26 Nov

From the Frontiersman article by Caitlin Skvorc

PALMER — Some 30 high school and college students, plus parents, teachers, professors and local artisans, gathered in the Palmer High School woodshop Friday afternoon to witness the wonder of raku-fired pottery.

“There’s nothing like imagination,” said Mat-Su College art department coordinator Felicia Desimini, as she stood surrounded by glowing pottery and glowing faces.

Raku, a style of medieval Japanese pottery begun in the late 1500s, emphasizes “relaxed, unassuming beauty,” according to Mat-Su College professor John Barton.

“This is pottery without utility or function, typically because it will only hold water for a short time,” Desimini wrote in an email. “Its only worth is it’s beauty.”

Although the current raku style used in the United States is significantly removed from that of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony — the firing process now has a few more steps and is a little less primitive, for example — it is still recognized as raku in its philosophy.

Some equipment to make raku ware is still required, however, and the college doesn’t have it.

The kilns, for example, aren’t terribly expensive — between $100 and $200, plus the cost of fuel — but there don’t seem to be many burning in the Mat-Su Valley. The college hasn’t had any kind of kiln in years, and it doesn’t have a pottery studio.

So the professors worked out an agreement between the college and the high school to teach a college-level ceramics class at a real studio, and set out in search of the pieces to put it together.

Pat Garley, at Arctic Fire Bronze, was the first cog in the wheel. Barton and Desimini contacted him for suggestions, and he named Sandra Cook as a good source for knowledge and equipment.

“Next thing you know, it morphed into this collaboration,” Barton said.

Cook brought the clamshell kiln, some glazes and her three decades of ceramics experience, Palmer High supplied the studio, Garley provided the labor, and the students produced the pottery. Parents came to watch the red-hot clay removed from the kiln, reduced in small garbage cans full of newspaper and sawdust, then doused in water.

Palmer High art teacher Shelli Franckowiak also encouraged her photography students to come by to capture the work done by her college-level art and ceramics classes.

“I think it is so important for people to see that the art department is actually doing something,” Franckowiak said.

Franckowiak said she has often feared the “ax” of budget cuts, always anticipating art class as a potential victim. But art, she said, is something that can’t be ignored.

“It’s so intrinsic to so many of us,” she said. “It just comes out.”

Barton agreed that the “general level of excitement” and the “buzz going on in the room” Friday was evidence enough of the quality connections people were forming, through art.

“When people get excited and get behind an idea, beautiful things happen,” he said.

Sophomore high school student Isabelle Rice said she likes “making things in general,” but starting ceramics gave her something she didn’t expect.

“It made my self-esteem go up,” she said. “It’s cool to do something productive and make something you can use.”

Although raku ware is usually too toxic to hold food or drink, it still functions as a usable decoration, and as Rice said, can offer intangible benefits as well.

Kylen Williams, a senior at Palmer High in Franckowiak’s advanced art class, said she, too, has gained more from the class — and art in general — than the few iridescent cups she made.

“What I excel at most is being able to be creative,” she said. “I’m usually pretty quiet, but I’ve found I’m able to say a lot more through art than just in conversation with a person.”

The conversations that come from being in the presence of other artists are just as valuable, however.

“I really like the whole idea of community art. It’s something I would really like to see practiced on a regular basis,” Barton said. “I’d like to see the awareness of people raised up a bit to realize this is accessible stuff that is really desirable.”

Desimini said the college received a grant for more than $15,000 this year from the Rasmuson Foundation for a kiln, a video camera, a 3D printer, a Connex-style shipping container and many other items that will support the sustainability and growth of the college’s annual Machetanz Arts Festival, named for Fred and Sara Machetanz. In 2015, the festival will be hosted at the college on June 5 and 6, and will include a raku workshop.

For more information, visit facebook.com/Machetanz.