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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014


Clay, Fire and Luck 

Story by Tiffany Hervey
Photo by Matt Mallams

Fire leaps from a trashcan, one of many along the beach. A red-hot object is plucked from a kiln, put into one of the trashcans and covered. When the cover is taken off and the object removed, it’s smoldering and covered in soot. As it’s wiped clean, iridescent sheens of emerald, pearl, onyx, silver and bronze emerge. Some pieces are spider-webbed by a fine craqueleur reminiscent of marble or dried desert mud.

This is raku: a sixteenth-century Japanese ceramic art form originally used to make vessels for the tea ceremony. The randomness and beauty of raku’s colors and patterns were thought to epitomize the Zen ideal of harmony between the individual and nature. That harmony is expressed every year at the Raku Ho‘olaule‘a campout held over Memorial Day weekend on O‘ahu. Each year since its inception in 1977, a raku master of national stature is invited to Hawai‘i to be the juror, who selects outstanding pieces to exhibit at The ARTS at Marks Garage in Honolulu.

While most ceramics are fired gradually over hours, raku is fired in about forty-five minutes, and the artist has no idea what the outcome will be. “It’s unpredictable,” says Raku Ho‘olaule‘a program chair Jackie Lau. “We are always surprised with our unique results.” Although rooted in ancient tradition, modern raku is more about aesthetics than functionality; the firing temperatures are low, so raku pieces will generally not hold liquid. They can be fragile and are best suited for display.

At the campout, to be held this May 24 to 26 at Mokule‘ia beach, attendees will include artists, teachers and students. “It’s Comic-Con for people costumed in fire suits,” jokes Bryce Myers, Windward Community College art instructor. “The exposure to so many styles of work, so many variations on techniques, and the level of passion and commitment that people have for practicing their art are inspiring.” The public is welcome for Community Kiln Day, when artists will have pre-fired bowls for purchase. Visitors can decorate the pieces with a variety of glazes, and the artists will fire the pottery for them. That’s one of the hooks of raku: It’s dynamic and fast. Visitors will get to participate in the magical and serendipitous effect that happens only in raku.