Smith-Cotton High School art teacher Michael Shukers has spent the better part of his summer constructing a raku pottery kiln to share with youth and others in the community, hoping to foster a better understanding of the creative process of creating fine art for fun.
Shukers said several local businesses have helped him with the project, from supplying stainless steel and fire brick, to a donation of a heavy metal cart for transporting the portable 450-pound kiln. Local artists have also passed along useful knowledge.
“Two local potters have helped me with technical aspects of raku pottery,” Shukers said. “Barney Knight and Alan Weaver, they’re great guys. They have actually fired raku pottery before and have both built kilns in the past. So they had some input on certain design aspects of a kiln.”
Shukers’s kiln is medium-sized, measuring 52-inches tall by 32-inches in diameter and with the firing chamber measuring 25-by-32-inches.
“This kiln is built a little more elaborately than most raku kilns,” he added. “Basically I wanted it to last a lifetime and so I built it with much more heavy duty materials than what a lot of potters will do.”
Shukers said the kiln is a raku specific design, although it can fire in a traditional manner. But he does enjoy the raku method and the beautiful metallic colors it provides on ceramic.
“The process of raku firing is very hands-on and kind of exciting,” he said. “You get to heat pottery up to approximately 1,800 degrees in a very short period of time, unlike a lot of other pottery firing processes. Instead of letting it cool quickly, as you normally do with most pottery, this you pull out when it’s 1,800 degrees and so it’s got this amazingly beautiful, rich, orange glow. You set the individual pottery into piles of combustible materials, like sawdust or newspaper. Then they instantly develop a small flame and you cover them with a bucket or a lid. This creates a reduction atmosphere and it pushes all the carbons from that reduction atmosphere into the clay body and into the glazes, which produce very, very beautiful metallic glazes. And very unusual, sometimes unexpected effects.”
Shukers added the raku firing creates fine art pieces instead of functional pottery pieces.
“Which I want to introduce to the students in this town,” he said. “The intention would be to put on workshops after school with students to experience this style of pottery outside of the school day. This is something I want to provide for them and provide for myself. It will be a great learning experience for me. One of my great artistic passions is pottery — the fine art side of pottery.”
Shukers is teaching pottery classes for the Boys & Girls Clubs of West Central Missouri summer program this season. His original plan was to have the kiln completed in time for the students to fire raku-style pots.
“We are doing pottery but I don’t know if I can squeeze some pottery out of them before the program ends as far as the raku,” he said. “We will have plenty of pottery for the art show I’m getting ready to put on.”
The concept for building the kiln came to him last summer.
“I started with the idea about a year ago and started putting materials together about a year ago,” he said. “And it took me that long just to find enough materials to make this come together. It started coming together at the beginning of this summer. It should be finished in a couple weeks.”
He said the flame is shot into the bottom of the kiln, which is lined with fire brick. The fire brick in turn develops the heat and the flame, and the flue at the top of the kiln sucks the flame upward and around the pottery.
“In theory I should be able to get it up to temperature in 15 to 30 minutes,” he said. “That allows you to heat it up quickly, pull it out, get it reducing in the little buckets and then you can get another batch up and going — and rotate several loads of pottery in a short amount of time.”
Besides providing workshops for students, Shukers said he hopes to take the portable raku kiln to the Queen of the Prairies Festival on Oct. 4.
“I want to take it out with Smith-Cotton students and show the process,” he said. “Where they get to see the development of the artwork right in front of their eyes. Which to me is a very rare thing for the public to see — an artist in action and a definitive result.”
Shukers will also be giving a non-traditional ceramics firing workshop though the Missouri Art Educators Association Oct. 11-12 at Knob Noster State Park.
“I love what I do, and I’m always looking to improve our art department,” he added.