Paul Soldner and the Birth of American Raku

Paul Soldner and the Birth of American Raku

Paul Soldner preparing glazes for raku at Scripps College in Claremont, Californ

Paul Soldner preparing glazes for raku at Scripps College in Claremont, California (1966)

Each year the arts community surrounding the American Craft Council plays host to a three-day neighborhood open house known as Art-A-Whirl, giving local artists an opportunity to show off their studios, sell their wares, and meet folks from all around the region. As part of the Art-A-Whirl activities, ACC is partnering with the Northern Clay Center on Saturday, May 18th, for a day-long Raku firing. For those that can't make it to town for the festivities, we're also celebrating American raku this week by looking back at one of the technique's forefathers - Paul Soldner.

While raku pottery has been around since the 16th century in Japan, the technique's adaption by potters in America dates only to the 1950s. Raku ware has traditionally been made through a rather uncomplicated technique of throwing and bisque-firing tea bowls, then glazing and placing them directly in an open kiln, only to withdraw each bowl a few minutes later and plunge it into water. The temperature change from the kiln to the water causes the vessel to crackle in various ways, as well as influences the design and shade of the glaze.

It is this simplicity and sporadicalness of raku that is appealing to many potters. Soldner was one of the first to experiment widely with the technique, a style that came to be known as "American raku", which several years ago he aptly described to Ceramic Review:

"American-style raku differs in a number of ways, notably the rich black surface produced by smoking the ware outside the kiln at the end of firing. Other innovations include the quenching of the red-hot vessel in cold water, the production of brilliant and many-colored copper lustres, the forced crackling of the glaze with smoke penetration, the white line halo or ghost image surrounding a black metallic decoration, and the discovery of a copper slip that sometimes results in an unusual yellow matte surface. American raku also utilized shapes other than the traditional tea bowl. Because the tea ceremony itself was never part of American raku, American potters could be more experimental and inventive in making raku than their Japanese counterparts."

In 1966, Paul Soldner invited staff from the ACC to document his unique raku process in a series of photographs and descriptions. We've made these stunning images of Soldner at work, along with an informational guide about his technique, available online through the ACC Library's Digital Collections. We hope you'll check it out online, or stop by the ACC parking lot this weekend to see the raku process in action.

Throwback Thursday is a weekly series highlighting visuals from the American Craft Council Library's Digital Collections Database. Check back on Thursdays for more.