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Raku: Our gateway to pit firing

What exactly are we selling? What is it? I would say it's a fusion of what Dan does for a living and what we both do as a passion. I know, that explains exactly nothing; right? I want to tell the story of our interpretation of something we learned to do together, that we fell in love with and, we want to share because it's beautiful and each piece is it's own story each time it's created. 'Fusion: the process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity'. This is symbolic to me in many ways, but mostly in that we were able to take our own strengths and interests and combine them in a way that brought us a new story. That, to me, is the joy in life. Create a new story, every day, just because we can.

I can't remember what year we started attending the raku workshop. I tried going through the pictures on my phone to see if I could locate the first trip, but you know how that is. I ended up in a sea of photos, triggering memories, and wondering why I took a picture of that delicious looking burger and french fries (food pics are so weird and I'm so guilty).

What I do remember, is that maybe 10 years ago, Dan decided to attend a raku workshop in Grinnell Iowa that was put on by Dakota Potters. I knew very little about Raku, other than what Dan had mentioned. He would probably suggest that he talked about it a lot and I that I listened very little. There could be some truth in that.

In case you aren't familiar with raku, it is a technique used in pottery. I won't go into all the detail, because well, Google. If you really want the history, you'll find out yourself, right? Anyway, the short version is that you heat pottery in a kiln and remove the piece when it is smoking hot and place it into some combustible materials. Those combustibles, or course, ignite and you then cover the whole fiery concoction with a lid or container. The atmosphere within that container affects the glazes and clay bodies in different ways. This is the Western version of Raku based upon a Japanese method (again, if you're curious, give it a Google); but my favorite thing is that the word itself in Japanese 楽 , means 'comfort, ease, (at) peace'. I read somewhere that it also means 'happiness in the accident' and I love that so much!

So back to how this all started. We attended the first workshop in September, bringing poured earthenware pieces to glaze and fire. Tom and Wanda of Dakota Potters (, were fantastic at engaging with the attendees and somehow keeping everything running smoothly. The college had a station set up where you would glaze your piece which was then brought to Tom, Wanda, and other helpers to fire. I tell you, those kilns are HOT, you can feel the heat from where we stood and watched, so standing next to them all day while fielding questions and keeping people entertained, all the while knowing you'll be packing up all this equipment and driving several hours back home, makes Dakota Potters super heroes in my mind.

I wish I knew the first piece I had done, but can't recall. We continued to attend the workshop for several years until the last one in 2018. The horsehair pieces were a favorite of mine (look familiar?) and I still have these sitting on a shelf in our living room. Yes, that is actual horse hair that is carefully placed on the red hot piece when it comes out of the kiln. Ahh, that burnt hair smell... eww, but worth it.

It became our annual tradition in September to attend the workshop, go for lunch, and then camp at a nearby campground. For some reason, we apparently have a 'bird thing' going on (more on that later). The first year, we had some turkey vultures hanging out it the trees next to our camp. A little creepy, but I had a new camera that I was testing out and they were willing to pose for me, so I think we all came so some sort of agreement.

It wasn't always turkey vultures.

At the final workshop that we attended, Dakota Potters mentioned that their daughter and son-in-law were having a workshop on pit firing in April of 2018. Again, I had no idea what Dan, Tom, and Wanda were talking about. I had purchased a book for Dan for Christmas one year after he expressed interest in doing some different firing techniques. I really wasn't engaged in the whole pottery/earthenware world, and although I did research to find a book that I thought he would enjoy, I had no idea what this would look like. He convinced me to go (twist my arm, I love a road trip) and we signed up with him as an active participant and myself as an observer/note taker. As the trip drew closer, I can tell you that I was excited about exploring Sioux Falls but not really that interested in the workshop. I was concerned that I would be bored and in the way, but excited that Dan was so curious about this whole 'pit firing' concept.

About a week before the trip, Iowa, South Dakota, and I'm sure a few other states were hit with a ridiculous amount of snow. Record snow. In April. Really?

Thankfully(?), the workshop was still on and we headed to Sioux Falls. We made it a easy going road trip and stopped for one night in Omaha to head to a favorite brew/burger place that isn't in our area. Don't judge, it's really good! The closer we got to Sioux Falls, the more it looked like February instead of April, almost May. So many piles of snow! I just kept thinking, 'this workshop is outside! how did I get talked into this?'. (Did I mention, I was not really into this? I kept picturing myself staring at my phone and shivering while a bunch of people I didn't know discussed a whole lot of stuff I also didn't know.) I just reminded myself that I was there for Dan, I knew he was interested, and if he thought it was worth learning, it would be at least a new experience we shared.

The next morning, way too early for me, we headed to Dakota Potters dressed with the expectation that this will be messy and wearing multiple layers. We were welcomed with hot coffee and the most fantastic donuts! I am not a donut person, but these were the most fantastically adorned donuts. I can't believe I don't have a picture; I looked though my phone but somehow I was too busy stuffing my face to take the picture. We met Chad and Keisha, of Up in Smoke (, and of course reunited with Tom and Wanda. We also met some amazing artists, who had brought their own pieces to workshop, and this reminded me of why I love art. I really hadn't been doing much with art over the last couple years but have always been interested in art. I'd done some painting, sculpting, drawing, etc, but had gotten away from it. It's the thing I can lose myself in, but life/work, takes over and it gets easy to forget to feed your soul.

The first day of the workshop was spent learning how to make foil and paper saggars, terra sigillata, and the obvara technique (Obvara is so unique and just beautiful. I won't go into the process, but suggest that you look it up or check out Up In Smoke's website. Better yet, follow 'Up in Smoke' on social media and attend one of their showings.) I observed and took lots of notes and not enough photos, but learned a great deal. The brochure that Up in Smoke created for the workshop is wonderful and serves as our constant go to for keeping notes and as our guide while we create our own path on this pit firing journey. A lot of the work done that day was in preparation for the pit firing that would take place early that evening. Dan prepped several pieces to be fired, both 'naked' firings and paper saggars. Once all the prep work was done, we headed out of town to build the 'pit'. Our pit is nothing like the one used at the workshop and you'll see more on this in a future blog post.

We left once the fire had burned down and continued our theme of wood, smoke, and fire. We visited a local brewery for dinner and our server told us to check out his favorite bar to try his favorite drink; a smoked Manhattan. The bar was within walking distance of our hotel, so why not?! If you haven't had this drink, and you're ever someplace that has it on the menu, try it! The bartender lights a cedar board (hickory is another wood that is used), fills a glass with the smoke from the board, and then makes this fabulous drink using the smoke filled glass. I believe ours were made with a peated whiskey which adds to the smokey flavor. I'm not a whiskey drinker, but I had two (don't judge; the bar owner was there and insisted on buying a second round and, well, we were on vacation!).

The next morning we returned to the workshop and I think the pictures tell the previous evening's story best.

That was one hot fire and much appreciated on a cool night, with a cold beer, and wonderful company. The last picture shows what we came to see the following day. From the photograph, it doesn't look like much, but it really is truly wonderful! To think that you get these amazing colors from salt, copper carbonate, steel wool, copper wire, banana peel, coffee; the list is endless. No glazes, just surprises. The return to the pit to discover what the salt and flame has created for you feels, to me. like I did as a child on Christmas morning. I will probably repeat that phrase in future posts, because we've now done many firings and I still feel the excitement every time. We were both just fascinated with the variations in color and pattern on these prizes we pulled out a pit filled with ash and soot. I knew that morning that we were doing this.

So that's how it all started. I can't wait to share with you how we began our own journey! We talked the entire way home about what we learned, what we could do differently, and how appreciative we were, and still are, that Chad, Kiesha, Tom, and Wanda were willing to share their knowledge and experience. My wish is that our sharing will excite someone else to just say, Yes!, and try something new.

My intent is to post a new blog each month until we can fire up the pit again. Right now, it is filled with snow but still ready for the magic to begin again.

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