In Frog Valley, W.Va., Mark Schwenk, a metal artist and photographer, has been building and operating a pottery kiln for the past 3 years. Visitors enjoy going to his studio because they are in for a show! Schwenk opens the kiln, grabs a red-glowing pot with metal tongs, and plunges it into a metal trash can stuffed with shredded paper. Flames shoot skyward! Then, Schwenk slams the lid down, and the flames are replaced by a small emission of black smoke. After a few minutes, Schwenk removes the pot, still very hot, and dips it in a tub of water, where the billowing steam captures the attention of a crowd of visitors. When the pottery piece is cleaned, it has a beautiful shiny and colorful glaze.
Schwenk makes Raku pottery, an increasingly popular art form that is also a fun way to fire pottery. He is one of seven artisans working together as part of an artist collective called Frog Valley Studios. The other artisans create craft from metal, ceramics, and glass, which attract many visitors throughout the year.
I work at Frog Valley Studios as a volunteer apprentice. I help Schwenk and a stained-glass artist named Veronica Wilson with pottery and stained glass. I find Raku pottery and stained glass fascinating. Let me show you around!
It’s hard to imagine a craft as basic as pottery, which consists of making pots out of clay—a naturally occurring material composed mainly of fine-grained minerals. Essentially, pottery consists of sculpting pots by hand, decorating them with a glaze, and heating them to high temperatures in a kiln so they can harden before letting them cool down outside.
But unlike traditional pottery, Raku pottery is more exciting. Sculpting a Raku pottery piece and glazing it is similar to traditional pottery, but unlike the gradual heating and gradual cooling of the everyday pottery kiln—a process that takes at least 8 hours—a Raku kiln is best described as “fast and furious.” The pots sit in a chamber, exposed to a fuel-rich flame that rapidly heats them to 1,800 oF.
What Schwenk shows his visitors a few times per year is the most spectacular part of the process, but also—according to many—the most fun and enjoyable. This unusual form dates back to the mid-16th century when Sen no Rikyu, a Japanese tea master and former Zen monk started firing pieces in such a way that each bowl presented its own unique shape, texture, and surface features. Today, Raku potters produce pieces which, like those of Sen no Rikyu, have singular forms and features. In short, every piece is a surprise!