Ceramics Today
Home | Articles | Featured Artists | Contact | Search

An experimental process. Article by Rick Berman.

Originally published in Clay Times Magazine.

Ironically, this was the title of my MFA Thesis at the University of Georgia in 1973. I'll try to explain as simply as possible where this research has taken me in the last 24 years.

Salku vessel by Rick BermanFrom the very beginning of my clay life in 1968, I have felt this amazing affinity for those nasty wood-fired pots from the “Six Ancient Kilns” of Japan: Shigaraki, Tamba, Echizen, Tokoname, Seto, and Bizen. The whole idea of a pot being put into a kiln and allowing it to become nature itself just blows me away! I guess the things going on in the U.S. in the '60s and early '70s that were closest to these Japanese pots were what Don Reitz was doing with salt and Paul Soldner and Howard Shapiro were doing with raku.

Salku vessel by Rick BermanI was experimenting with both of these techniques in graduate school and somehow had the idea to combine the two: thus SALKU. I built a small, hard brick updraft top-loading kiln and fired with a homemade venturi burner and propane. The pots were stacked not touching and I used about five pounds of salt (but who's counting?) when the kiln got to cone 06. Salt will volitalize at cone 06 but obviously if the clay isn't vitrified, the salt just goes through the cross section of the pot wall until it “fills up.” The net result was a slight sheen, but no orange peel surface. I took the pots out of the kiln hot and smoked them in sawdust. The slight glaze sheen crazed because of the thermal shock, and a very subtle white crackle occurred. The key word here is “subtle.” Now you might say at this point, “What's the point?”– and that's pretty much what I said, too – but it was research and I did graduate.

Salku platter by Rick BermanNow fast forward to 1977 and a workshop at Tennessee State University in Johnson City. We packed the pots in a soft brick kiln, lit the burner, set it to what I thought was a slow, even flame, and went inside to look at slides. After probably an hour and a half or so, we went back to the kiln to find the most beautiful white heat I've ever seen...at least cone 8. All I could think to do at this point was to throw in about ten pounds of salt, let it do its salt thing for about 20 minutes, and shut it down. We took the top off and started to unload the pots. It was without a doubt the biggest mess I've ever seen! Pulling the pots apart was kind of like pulling taffy—total disaster except for one pot that was in the bottom middle of the whole mess. To this day, it is probably the most beautiful pot I've ever seen. It was dry, wet, black, orange, grey, with beautiful scars and warps. Except for Marvin Tadlock, who made the pot, and me, people were not amused. (Too bad we live in such a product oriented society.)

Salku vessel by Rick BermanWell, anyway, fast forward again to 1990 when I was doing a raku workshop for my dear friend Tom Zwierlein at his studio in the country near Lexington, Kentucky. On the second day, he asked if I'd like to try a saggar salt technique he'd been working with. I'm always up for stealing other people's ideas, so of course I said yes. He took a saggar (a Lays potato chip can) and went to work. He lined the bottom of the can with charcoal and vermiculite, then pots, then salt, then charcoal, then pots, etc. until the can was full. We put the can in the fiber drum raku kiln, fired it to 1850 F degrees, opened the kiln, took out the saggar, and unloaded the pots and quenched them in water. Every pot was a killer! Orange, red, black, grey, white, spots, lines, etc.

After that, I started using the technique in my workshops and teaching. Then one day about two years later, a light bulb went on. SALKU! 1973! Duh. There were some problems at this point. Number one, the salt was eating up the fiber drums, and if the pots were fired much below about cone 04, they turned into chia pets in about two weeks and totally disintegrated. This wasn't too good for public relations. I felt kind of like a traveling spot remover salesman who needs to keep moving.

At any rate, I built a small soft brick (scrap) updraft Salku kiln and corbled in the top with a 5-inch flue. The kiln measured 2-1/2 bricks across and about 15 courses high, roughly six or seven cubic feet. The whole kiln became a saggar, so we eliminated the potato chip cans. Now I'm tumble stacking tenmoku and ash-glazed pots with a half bag of charcoal all through the pots and I'm firing to approximately cone 10 in four or five hours. I use about 5 lbs. of salt and the pots are getting some beautiful black orange peel from the melting charcoal, and sometimes stick together so when they are pulled apart, some dramatic scarification is happening. Remember those nasty Japanese pots mentioned above? Well, with a lot of help from nature, I'm seeing surfaces now that I never thought were possible. Making pots is even more of a joy when you love the surface possibilities so much that you literally can't wait to see the next group of pots come out of the kiln. I am very grateful.

Rick Berman is a studio potter, workshop leader, and ceramic historian. He has served as associate editor of Clay Times and teaches ceramics and sculpture at Pace Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.

Article and images reproduced by kind permission of Clay Times Magazine and Rick Berman. © Rick Berman.


More Articles

© Ceramics Today