Potters plan raku workshop

Story and photos by Laura Faeo

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2000

Area potters will be getting fired up with a different and exciting clay experience Saturday, as the Kenai Potters Guild hosts a raku workshop in its studio at the Kenai Fine Arts Center in Kenai. The workshop is taught by Soldotna potter Ida Cockroft, an active member of the guild for many years.

Cockroft taught a raku workshop at the studio in 1997, and has arranged this one by popular demand from potters who have wanted another such event. She said she enjoys raku because it produces such immediate results.

"You get to see how your glazes turned out right away, instead of waiting three days for a gas kiln to cool. And it's a lot of fun."

Raku had its origins in Japan, where it was used to make decorative pieces and ceremonial tea sets. Modern artists have adapted the ancient technique into an entirely new and innovative medium. The firing is done quickly, as opposed to a 12-hour process in a gas kiln or eight hours in an electric kiln.

The pieces, usually made from a special raku clay that is formulated to withstand rapid temperature changes, are first bisque-fired in an electric kiln, then glazed with a low temperature glaze.

"Low temperature" in pottery jargon means a range of 1,850 to 1,900 degrees, which sounds pretty hot until you consider that "high-fire" goes up to a temperature of 2,300 degrees. Firing at the lower temperatures does not produce as hard or watertight a ceramic as the higher firing, so it usually is used for ornamental art pieces rather than functional food containers.

Raku kilns can be bought ready-made, but many potters make their own. At the 1997 workshop, Cockroft constructed a kiln at the beginning of the class, using a large steel garbage can. The can was lined with fire brick and a high-temperature insulation called Kao-wool, with a hole cut near the bottom to insert the burner. She used a burner from a gas kiln adapted for propane but said an ordinary propane weed burner will work just as well.

The glazed pieces are placed in the kiln and fired for about 20 minutes, then removed with tongs and thrust into a barrel filled with shredded paper or wood chips. The red-hot pots ignite the paper, producing smoke which "reduces" the glazes, enhancing the copper and iron in them to produce brighter colors.

After being smoked, the pots are grabbed again with the tongs and plunged into another barrel of water to cool. The raku clay stands up to this abrupt cooling, where other types of clay would shatter into a million pieces. The process produces shiny metallic colors -- bright greens and blues, copper and bronze -- which cannot be achieved any other way.

For a finishing touch, Cockroft often likes to "touch up" her pieces with a propane torch, which adds dramatic highlights of red and yellow.

Cockroft has been involved in pottery since 1968.

"I took a pottery class and thought it was so much fun, I had to do more of it," she said. "I just always loved to play in the mud."

She took more pottery courses at Lansing Community College in her home state of Michigan and has attended several workshops taught by famous potters.

"The rest of it's just learned by doing," she said.

Cockroft has built five gas kilns by herself and numerous raku kilns. She has taught beginning pottery classes for 4-H and Community Schools and is currently the instructor of a college course in ceramics for Kenai Peninsula College, which is held at the Potters Guild studio. She served as coordinator of the studio in the 1980s, then moved out of Alaska for several years.

"I was transplanted to Missouri by my husband," she said, "because he wanted to live where it was warm. But it was too warm, so we came back after a few years."

Cockroft sells most of her pottery at the Kenai Fine Art Center's sales gallery but has also sold some at Birch Tree Gallery in Soldotna. Previous to becoming a full-time potter, she worked as a nurse for 43 years in Alaska, Missouri and Michigan, operated a commercial fishing site in Redoubt Bay with her husband for three years and owned an arts and crafts store on Kalifornsky Beach Road. Besides pottery, she enjoys painting, dyed fabric design and quilting.

The workshop begins at 10 a.m., and the fee is $10. Those interested in attending should have bisqued pieces ready to glaze.


Ida Cockroft holds a vase and jar, outside the Kenai Fine Arts Center. Cockroft will instruct a raku workshop at the Kenai Fine Arts Center in Kenai Saturday.

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