“I often think I make pots to slow down the world; and maybe to experience the sensual/tactile quality of wet clay on the wheel; and maybe to better understand life’s dichotomies and paradoxes by studying clay’s dichotomies and paradoxes – the microcosm of the studio and macrocosm of the world and maybe just because I have to.”
Price range: $250 to $1,600
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Bob Smith
Bob Smith has been a studio potter for over forty years. In the beginning he worked in functional stoneware, but quickly moved to low-fire work, especially raku and, now, saggar-fired vessels. [See additional information below on each technique.] For Bob Smith it is the bringing into the world of an object that intentionally exists to affect other people, maybe calmly, maybe outrageously that stirs him. He adds: “and ... most significantly is that rare but sometime moment when the pot or sculpture or object or idea works, when the total is greater than the sum of the parts, and something wonderful has happened.”
Silhouette and form, with a quiet contained presence have always been the major concerns for Bob Smith. His most current work reflects this ongoing fascination with form, plus an increased exploration of greater depth, subtlety and drama in the surface, with new directions in color, scale and texture. Bob Smith continues to use the vessel as his point of departure, enjoying the historical connection. But more and more, it is what Smith does to the piece after it comes from the kiln – air-brushing, specifically applied combustibles, controlled water and air-quenching that dominates his thinking.
When asked why he has been a potter for such a very long time, Bob Smith is quite candid: “Perhaps it is because I have been changed, significantly and irrevocably by making clay art; because my head, hands and heart have come together during this active, long-term pursuit of my dreams; because I am beginning to understand the complexities of my medium; and because I work hard and with care and sincerity to train my hands to do what they must; and in this self-actualization, I have become passionate. Through some stroke of luck or good fortune, I have found work which is satisfying, engaging, challenging and comprehensive, and through which my heart can sing.”
Bob Smith continues: “I often think I make pots to slow down the world; and maybe to experience the sensual/tactile quality of wet clay on the wheel; and maybe to better understand life’s dichotomies and paradoxes by studying clay’s dichotomies and paradoxes – the microcosm of the studio and macrocosm of the world and maybe just because I have to.”
As busy as Bob Smith loves to stay with the saggar-fired and raku pieces he creates, he is equally devoted to sharing his skills and knowledge. Bob Smith offers on-going classes and master classes at arts centers in Lakewood, CO and Arvada, CO, respectively. Bob Smith also teaches for-credit classes in the Art and Design Building at Arapahoe Community College, in Littleton, Colorado where students in all three of his classes are invited to participate in cone 10 reduction, high-fire salt and wood kiln firings
The Raku Firing Process
Bob Smith practices the centuries old process of Raku which was originally connected to the Japanese tea ceremony, where the Zen concept of “process” superseding “product” was held to be basic. The mysteries of the quick-firing, quick-cooling method lent a spontaneity and unpredictability to the finished tea bowls, which were highly regarded as embodying the Zen concepts.
In contemporary Raku, as represented by Bob Smith, the work is made from a very porous clay, first fired to remove all moisture (as with stoneware, porcelain, etc.) before glaze is applied. Thereafter, the process differs greatly from typical stoneware firings. In Raku, glazed pots are introduced into a kiln that is already at temperature, around 1800 degrees F. (considered low temperature). The glaze bubbles and smoothes quickly – in 10 to 15 minutes generally – at which point the pot is removed with long tongs, still glowing yellow, and put into a container filled with combustibles, typically straw, leaves or newspaper. The heat of the pot immediately ignites the material, and the vagaries of the smoke and flame leave their unpredictable and wonderful markers and effect on the pot, each unique. After a period of time – 10 seconds to 30 minutes – the pot is removed from the container, and often quenched with water to “freeze” the results. Losses due to thermal shock or to unacceptable results may be high, but to artists such as Bob Smith those pieces which survive truly reflect the mysteries of the process.
Saggar Firing and Terra Sigillata
The use of Terra Sigillata is an ancient form of preparing and firing pottery. The ancient (1100 B.C.) Greek black-on-black, red-on-red, and red-on-black pottery styles (based on much earlier [6000 B.C.] forms of this technique) are some of the oldest and best known adaptations of this firing process. The term ”terra sigillata,” from the Latin, means “sealed earth,” referring to the application of a very fine-particled slip to the surface of the pot, which is then often burnished, giving it a high luster, though not necessarily a glossy patina. The Romans also worked in this vein from 100 B.C. to 400 A.D.
In contemporary “traditional” terra sigillata, the pot is formed - thrown on a wheel or hand-built - and before it has been fired the first time (the bisque firing) it is covered with a very thin slip (clay suspended in water) and burnished. The burnishing (with a smooth rock, chamois, polyfiber cloth or other smooth material) imparts a satiny finish. The pot is then fired the first time, to a relatively low (1700º F.) temperature.
The magic comes in the second firing: The bisqued pot is placed in a “saggar” made of any number of materials (Bob Smith uses clay)* which acts as a closed container within the kiln – think two flower pots placed rim to rim. Inside the saggar, next to the pot, are placed an array of ingredients, both organic and inorganic, such as sawdust, moss, seaweed, and other combustibles; and chemicals such as copper carbonate, table salt, cobalt carbonate, Miracle-Gro™, steel wool, bronze wool, copper wire, and other metals. As the temperature rises in the kiln, and in the saggar, the organic materials ignite, burn, and help release the oxides and metals within the saggar.
When the kiln has reached the maturing temperature, around 1710º F, it is turned off and allowed to cool. In a couple of hours, with the kiln cooled, the saggars are opened to reveal the wondrous, secret results of this firing.
There is no glaze! The surface sheen of these vessels is from the burnishing; the coloration is from the materials in the saggar - highly variable, magical, and largely unpredictable - plus oxygen, which determines both the depth of color and the alternative “whiteness.” The final stage is to put a very light protective coat of tile sealer, either liquid or spray on the surface.
*Another firing method uses aluminum foil as the saggar. The firing is to a much lower temperature (1150ºF) and the pots are removed as soon as the temperature is reached.
A Brief History of Raku
The Ashikaga period of Japanese history (1138-1573) was marked by the conflicting but linked developments of greater internal military conflict among the local feudal lords, and the growth of Zen Buddhism to the position of dominant philosophical importance.
The basis of Zen is the belief that Buddha exists as a real potential within every person, and that the path of salvation lies in commitment to the “process of becoming” rather than to end products. “Reality” lies in the immediacy of actual experience in present time.
Ritual and the qualities of dignity and severely restrained simplicity were of supreme importance to the ruling feudal lords. One of the rituals revitalized during this period was the Cha-no-yu or Tea Ceremony, the Tea Master Ridyu receiving the full support and patronage of the emperor. Concurrently, the Chinese Temmoku tea bowls were being replaced in popularity by the peasant Korean wares.
At this time, a Korean immigrant family in Kyoto, a family of tile makers, was beginning to develop a process of making tea bowls involving a hand-made forming method followed by a rapid firing and cooling process, the results of which attested to the immediacy of the technique and captured the essence of the natural process. It is not surprising that this ware came to the attention of Raku, who appreciated its dignity and unselfconscious qualities.
The Shogun was equally impressed, and commissioned the family to produce this ware for the tea ceremony. He presented to the family a golden stamp bearing the character Raku (some of the meanings of which are ease, pleasure, enjoyment, spontaneity) and authorized it to be impressed on the wares from this one family’s kiln.
The Raku family, now in its 15th generation from Chojiro (Raku I) still continues to work in Kyoto, both extending and renewing this honored, traditional art form.
The British potter Bernard Leach is credited with introducing Raku to the West in the 1930’s and 1940’s. And Paul Soldner introduced Raku to America in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Raku in America today not only continues to reflect the traditionally simple techniques and forms of Japanese history, but also incorporates other standards of form. In either case, the important essence of Raku is maintained: that is, the experience of immediacy in the process, the experience of the process of becoming.