on the clay.
When it was all ripe and fluid I'd pull the jug out with large metal scissors tongs. Quickly I would drop the ever so slightly molten ceramic piece into a metal garbage can filled with newspaper and sawdust. I, or maybe someone assisting would throw more newspaper on top as fast as possible and as it all erupted into giant flames we'd slam the garbage can lid on top, suffocating the fire. This process would importantly suck all the oxygen out of the glaze's environment.
Then I'd let it cool. It was exciting. And I never knew what I'd get.
The best results were a kind of mad swirl Art Nouveau psychedelic abstract expressionist iridescence. Golds would stir into bronze with hints of sapphire bleeding into pearl and silver. Something mundane like ocher would spill heavily through the surface and be subsumed by copper and brass. Kandinsky would meet Klimt and then sputter into Pollock, but all just in an accidental sort of way.
I loved it.
Here then, answer me this: What's your favorite color?
Yes that's a question for a 6-year old, unless you happen to have a favorite color, wherein it suddenly becomes a question with an answer. My favorite color is Raku.
What is the color of Raku?
It is like earth-toned psychedelic. Iridescent planets. It is the color version of smoke.
But until today I had forgotten my favorite color for a long time. And I hadn't thought of Raku for many years. It was minus six degrees F outside in Minnesota, and I was on my walk along the river. I saw two lumbering woodpeckers and nothing else alive. After an hour of brisk movement I was almost starting to warm up. Then I headed into the University Campus. I was walking in a bike lane next to a sidewalk because no bikes were using it and the footing was better there. On the sidewalk next to me were three enormous turkeys. I see these turkeys a lot around town, but this time we were especially close to each other. Their plumage was as if on fire in the cold hard fierce winter sun. One of them ruffled his feathers.
And I remembered.