Senior Owen Lewis tends pots during a raku firing at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts.

Senior Owen Lewis tends pots during a raku firing at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts.

Photos by Angus Fake ’15.

For the past five years, art teacher Jonathan Mess has been taking his Lincoln Academy ceramics classes to Watershed Center for the Ceramics Arts in Newcastle for a day of raku firing. Raku ware (楽焼) has been used in the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony since the 16th century. The word raku describes an ancient ceramic technique of placing hot clay pieces (at temperatures above 1600 degrees) into a container of combustible material.

After making their pieces at Lincoln and bisquing them in the LA kilns, students transport their pottery to Watershed, where they glaze the pieces. Then students, with Mess’s guidance, fire the pieces in an electric kiln. When the kiln has reached 1600 degrees, students (who wear protective clothing and goggles) use metal tongs to remove the very hot ceramic pieces from the kiln and place them into metal cans filled with combustible materials. These materials can include sawdust, leaves, seaweed, and newspaper. When the metal can is covered, the heat and combustion create a reduction atmosphere, inducing chemical reactions between oxygen, carbon dioxide, and the clay and glaze minerals. The result is unique colors and interesting fire and smoke effects on both the glazed and unglazed surfaces of the work. Copper glazes, for example, can look as bright and shiny as a new penny on one side, and green and crusty as the Statue of Liberty on the other.

Flames surround student pottery during the raku firing.

Flames surround student pottery during the raku firing.

In the Japanese Zen aesthetic, an essential element of raku firing is that potters cannot control every part of the process, and they never know exactly how a piece will turn out. This leads to a sense of mystery, and the discovery of unexpected beauty. Results can vary greatly depending on glazing technique, humidity in the air, temperature inside and outside of the kiln, and what materials are being burned. “Raku firing gives us a chance to combine art, craft, science, geology, and chemistry into a real learning situation,” explained Mess. “Students invest significant time in this project, and it is always worth it, because there is so much to learn in a single raku firing.”

“This is an experience you wouldn’t get in any other high school ceramics class,” said LA senior Angus Fake, who participated in his first raku firing this year. “When we dropped the pieces into the sawdust, plumes of flame shot up and there was smoke everywhere. Mr. Mess did a great job of explaining that you never know how our pieces would turn out. A lot of things got broken: they cracked when we picked them up with tongs, or they cracked when they hit the sawdust. I saw a bunch of pieces of jewelry that I made just explode and disappear into a sea of flames. Mr. Mess did a great job of guiding us through the process, but really letting students handle the tools and do everything ourselves.

“The best part of the day for me was seeing Watershed,” continued Fake.  “It’s incredible that we have this living, breathing ceramics facility right here. We got to see that there is a place for us to go after we graduate.”

Senior TJ Smith inspects student pots before (L) and after (R) raku firing.

Senior TJ Smith inspects student pots before (L) and after (R) raku firing.

“We are lucky to be so close to Watershed, which is an excellent ceramics resource, with a campus right here in Newcastle,”  said Mess, who has been a resident artist at the ceramic arts center in the past, and currently serves on its board of directors. “The facility is an old chicken barn, turned brick factory, turned ceramics studio, which it has been for the last 30 years. In the warmer months Watershed hosts national and international professional ceramic artists. Lincoln Academy’s ceramics department has developed a relationship with the center, allowing us to use Watershed’s studios and kilns in the spring and fall. In exchange, our students help glaze bowls and make items for auction at their annual Chowder Bowl Supper fundraiser each March.”

Mess has been teaching 3 Dimensional art at Lincoln Academy for five years. During that time enrollment in ceramics and other 3-D arts have quadrupled. Mess gives some of the credit to his studio space, which moved from Hall House to the old woodshop in the basement under the LA gym after his first year of teaching. “The room is a perfect fit for ceramics and sculpture, with a more industrial and college-like setting with kilns, pottery wheels, a large sink, plenty of overhead power outlets, a newly installed ventilation system, welding booths, and a small woodworking area. Best of all, it is off the beaten path so students can make some noise and get creative without affecting other classes.”

The studio is always bustling with students making art: during class, during their lunches and free periods, and after school when Mess hosts open studio for any students who want work on projects in the afternoon.

Mr. Mess checks whether the kiln is hot enough to move into the  can of sawdust.

Mr. Mess checks whether the kiln is hot enough to move into the can of sawdust.

It is clear from talking to his students that the appeal of Mess’s classes is bigger than the space he works in. Mess has a loyal following among Lincoln Academy students, who find a safe, creative place in his studio, and a way to express themselves in 3-D art.

“As a teacher Mr. Mess does an amazing job of connecting,” explained Fake, who plans to attend Pratt Institute in New York City to study Industrial Design after graduating from Lincoln Academy. “His classes are not full of just the artsy kids, or just the smart kids. There is a real range of kids, and he connects with all of them, and teaches all of them in different ways. He can teach the technical stuff, like how to throw, really, really well. But he also has a great style of management in the classroom. When everyone has a question at the same time, he knows which kids need him immediately, which can wait, and when he can ask another student to help solve the problem. He is relaxed and easygoing. His room is a major hangout spot, especially in the winter. He creates this great environment, but he also knows how to push kids to their limits. He knows how to get kids to do their best work, and how to make them feel good about it.”