There are many versions of the origins of Raku and of ‘American’ Raku’. I will try to give an overview of where it comes from and why some of us call the ‘new style’ “American Raku.”
In 16th Century Japan, a potter from Korea arrived by small boat. He brought only the tools he could carry with him, as well as a vast knowledge of clay. His name was Chojiro, and some scholars refer to him as Chojiro I, or the first. In that time, when ceramic tile roofs were common, there was a high demand for repair, as tiles would spall or were easily broken. Because tiles were hand made and rarely unified, the common technique was to remove the broken tile, take it to a potter and have it duplicated. Chojiro came up with a concept of making a new tile (usually a batch of tiles) on site and firing them in a small quickly constructed kiln. The clay was specially designed to take the rapid shock of being removed while red hot. To aid in cooling, the tile would be added to rice hulls, which would burn at a cooler temperature than the clay which was about 1800 degrees Fahrenheit (about 982 C.). He recognized a beautiful interaction of clay and surface and later experimented with the process to make bowls for the tea ceremony. Again, there are several versions of which Chojiro actually took the process for the ceremonial ware. Personally, I have enjoyed visiting collections which held bowls by Chojiro II through IX. There were many generations of Chojiro. He (one of them) was adopted into the Raku family.
In the late twentieth Century, Hal Riegger reintroduced Raku in the United states. Frequently credited to Paul Soldner, it was actually Reigger and his experimentation with the style that generated a movement and today has a world wide following of ceramic artists who experiment with many ways to rapid fire in these temperature ranges (usually 1800-2,000 F.) In our case we open the kiln when we judge the clay/glaze color to be sufficient (usually red/orange). The works are removed either with special tongues, or high temperature mitts. We place them in a barrel or metal horse trough and add a combustible material (straw) and cover the barrel. The process is called reduction (a reduced atmosphere of oxygen rich in carbon). The raw clay is altered as well as the glazed surface. In some cases we lay the pieces in the trough on a web of split wood (to maintain some higher temperature) and then spray a mixture of ferric chloride and water on the piece. This step is called “fuming.” This adds a rich iron patina. Safety is important, i.e. shielding from fire, heat and protecting eyes, lungs and mucus membranes from smoke and caustic reactions. I have written and blogged repeatedly on the subject of safety and occasionally it has been dubbed, “Michael Lancaster’s sermon on safety.”
There are many approaches to Raku. Most often it expresses something something we feel in our primal self; perhaps a time when we (humans) were more closely bonded with the elements, especially fire, earth, air, etc. Cared for properly it can last for centuries and hopefully like its name was originally intended, can give us everlasting pleasure.