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Fire and Clay: Ancient Potter’s Technique of Raku Fuses Art with Science at MTHS

Students Learn How Chemistry Creates Art at On-Site Field Trip

Students Learn How Chemistry Creates Art at On-Site Field Trip


Sharon Pflug-Moench and Paul Moench are Fine Art faculty members at Montville Township High School in Montville, NJ.

Ceramics and Photography teachers, Pflug- Moench and Moench are passionate about pottery. Some might even say they are fired-up.

“This is the only public school we know of in New Jersey that teaches this technique,” Moench said recently about the on-site Raku field trip.

Raku is an ancient Japanese firing technique for pottery. With Raku, pottery is quickly heated to high temperatures, exposed directly to fire and allowed to smolder in a sealed can as the fire depletes the oxygen in the can. The depletion of the oxygen in the can is called a reduction. The reduction fire can be fueled by many combustible materials such as sawdust or newspaper. At MTHS on October 26 students used straw.

Students Learn How Chemistry Creates Art at On-Site Field Trip

While pottery, and the glazes on the pottery, smolder in the oxygen deprived can, the reduction fire begins to pull oxygen from the clay and glaze itself. This causes a chemical reaction. Raku pieces that have been glazed will emerge from the fire with a metallic look. Those without glaze will have a black matte finish. A combination of finishes is often used to create patterns and textures.

The pottery is then either cooled in the crisp open air or cooled quickly with water. It is these harsh extremes, and a variety of steps along the way – including the type of glaze, the temperature of the air, the substance used to create the fire, and the length of time the pottery is exposed to each step – that creates varied, vibrant and intense patterns and colors on the surface of the pottery. Additionally crackling glazes, clay sips that shrink and crack off during firing, and the use of horsehair or feathers burning into the clay, create additional finishes that are unique to each pot fired.

“I like the matte finish from the fire,” said junior Ryan Kahwaty. Kahwaty used horsehair to create the finish on his pottery. Unglazed, the item was heated quickly to approximately 1,800 degrees. Then, during the cooling process, he placed strands of horsehair on the pot. As the horsehair burned, the pot was marked in a deep carbon stain.

Students Learn How Chemistry Creates Art at On-Site Field Trip

For the first time, Ben Rosensweig, a junior who participated in the Raku on-site field trip last year too, also used horsehair to decorate his pottery.

“It was really cool, but nerve wracking at first,” Rosensweig said. He noted that the pot was very hot, and they had to be careful not to touch it while gently placing the horsehair on the pottery. Initially it was too hot to effectively place the horsehair. But, if they waited too long it would be too cool.

“I got used to it pretty quickly,” he added.

Max Baresich, an MTHS senior, has been participating in the Raku on-site field trip for 4 years. With his work he strives to combine the metallic textures of the glaze with the marbled carbon crackles of the bare clay exposed to the reduction fire. He used a combination of glaze, slip coating and bare pottery to create a textured pattern on some of his works.

“Wherever the clay is exposed to the fire, the pot will turn black,” explained Pflug- Moench. “With the glaze, the longer the pot is exposed to the lack of oxygen caused by the reduction fire, the greater the chemical reaction.”

Nearly two dozen fine art students from grades 9-12 participated in the on-site Raku field trip on Friday October 26, 2018. Many students came before school to help in setting up kilns, propane, straw, glazing stations and more. The students and teachers spent the day just outside the school firing and curing a large collection of student artwork. While the team worked near fire, much of the day they could also see their breath in the cool October temperatures.

Students Learn How Chemistry Creates Art at On-Site Field Trip

Pflug- Moench and Moench are a married team of artists who both teach at the Montville Township High School, a decorated public high school. Their dedicated and creative approach to teaching art is one example of the many innovative initiatives that regularly occur in Montville Township Public Schools.

Video of this event can also be viewed on Facebook at Montville Township Public Schools​.