Back in November 2018 I made a pot.
It was a big pot, formed of clay moulded over a bowl, intended as a home for a large Philodendron to be hung from the ceiling of my house. But work, travel and more latterly COVID-19 got in the way. The pot was fired and sat in my friend Carlotta’s workshop, waiting for an opportunity to return my attention to it.
As the lockdown started to lift in Italy that opportunity finally arrived. After a short conversation it was agreed that Carlotta and I would meet to glaze and fire the pot using the raku method. Aware of the beauty of raku but oblivious to the complexities of the process, I agreed.
The word ‘raku’ means ‘happiness in the accident’, which is to say that what you end up with as a finished piece is largely beyond your control. Indeed it is generally generally considered a success of the piece stays intact during the process which places involves intense stresses and pressures on the clay. Originally created for Korean tea ceremonies, the raku technique was subsequently developed in Japan to form beautiful pieces of ceramic art. Essentially the pieces are glazed and fired at a high temperature but then removed quickly and either put in cold water or allowed to cool in the open air. They are then covered with flammable natural materials such as sawdust and paper which are burnt to create smoke that stains the cracks in the glaze created by the shock of being taken from the heat and rapidly cooled. At the same time the withdrawal of oxygen from the glaze caused by the burning of flammable material also changes the colour of the glaze, creating a metallic appearance.
We began by selecting the glaze. Carlotta explained that the colours you see are not what you get. These are not colours as such but rather chemical compounds that transform with the heat and react in different ways during the firing process.
Once the colours were chosen – a mixture of blues and greens – the glaze was applied to the pot. Carlotta explained that overlapping areas of glaze would react with one another in ways that could not be planned for or predicted. There was no point in trying to overly control the process because the outcome was, ultimately, beyond my control…
The pot was then placed in the kiln and heated to nearly 1000 degrees centigrade. We waited and talked as I anxiously paced waiting to see whether the piece would survive…
The pot, still intact, glowed red hot as it was lifted from the kiln and allowed to cool rapidly in the air. Then it was placed into a metal drum containing newspaper and sawdust that was set alight. At this point I stepped away and let those in the know do their magic, turning the pot in the flames, letting it sit in the smoke to absorb the colour in the cracks which we could hear forming as the piece started to cool down.
Eventually the piece emerged from the ashes, the flow of cold water revealing an intricate web of large and small cracks and the coppery metallic colours of the transformed glaze. There are so many fascinating aspects of both the process and the piece on which I’m still reflecting: Carlotta’s delight as the piece started to crack juxtaposed with my horror and concern that the pot might fall apart; the way in which the patches of glaze on the inside of the pot transformed in the firing process, separating to form shapes that remind me of continents and faces and flowers; the stark contrast between the outside of the pot with its beautiful spiral and strong solid colours and the inside with its delicate web of cracks. And the fact that the cracks are what gives the piece its beauty, a theme that I’ve also been reflecting on in relation to the Japanese process of kintsugi.
Not everything went to plan. Some of the larger cracks weakened the piece meaning that it can no longer to used to hang a plant from my ceiling as originally intended. But to do that would, in any case, mean that the inside would be hidden from view, concealing the very cracks that give the piece its beauty. Instead it will sit on a table.
Happiness in the accident.
Wordsmith: Heaven Crawley
Designer maker: Heaven Crawley / Carlotta Carlocci
Photographer: Heaven Crawley