Raku, a Japanese word, translates most closely to “serendipity,” or a fortuitous occurrence. It’s a centuries-old practice of glazing pottery that always yields unexpected results because the mercurial nature of raku glaze makes it impossible to control the color development of pieces as they fire. Some pieces emerge from the flames like burnt rainbows, glowing brilliantly, while others look like charred bits of tin foil. In other words, raku epitomizes the control freak’s worst nightmare. Most of the time ceramicists employ mathematical precision in the creation of their pieces; each stroke, pinch, and twist succinctly brings about a desired end. This control shatters when the piece enters the raku kiln and is offered up to the true final artist: heat.
When I first encountered raku, I panicked. I was the control freak in art class who spent two hours smoothing the lip of a mug because I was never satisfied with my work.
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I started leaving my pieces unfinished and unfired, still in their green state, so that I wouldn’t have to lend them to chance. Eventually, I stopped working with clay altogether because I was so afraid of the possibility of a negative outcome.
After two weeks working in 2-D, I figured out that my fear of raku firing spoke to a prominent phobia that I had incorporated into my life outside of art, a fear of imperfection. As I stared at my sketchbook, I realized how critical I was of myself in regards to almost everything, and I realized how ridiculous it was that I existed in a cage of self-made, self-perpetuated fear.
Raku is a metaphor for life. We have little control over our external circumstances, but we can control how we go into things; we can shape our characters so that we conduct heat admirably. That day as I sat in art, I knew exactly what I had to do to begin the process of personal conductivity: I had to raku, and let the stigma of imperfection burn off in the process. Ready to tackle my inhibitions, I began to sculpt again. When I had the right piece, I painted it with raku glaze and shut it in the kiln, fingers crossed, relinquishing all control and hope of perfection. I opened the kiln an hour later to a burnt rainbow.
Since then, I’ve rakued many times with varying degrees of conventional “success.” I value my failed pieces as much as my brilliant ones because regardless of their outcome, their creation represents triumph over perfectionism and anxiety. My true serendipity occurs when I put my pieces in the kiln.