JHS art students fired up with raku pottery

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Students at Johnston High School recently experienced a trip through time as they explored the world of Japanese raku pottery.

“We’re celebrating tradition with raku pottery, it goes back to Japanese roots in the 13th to 15th centuries,” said Kerry Murphy, art teacher and fine arts co-chair at the high school. “At that time, Japanese society was moving away from being a militaristic society to a more Zen culture, where tea ceremony traditions started to get introduced.”

Raku ware is a type of Japanese pottery traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies, most often in the form of tea bowls. It is traditionally hand-shaped pottery which is removed from a kiln while still glowing hot. The technique then places the still hot ware in a container filled with combustible material, such as wood shavings and paper, which draws out colors which would otherwise not be seen.

“Students get to handle the materials for themselves, make their own pieces, it’s very special and individualized. We encourage the students to really embellish and think about all the components of the form,” said Murphy. “As they do that, they can really discover their unique voice through clay.”

During the past month, around 250 art students from throughout the school participated in the art program, which explored the historical aspects of raku, creating a clay work of art, to the final firing held last week.

Funded by a more than $2,000 Arts Talk grant, which was applied for by Murphy and art teacher Brigit McMahon, the program provides professional development with Trinity Rep, the Rhode Island Philharmonic and the RISD museum. This year, the school was given interpretation as a theme.  

“We had to think about what we wanted for our students, what was our wish list, and we really had to narrow it down. The students visited the above institutions, which then culminated with Kate Champa coming in for a month to work with students,” said Murphy.

Champa has a Masters Degree in Art History from Harvard, and has worked with the RISD ceramics department. She’s taught students of all ages at all levels, and collaborates with other artists to provide multi-faceted ceramic opportunities for student and community projects.

“A lot of the kids made pinch pots, which are perfect for raku,” said Champa. “But I really tried to emphasize that if there are a whole batch of pinch pots on a shelf, I want you to know which one is yours. After I said that, they almost all got really embellished in an interesting way.”

After creating their works, a raku firing was held last week with the guidance of Champa.

“Students are getting to engage with fire in a safe way, with a respect for the fire, and for this ceramic tradition, and I think that they feel really privileged not only in being able to take part in this ancient art but being entrusted with these processes,” said Murphy.

An outdoor kiln, which reached temperatures of 1500 to 1800 degrees, was set up outside the school. There, works were fired for approximately 20 to 45 minutes before being placed in trash can reduction containers filled with paper and wood shavings. The red hot clay works created a fire that pulled the oxygen out the glaze in the resulting reduction fire, which produced a metallic, smoky surface on the pot that could not otherwise be achieved with an electric kiln.

“It’s really cool how you can do all this like Kate does, and she rally makes sure that we put our style into the pots, make sure we really like it, and take our time to get it exactly how we want it,” said ninth grader Alexia Lourenco, who assisted with the day’s firings. “It’s cool how you see the colors come out. As they told us in class, the colors we picked will be completely different after firing, and seeing what comes out of them after they’ve been put into the reduction is amazing.” 

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