Heat, bake, smoke, dunk, repeat. Mr. Tim McAuliffe ’07 and his ceramics students took class outside as they fired pots using an ancient Japanese technique called Raku
First developed in Japan in the 1500s, raku refers to a technique used to make traditional tea ceremony pottery. In the early 20th century, the technique made its way to England, where it stayed until the 1940s and ’50s when it was brought to the West Coast of the United States. There, potters developed one of the most critical steps of the modern process—placing the piece in a reduction chamber after firing it in the kiln—to produce a truly stunning effect, a sort of burnt, cracked, metallurgic magic.
“With an electric kiln, you pretty much know what the piece will look like when it comes out,” says Justin Armata ’23, who has enrolled in ceramics courses for three years. “But with this process, you go in blind, which is what makes it so cool.”
Prep alumni who studied ceramics may remember going on field trips to former ceramics teacher Dale Bryant’s studio to do raku firings, but for the first time, the firing was able to happen on campus. The effort was spearheaded by current ceramics teacher, McAuliffe, who remembers his first time seeing the process.
“The first time I did raku was with Dale, who was my ceramics teacher when I was here,” he says. “I was hooked. That experience was what made me want to pursue ceramics, and it’s why I’m here today.”
Working over the course of several months with Principal/Associate Head of School Keith Crowley, members of the School’s facilities team, and the Danvers Fire Department to prepare for what can be a rather dramatic process (read: a lot of fire), McAuliffe set up the kiln behind the facilities barn overlooking College Pond. In the classroom, students learned about the history of raku, watched videos of the firings, and threw and glazed pieces in preparation. Then, on an uncharacteristically warm and sunny November day, the 10 students of McAuliffe’s Ceramics 2 and Honors Ceramics Studio classes spent the day firing, burning, watching, and waiting.
“What I love about ceramics is there’s a lot of creative freedom,” says senior Michael Hale, who has taken every ceramics class available to him, and even created his own independent study so he could continue with it. “Mr. McAuliffe is also really helpful in guiding us and supporting us if we want to explore something or try something new.”
Armata and Bernstein both see the class as a welcome complement to other classroom experiences. “It’s a laid back class where you get to be creative,” says Armata. “Mr. McAuliffe has a lot of experience under his belt, so he’s able to help us make a piece more practical or help enhance our ideas and push us in an even more creative direction.”
“I really fell in love with it when I got to Ceramics 2; that’s when you can just run with an idea,” says Bernstein.
Classmate Tyler Callahan ’23 chimes in: “There’s a risktaking element with ceramics, and with raku especially, where you have to be ready for it to not go well. Things break and crack, glazes don’t come out the way you wanted them, but you just have to try again.”
As McAuliffe checks the temperature and progress of the pots in the background, Bryant, who came to campus for the day to be part of the experience, is the quintessential proud teacher. “I was so happy when Tim was hired,” she says. “He’s the perfect person for the job; it’s so great for the students to see an alumnus in this role, especially one who’s also interested in things outside of art. It’s a very real example of how you can make a career out of art and how you don’t have to fit into any stereotypical ‘artist’ mold.”
About 20 minutes after being placed in the reduction chambers, the students’ pieces are done. McAuliffe and the students gently but quickly transfer the pots from the cans to a kiddie pool filled with water, a technique called rapid cooling. What emerges are pieces that have been completely transformed. While most of the oxygen is removed from the pot and the glaze in the kiln, altering the color of the piece, the reduction chamber essentially smokes the pots, creating a metallic brilliance as each piece emerges from the water.
“This is so coooool!” says Callahan with a massive grin as he scrubs bits of burnt sawdust off his pot with steel wool. “Are we doing this next semester?”