The last 25 years or so has seen the Raku pottery technique become increasingly popular among professional and hobby potters alike. The drawing of red hot pots from a kiln, the subsequent smoking of pots (and potters) in sawdust, the tense excitement as the final results emerge when the pots are cooled and cleaned have proved irresistible, especially for potters with pyromaniac tendencies. Many a pottery course has ended with the obligatory raku firing on the last day - a lighthearted event conducted with a stick of wood in one hand and a glass of wine in the other! More recently, however, a growing number of potters have turned to this medium as a 'serious' expression of their work, finding new (or perhaps old) and varied techniques to explore. The famous Japanese potter Hamada said that he wanted to wait until the end of his life before making raku pots as it was the most difficult and important technique to master.(1)
Raku pottery is always a crowd pleaser. Trouble is, not every potter is good at Raku. The random and chance effects are difficult to master and often become an evil mistress turning otherwise beautifully thrown pots into charcoal covered, crackled shards.
At the heart of Migration’s summer exhibit, "Conscious Clay," is the nonfunctional and exquisite Raku pottery of Steve Mitchell. Steve is the rare potter who can lasso the randomness of differing Raku techniques and create pots whose surfaces are beautifully decorated with the subtleties that only the dance of fire and smoke can create. In Steve’s words:
I experiment with shapes/forms, glazes and firing techniques constantly. I like wood firing and Raku best because I feel more of a connection to this, the last phase of the creation of the vessel. I am altering the work to the last moment. I concentrate on orb shapes and larger forms as they are more of a challenge to throw and alter.
Beyond the traditional Raku reduction technique, Steve’s pots are created through a couple of differing Raku-styled techniques: Ferric Chloride and Sodium Silicate. The Ferric Chloride technique is a colorful effect similar to Raku. The pots are fired to 1800 degrees, cooled and coated with Ferric Chloride; leaves, string and other combustibles are added to the surface; then the pot is covered with foil and fire to 1200 degrees and cooled. The temperature differences on the surface of the pot create the color effects. Steve’s Sodium Silicate technique is new work for him. The pot is started as a tall narrow cylinder, then Sodium Silicate saturated with Red Iron Oxide, is painted on the wet clay. When the Sodium Silicate is hard the cylinder, while still wet, is stretched into the vase shape cracking the surface. After bisque firing, a translucent silver nitrate glaze is applied and the piece is then fired to 2200 degrees followed by the Raku reduction technique.
Steve’s exploration into the varying interactions between new materials and firing techniques as well as his combination of natural and chemical forces gives his work a fresh look and a clear expression of his personal love of pottery.
Steve is from Western Virginia and currently operates his studio in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Roanoke. In 1980, he began a stained glass studio in the old Roanoke Downtown Market in 1980 called "Studio 103" where he made stained glass windows for residential and commercial applications. He moved to Richmond to manage a claims operation for a large Insurance Company and stayed there till 1997 then moved back to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Steve worked on his ceramic art as a hobby until the spring of 2007 when he took early retirement and focused on pottery full-time. Since then, his work has been shown in Museums and Galleries in North Carolina and Virginia. Steve is a board member of the Blue Ridge Potter’s Guide, member of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, and an invited participant in the Artisan’s Center of Virginia. Among his many awards, he has won first place at the Blue Ridge Potter’s Guild Show Gallery twice in the last three years, and won "Best Raku Form" at the biennial Mid-Atlantic Clay Conference in 2007.
(1) This excerpt courtesy of "Raku a Review of Contemporary Work" written by Tim Andrews.