By Nico Leenders
This story begins with Mas Matsushita. He moved to Revelstoke in the late ’70s like many others to work on the construction of the dam. Mas had come from New Denver, where as a teen he helped his father practice the Western style of Raku pottery, under the tutelage of Hal Riegger, a pioneer of the art form.
Raku pottery originated in Japan and dates back to the 1580s. It is different from other forms of pottery in that the clay is placed in a quick heating or already red-hot kiln, the glaze is melted and only allowed to cure a short while in the kiln before being removed still glowing from the heat, and forced to rapidly cool in the open air.
In the mid-1900s, American potters took this process one step further by pulling out the pottery as soon as the glaze melts, then placing the glowing hot pottery (close to 1,000 degrees Celsius) into a fire-proof container filled with combustible materials, which would be instantly ignited by the pottery. More combustible materials are quickly thrown over the pottery and a lid is then secured. Before long the fire is suffocated from lack of oxygen. It is in this smoke-filled, oxygen-deprived environment that the glaze cures and the pottery takes on distinctive Western Raku characteristics. This process in pottery lingo is called a “post-firing reduction.” Different potters experiment with different combustible materials like shredded paper, nut shells, horse hair, dry leaves and even seaweed, to achieve different results.
This process is fast. It involves handling glowing hot things, open fire and smoke; it is inherently dangerous, and produces unpredictable results. Pieces often break during the process as tremendous stress is exerted on them in the rapid heating and cooling process. The glazing effects are unique with cracking and even chipping of the glaze surface being commonplace. Compared to other methods of firing pottery, (Western) Raku is seriously exciting. You can imagine the appeal to a young Mas Matsushita.
Shortly after arriving in Revelstoke Mas joined the Revelstoke Art Group — known now as the Revelstoke Visual Arts Society (RVAS). He befriended local potter Trudy Golley-Silano and together they experimented with Raku for a while, trying different methods of firing and various types of clay.
In the early 2000s, Matsushita met Nancy Geismar, who was giving pottery courses. She had had her first taste of Raku when teaching pottery at Mount Royal College — and would do one firing each semester with her students. Nancy was drawn to the immediacy of the Raku firing process and the interaction of the artist with the fire, the reduction and the individual pieces.
By this time it had been many years since Mas had done any Raku, and it was Nancy’s enthusiasm that re-ignited his interest. Mas built his own Raku kiln and the two started holding workshops to introduce other local potters to Raku.
In 2004, Cat Mather, who had only just started doing pottery attended one such workshop, and in 2006 David Walker, a long-time visual artist, attended another. Both fell instantly in love with the process. Two years later, Cat and David secured a development grant from the CBT Kootenay Cultural Alliance to build a propane Raku kiln and acquire the tools and equipment necessary to fire at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre. Cat and David have consistently fired in the spring and fall since this time.
This fall, as part of the opening night of the Luna Art Festival on September 30, the four potters, Mas Matsushita, Nancy Geismar, Cat Mather and David Walker will be doing an outdoor Raku firing in the parking lot next to Grizzly Plaza from 6pm to midnight. The public is invited to spectate.
Mas Matsushita – “For me, the Westernized Raku style moves outside of the normally structured process taken in creating functional forms of pottery and this abstraction is what appeals to me. On a personal level, I find that there is a strong sense of Zen to this style. It may sound corny, but becoming one with this creative process is what makes it so enjoyable for me.”
Nancy Geismar – “There is a serendipitous and unknown element with Raku. That is the joy (and sometimes despair) for the Raku artist. Each piece is unique and individual … just like nature, no two leaves are exactly alike. The uniqueness and element of surprise are two aspects of Raku that inspire me to create for this medium.”
Cat Mather – “I love the spontaneity of the firing, and how unpredictable but beautiful the results are.”
David Walker – “I was captivated by the thermal shocking of the ceramic objects as they move from the propane kiln into the reduction barrels, variable glaze results and crackling of the glaze surface, which almost instantaneously ages the ceramic objects.”
This article first appeared in the September print issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.