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Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006

German potter carries on raku tradition


Staff writer

BERLIN -- Despite a tradition of more than 400 years, raku ceramics are now not well-known in Japan beyond the tea ceremony.

News photo
Cornelia Nagel, who makes raku, shows off her pottery work at her workshop in the outskirts of Berlin earlier this month. KANAKO TAKAHARA PHOTO

Yet, raku is extremely popular with Western potters. Cornelia Nagel, a leading German raku potter, was drawn to the unpredictability of the raku process and the uniqueness of each piece.

"I have no way to picture in my head (how the piece will turn out) when I begin," said Nagel at her ceramics workshop in the outskirts of Berlin. "It is different each time, and you only get one chance."

Nagel holds exhibitions several times a year in Germany, contributing to spreading raku in her home country. She held seven exhibitions between 1996 and 2003 in Japan as well.

She first learned about raku about 30 years ago in Berlin through books and articles on the Japanese ceramics.

"I had been engaged in ceramics before then but it was not the way I wanted," she said, adding that, for her, the methods she performed then were about creating the same kind of earthenware over and over again.

Raku flourished under the patronage of tea master Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591), who ordered utensils from potter Chojiro. It became formally recognized as a style when ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) gave Chojiro's son, Jokei, the name Raku.

The style has been handed down in the Raku family, with 15th-generation Kichizaemon Raku carrying on the tradition today.

Nagel makes Western raku, which is a method developed in the United States in the 1960s. Unlike Japanese raku, in which pieces are cooled in water or the open air after being fired in a kiln, the Western process is to place the fired pottery in a combustible material such as sawdust, which blackens the pieces.

The process is risky as a piece could crack apart or completely shatter due to the stress of the rapid heating and cooling process.

Nagel's love of raku deepened on her first visit to Japan in 1996 when she met Japanese raku ceramic artists. She felt an instant bond over their shared interest in raku.

Since then, she has visited Japan nine times, including one trip in 2003 to exhibit her work at a gallery in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture.

Nagel describes her first meeting with Kichizaemon Raku in 1998 -- an encounter she described as similar to "a Catholic meeting the pope in Rome."

The two ceramists spoke about their work and techniques. Since traditional Japanese raku ceramists are limited to making pieces for tea ceremonies, Raku was interested to hear how Nagel created bigger works, she said.

Nagel is now teaching others about the beauty of raku. She holds a weeklong course once a year in which people participate in every step of the process -- creating pieces, applying the glaze, burning it in her wood-fire kiln and finally using it in a tea ceremony.

She said that "meditating" with the clay is an important part of her process to create a piece.

"While I am working, I try to hear (the voice of) the clay . . . feeling it with my body and ears," to determine what shape it should be, she said. "I use all my senses.

"For me, making raku (is about) giving my inner feeling into the clay," Nagel said. "All of what I have in my body, I give it into the clay."



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