On a bitter cold Saturday morning in January, 1973, I huddled at dawn with a small, shivering group of fellow high school juniors from my art class. We had been invited to participate in a raku firing of the pots we had made the previous semester. Joining us in that frozen pasture, outside the converted barn that served as our host’s studio, were other Southwest Ohio potters with clay vessels primed for transformation.

As the outdoor kiln heated the air and the process began, I forgot about the discomfort of the cold and wind. I was mesmerized by the alchemy of each step. The white hot pots crackled when removed from the kiln into the cold, but did not break. When plunged in the trashcan filled with paper and straw, the pots ignited the contents and flames flashed. Quickly, deftly, a lid was slammed on the can. We exhaled our held breath, and waited in suspense.

As our humble vessels were pulled, one by one, from the smoke and ash, I experienced it as the unearthing of long-buried treasures. Even before a pot was scrubbed clean, you could see the precious-metal lusters and deposits of rich, glinting ores sparkle against the matte depth of the charcoaled gray background. They were jewels, made lovely and unique through extremes of heat and cold, deprived of oxygen until the colors and textures were at peak perfection. The process, tools, and materials were the same, but each pot was transformed in a way that was impossible to predict.

My approach to coaching creative change is informed and influenced by the raku process. Raku ceramists have a primal fascination with the power of fire, smoke and metal on clay. As a coach, my fascination is with the transformative power inherent in the art and practice of my profession. When I create the conditions for life-changing conversations, I always reserve space for the happy accidents that can result from heightened awareness, a willingness to test assumptions, and increased confidence to dream and risk.

Much as a raku artist begins with a glazed pot, I begin with a client’s goal. When we enter the “fire” together, fueled with burning questions and intense listening, the goal is clarified, refined, made ready for next critical steps of planning and implementation. The thermal shock of removal from the kiln creates crackling in the pot; in coaching those crackles are stress fractures--minds and hearts shifting and changing. They do not break; they create more beauty.

In the reduction chamber, pots deprived of oxygen come into their own, with the intricate patterns and vibrant colorations unique to raku. As fear and resistance are deprived of oxygen, bold strategies are designed and deployed with beautiful results. Fresh approaches to learning and living emerge that were never imagined at the outset.

In this alchemical process of coaching, my clients often find answers to the questions we didn’t know we were asking. We may begin with “What do you want?”, but together we learn the answer to the bigger question, “What wants to happen for you and through you?”

That chilly day in 1973 lit my fire for raku pottery. I am an insatiable, obsessive collector, a passionate patron, OK, yes—an addict. My home and studio are filled with pieces, and often the items I buy as gifts never make it to their intended recipients. When I was considering the graphic possibilities for this website, I asked my friend and collaborator Patricia DiBona to incorporate photos of my raku collection. I granted her creative freedom to fashion the images, via her PhotoShop skills, into the dreamy scapes you see on each section.

Raku: The History and Process

Raku pottery originated in Japan in the early 16th century, created by descendants of the Raku family for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The raku process was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1960’s. American potters enthusiastically adopted the immediacy and simplicity of this Japanese tradition, and adapted the process in an almost endless variety of ways. Artists and collectors have found the technique to be profoundly appealing, both in the process of creation and in the often dramatic results.

Enjoy the Ride

The word raku has been translated to mean ease, pleasure, or enjoyment. The first English translation, from the 1500’s, of the word coach refers to a particular kind of carriage. The root meaning of the verb “to coach” means “to convey a valued person from where he or she is to where he or she wants to be.”

Raku is a low-temperature, fast-firing process that yields exciting, chance surface effects on ceramic ware. The modern Western practice of this ancient process, as well as its purpose, differs from its Eastern roots, but both offer the ceramist the possibility of experiencing the final results of the firing in a relatively short time. The range of possibility and innovation that resides in raku practice, and the stunning, often surprising results, infinite in their variety, energy, and beauty, make the experience of raku deeply satisfying.

Western raku artists make and bisque fire pottery, glaze it, and fire it again in an outdoor kiln. As the kiln heats, the glazes come to a boil, then flatten as they become molten. At around 1600°, the kiln is opened and the glowing pots are removed and transferred to a container filled with combustible materials. In this transition, the pots are subjected to extreme thermal shock, which creates the characteristic crackling of the glazes.

When the hot pots ignite the flammable material, a lid is quickly put on the container, which shuts off the source of oxygen. This process “reduces” the pots in an oxygen-starved atmosphere that is rich in carbon. Any crackling or unglazed portions of the pot turn varying shades of gray or black, and the rich colors and textures of the glazes stand out dramatically. The fast-firing technique brings clay, heat, and smoke together in serendipitous ways, making discovery as significant as invention.