AMERICAN-STYLE RAKU
by Paul Soldner

Paul Soldner's name has long been associated with raku, and in particular with post firing smoking and quenching. The following text is based upon an address given to the International Ceramics Symposium sponsored by the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse on the "Americanization of Raku;" which Soldner preferred to call "The Raku of America." The text ot his speech was reprinted in Ceramic Review volume 124, in 1990.

The American raku tradition began nearly thirty-nine years ago. Before 1960 a few Americans were making Japanese-style raku. Warren Gilbertson, who had studied raku in Japan, presented an exhibit of his work at the Chicago Art Institute in the 1940s. Even though his work was largely imitative, he was one of the first to call attention to the making of Japanese raku tea bowls. American potters who experimented with raku in the 1950s also imitated the Japanese style of tea bowl making.

Japanese raku is made differently from American raku. Simply put, there are two kinds of Japanese raku: red ware, which is low fired and then cooled in the open air, and black ware, which is high fired. The color of red raku is obtained from an ochre slip, a lead glaze, and fast firing in a charcoal kiln. The salmon red and subtle gray flashing achieved with this technique was, and is, much appreciated in the tea ceremony. Black raku is obtained with a special pulverized-rock glaze, which probably has a high concentration of metal oxides such as iron, copper, and manganese. Like our stoneware, it is fired slowly at a high temperature (approximately 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit) and then cooled slowly. Neither type of Japanese raku is smoked. When I first visited Japan, I asked a raku potter when and how they smoked their pots. He said, "Never, that is an American innovation."

American-style raku differs in a number of ways, notably the rich black surface produced by smoking the ware outside the kiln at the end of firing. Other innovations include the quenching of the red-hot vessel in cold water, the production of brilliant and many-colored copper lustres, the forced crackling of the glaze with smoke penetration, the white line halo or ghost image surrounding a black metallic decoration, and the discovery of a copper slip that sometimes results in an unusual yellow matte surface. American raku also utilized shapes other than the traditional tea bowl. Because the tea ceremony itself was never part of American raku, American potters could be more experimental and inventive in making raku than their Japanese counterparts. Furthermore, the speed at which raku could be made allowed spontaneity and opened the way to the creation of new shapes that capitalized on the new freedom from the rigid control of the older utilitarian high-temperature tradition. To further emphasize the point that raku in America differs from Japanese raku, I need only explain that on meeting Mr. Raku in Kyoto, I realized that he alone could make "raku" ware. The recognition of Mr. Raku's exclusive right and the separation of American and Japanese raku came after a series of demonstrations and panel discussions at the World Craft Council Meeting.

Along with Rick Hirsch, I was invited to demonstrate the making of American-style raku alongside Mr. Raku, who was invited to demonstrate the traditional Japanese process. Mitsu Yanigahara had planned the demonstrations as part of the World Craft Council Meeting in Kyoto. Mr. Raku at first declined to demonstrate his process because it had been a family secret for fifteen generations. He only consented to appear after Yanigahara succeeded in securing the attendance of the then Crown Prince and Princess of Japan. Indeed, with their attendance secured, Mr. Raku said, "It would be an honor." The event went off beautifully and without incident other than the pomp, circumstance, and amusement of entertaining royalty.

On the last day of the meeting, the American and the Japanese raku guests were asked to debate the question: Can anyone other than the Raku family make raku? Both sides came armed with expert opinion. American potters tried to defend their understanding and use of the term "raku." Mr. Raku steadfastly maintained that only he could make it. He said our philosophical definition of raku was interesting, but meaningless. When asked what we should call our work, the work we felt to be raku, he answered swiftly and simply, "Do like I do, call it by your name. Call it Hamada ware, Hirsch ware, or Soldner ware."

Because the discussion seemed to have reached an absolute dead end, and in the interest of concluding an endless debate, I offered to throw in the sponge. That is to say, because we could not find any commonality acceptable to both sides, I thought it was time to extricate ourselves as gracefully as possible and go home. Therefore, I proposed a solution. Since coming to Japan, I had noticed that we in the United States do many things quite the opposite. For example, we drive on the right side of the road, and in Japan they drive on the left. We push our saws and wood planes into the work, and they pull. Our gas valves are in the off position when the handle is at right angles to the gas line. Theirs seem to be off when parallel. Our pottery wheels turn counterclockwise, whereas the opposite direction is common in Japan. We sit facing the far wall when using the toilet, the Japanese squat, facing the wall. I never saw a lawnmower in Japan, but in the west we mow everything that gets too close to the house. When landscaping a garden, we haul rocks out and the Japanese put them back in! Recognizing these many opposite ways of doing things, I declared, "We will never again call our work raku, rather we will call it the opposite, ukar."

If American raku is so different, how did we come to call it raku? It was probably a mistake. A mistake to which I must confess my part, even though it actually happened without my knowledge. Some of the confusion arose because at the time, in 1960, we did not know much about Japanese raku. I had heard of it from reading the Book of Tea. The Japanese community near the Los Angeles Art Institute also provided a source of pottery for our examination and learning. Bernard Leach's description of his first encounter with raku was perhaps the most appealing and most influential. In A Potter's Book, he made reference to attending a garden party in Tokly: "About 20 or 30 painters, actors, writers, etc., were gathered on the floor of a large tea house. They were given unglazed pots, some oxides and brushes and invited to write or paint upon them. Later the pots were glazed and quickly fired (within an hour), then delivered back to the guests to enjoy. This exciting story of his first raku encounter plus another page concerning raku philosophy were all the information I needed to try it.

Making raku would be fun, quick, and exciting, and so I tried my hand at it. The results were not I thought as subtle as I had been led to expect. They were ugly, and the clay was a nondescript yellow. The glaze was harsh; the oxides of cobalt, iron and chrome were obscenely bright and garish.

Had it not been for a serendipitous hunch, I doubt whether I would have ever again tried to make raku. Dissatisfaction with the results gave me the courage to roll the red-hot pots in some pepper tree leaves, hoping that the accompanying smoke might improve the surface. The rest is history. I was hooked and began to explore this process. It changed my life. It also changed by work. I developed an appreciation for the imperfect, for the beauty of asymmetry, and for the value of an organic aesthetic. I found a new freedom of openness and acceptance.

Later I was asked to demonstrate what I called raku and found delighted audiences everywhere. Raku could be done quickly with primitive equipment, even at the beach. In the beginning I had to bring along my own collapsible tongs, gloves, and portable burner in order to demonstrate and teach this new technique. But now, thirty years later, raku is so commonplace that the equipment is available everywhere, even in foreign countries. It has become so popular that recently when I was examining some pots in a store, the clerk informed me that they were a very special kind of pottery called raku. In breathless tones, he described the process that we have come to call raku, and thus we are here today.

In reviewing the history of American raku, I must give credit to the many other potters who also used their time and energy to explore this process. Jean Griffith and her friends in Seattle, Washington, were smoking their pots at the same time I was smoking mine. Later, Robert Piepenburg, Rick Hirsch, and Hal Riegger wrote books giving historical, contemporary, and technical raku information. Others who contributed through their work were the Kemenyffys, Dave Middlebrook, Wayne Higby, George Timock, Jim Romberg, Rick Dillingham, Bill Alright, Harvey Sadow, Nancy Jurs, David Koroka, and many, many more. A ground swell of potters became involved. Raku events at beaches, in the mountains, and in the schools all added momentum to the movement.

Curiously, American style raku gained in popularity at the same time as another low-fire technique, which came to be known as Funk Art. Both techniques extended the boundaries of pottery making but in different ways. Raku is more process and media oriented, and its makers are more influenced by the organic aesthetic of Japanese Zen Buddhism. In recounting the evolution of raku in America, I have been describing the making of raku as a process or technique. How can it me a process if the work "raku" refers to a feeling? What is raku? How can it be defined? How does new work fit into the tradition? Is nothing sacred? Is it possible to make raku without making by process alone? I hope so. If we examine the first raku tea bowls, we need to ask why did the tea master so designate it? Why indeed would a piece of pottery be described as "comfortable" as the Japanes work "raku" is usually translated in English? I have pondered the question many times and offer the following as a possible explanation. Keep in mind that it is only my speculation. It has been some four hundred years since raku pottery was first made and we have no direct record of the event. Part of my speculation concerns physical comfort and the rest considers performance comfort.

In the realm of ballet and classical music, as well as in the competitive worlds of skiing and boxing, I sense what I would call a rakuness, but only at the top. What makes a top performance? Why do audiences wildly applaud one performance and not another? The quality of the performance is perceived to be so special, so breathtaking, so seemingly effortless that the audience senses that they are in the presence of something very rare, even unique, something not often experienced, yet somehow so apparently easy that we forget for the moment the discipline, the endless training, the pain, and the focused dedication that made it possible. If a performance attains such a level of effortlessness, it transcends its own process and uplifts the observer and gives meaning to human existence. It is at such a moment, that we experience raku at its very best. Words cannot really describe the experience when it happens, but when it does happen we respond emotionally. It is a feeling of rakuness. Can a simple tea bowl be imbued with this quality? Yes, if it is special enough. Understanding raku in this more elite and spiritual way broadens its scope--beyond the limited process we once thought it was--and challenges each of us to embrace the effort needed to set our own work free. The struggle to attain rakuness can consume a lifetime--with only fleeting moments of success.

Raku offers western culture insight into new concepts of beauty. We have long admired balanced symmetry, unblemished surfaces, and rigid machine-like control as examples of perfect craftsmanship. Raku, in contrast, emphasizes asymmetry, the beauty of the accidental and the spontaneous, and the value of, and appreciation for, organic naturalness undominated or completely controlled by us.

In the spirit of raku, one must embrace the element of surprise. There can be no fear of losing what was once planned and there must be an urge to grow along with the discovery of the unknown. In the spirit of rakuness, make no demands, expect nothing, follow no absolute plan, be secure in change. Learn to accept another solution, and prefer to gamble on intuition.

Raku can offer us a deeper understanding of the qualities in pottery that are of a more spiritual nature and of pots made by people willing and able to create objects that have meaning as well as function.