Raku ronin creates in clay, bronze
By Victoria Gail White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail White
David Kuraoka has broken the mold. In his current solo exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, his organic pit-fire ceramic sculptures have been cast in bronze and patinated, and have the look of the pit-fired surfaces of clay — in reds, browns, black and white.
During the late 1960s, this raku ronin moved from place to place — "driven out of town," as he puts it — because of the excessive smoke billowing from his raku-firing experiments.
With the help of friends and teachers, he created the first raku and pit-fire festivals in California using campus police and the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang as security.
He re-created the festivals in Hawai'i, where the 30-year tradition continues.
Hundreds of potters meet at the annual Raku Ho'olaule'a at Kualoa Regional Park to camp out, fire pieces in raku kilns on the beach and participate in a juried exhibition.
Born in Lihu'e, Kaua'i, in 1946, Kuraoka received his MFA from San Jose State University in 1971 and began teaching at San Francisco State University. He has been there for 35 years and is now head of the Ceramics Department. His work is included in many private and museum collections.
Kuraoka splits his time between San Francisco and Kaua'i — he has homes and full studios in both locations.
The show is an eclectic collection of contrasts — low-fired, pit-fired, soda-fired and celadon ceramics as well as bronzes.
Q. You have a reputation as being the catalyst for this country's raku resurgence. How did it come about?
A. At the time, it was easy to pick up the phone and organize 20 schools to come. The process got advanced. I would set it up with my students and photograph and study everything going in and coming out of the kilns we made. There would be a thousand pieces in the pit, literally. It got so that you could figure out the free-flowing path of the fire. There are no pyrometric cones, so you have to go by feeling. Hoping. It's easy to over-fire and under-fire. We used Volkswagen cars and refrigerators as kilns back then — lined with kiln.
Q. Do you still raku?
A. I don't personally raku-fire anymore; my students do. I prefer pit-firing.
Q. Many of your pit-fire pieces are burnished (polished with a stone or special cloth until a sheen develops). It is an extremely time-consuming, tedious process. Do you enjoy it?
A. In the beginning, I burnished everything myself with a rose quartz stone. Then my mother burnished for me until she got arthritis. Then my wife, Carol, burnished for a long time. I have also had assistants from Kaua'i Community College help me. Now my mother's cousins on Kaua'i burnish for me — they burnished a lot of the pieces in the show. They have great hands; they make Hawaiian quilts.
Q. What inspired you to cast bronzes from your pit-fire pieces?
A. The raku-firing process, which I did in college, along with working in the next-door foundry, was very similar. I did a lot of casting. A lot of times, when no one was watching, we would change the foundry into a raku kiln. In the beginning, there were no raku kilns. So, whatever firing source we had, we used. The lost-wax mold of my pit-fire pieces picks up the burnished finish, and the patina is done with chemicals. We've developed it over the years. I'm making up my own rules, taking inspiration from the swirls of the fire. That's what makes the patinas unusual.
Q. The two bright, colorful pit-fire tile series "Echo" and "Crossfire 2" are like monoprints. How did that come about?
A. I was commissioned to do pieces for the Hawai'i Convention Center in 1996 and the public arts commission. These are actually remnants of that.
At the time, I was cracking five out of eight tiles in the bisque-firing. I called everyone I know around the world to find answers. No one could solve the problem. Finally, I thought I will just beat them by numbers — so I made close to 1,000 in both studios, and finally switched to a gas kiln. I believe in editing, and with all these tiles, I wasn't afraid anymore. I could crack as many as I liked pit-firing them, and I would still finish the project. And I have all these blank leftover tiles to work with. That project gave me a chance to update myself.
Q. The porcelain blue-green celadon pieces are a contrast to your more organic pit-fire works.
A. I like contrast. I like to work crudely and indirectly with emotion — the pit-fire work. It's forgiving, and I like that. The celadon is not as emotional. It's highly technical and unforgiving. You look at it crooked — there's a crack.
I like to work in a series. In San Francisco, I have 20 potter's wheels, on Kaua'i eight. It takes a lot of wheels to do a series. It saves me time because I don't take it off the wheel. I let them spin for three days until they are completely dry. For one large piece, there may be three pieces on three different wheels.
Q. Do you relax on Kaua'i during your summer vacations?
A. No, that time is good work time, and valuable work time is hard to get. Outside of gardening, which I enjoy, I'm in the studio most of the time, and I expect to be busy. I make too much clay. Then, I follow the process; follow the clay. I chase it. The clay rules your life in a way, especially your social life.