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Students Get Fired Up in MCCC’s Hands-On Raku Workshop


West Windsor, N.J. – The results can be wonderfully magical or a bit disappointing.  But it’s always a learning process, says sculptor Beverly Fredericks of East Windsor, who is completing an intensive six-week Raku Workshop at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), along with 20 other students.
This group of artists shares a passion not only for creating and glazing sculptural ceramic pieces, but also for learning modern Raku, a hands-on firing process involving several stages of heating and cooling that is based loosely on traditional 16th century Japanese techniques.

In late June, after they had worked for weeks hand-sculpting or throwing up to a dozen pieces each on the wheel and then glazing them, it was time for students to get fired up – quite literally.  In several outdoor sessions, they participated in the firing process, the final stage of the creative process.

According to Fine Arts Program Coordinator Michael Welliver, who teaches the Raku class, the opportunity for students to do Raku firing themselves is usually limited to major art centers.  But at Mercer in the summer, they get that chance.

“During the colder weather, this class does the firing indoors, with students placing their work in the kiln and waiting three days for the heating and cooling process to be complete,” Welliver says.  “But in our summer session, we do the firing outside and students are responsible for pulling their own pots from the kiln using large tongs. When you open the kiln indoors, it’s exciting, like waiting for Christmas Day. But outdoors, it’s instant gratification.”  He notes that the Raku class always fills to capacity, often with repeat students.

Welliver explains that in modern Raku, ware is pulled from the kiln while it’s red hot and the glaze is molten.  Then it is placed in a metal can containing combustible materials and secured with a lid.  The incomplete combustion creates carbon molecules that attach to oxygen molecules in the clay and glaze chemistry, resulting in spectacular metallic, lustrous effects not obtainable with other firing methods.

Welliver, who has taught ceramics and sculpture at Mercer for close to 30 years, warns students from the outset that Raku requires a willingness to experiment.  “You don’t know exactly how the firing process will affect the glaze,” he says.

Fredericks agrees.  “You never know what you’re going to get.  Sometimes it’s a wonderful surprise and other times it’s not so wonderful.  There is a lot of experimenting in this process.”

Artist Nevin Schleigel, who formerly taught art classes for teens in MCCC’s Tomato Patch workshops, is now a retired teacher and is finally “getting to do whatever I want.” He says he enjoyed the outdoor firing process. “It takes less than an hour.  And it’s a learning process to actually do the firing yourself.”

Rochelle Picarello, who has taken the Raku class three times and is now serving as a class assistant, estimates that in just one morning the students fired approximately 50 pieces – bowls, vases and other decorative items.  “We are literally playing with fire,” she says, adding that safety is part of the curriculum from day one.

Frank Russo prepares to move his fired piece to a metal can, where the process continues.









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Class assistant Rochelle Picarello, left, discusses the results of the Raku process on her bowl with sculptor Beverly Fredericks.

A sampling of students' finished pieces.
Professor Michael Welliver, right, and student George Olexa remove the kiln. They will then use tongs to move the pottery items to a metal can to complete the firing process.
Nevin Schleider, kneeling foreground, lifts the lid while Mechtild Bitter removes a piece with tongs.
From left, students Gaby Muenzel, Theresa Olexa, Frank Russo and Suzanne Migliori complete the cooling process with water.

Sue Chiu looks over a finished pot.