November 28, 2017
Being the curator of an art gallery means I work closely with so many talented artists and craftsmen. One of the perks of the job is that I get to visit their studios and have an exclusive behind the scenes look at how they make their work.
Last month I was lucky enough to visit Richard Ballantyne’s ceramics studio in Buckinghamshire. Richard works alongside Carol Read and together they create stunning raku sculptures. Richard was in the middle of a Raku firing and I was lucky enough to watch and photograph the process.
To sculpt the animal, Richard starts with a thrown conical of hollow clay, several cuts are made in the clay and before my eyes a polar bear starts to take shape. Richard spends many hours watching David Attenborough to get a real feel for the way the animal moves and their characteristics, enabling him to really portray the character of the animal, which is why his sculptures are so captivating.
Once the body of the animal is sculpted, Richard sets on the side to dry. Later when the clay has hardened, Richard will add the legs and etch the features onto the sculpture.
Outside, the raku kiln is busy firing some glazed fired sculptures, we head over to check the progress. Richard lifts the lid to reveal the orange glow inside and with some heat proof gloves and a pair of giant tongs he carefully lifts the polar bears out of the furnace.
Deftly moving, with years of practice under his belt, the sculpture is laid onto the cold ground for the cracking process to occur. This is where the glaze is put under such rapid cooling that the raku glaze cracks, after listening intently until the cracking starts to slow down, around a minute later, Richard then picks up the piece again with the tongs and places it in a dustbin filled with sawdust. The sculpture is still red hot and as it makes contact with the dry sawdust, it ignites; this causes sawdust to burn, which in turn makes the gaps in the cracks become dark, outlining the crackle effect.
Around us there are several sculptures sat waiting to be put in the kiln, lidded dustbins emit smoke from the cracks under the lid indicating that some are nearing the end of the process and finished sculptures cool down on the ground waiting to be washed clean and their true colours emerge.
We gather up some of the finished pieces and take them into the house to scrub them up. A scourer is used to rub off the remains of the smoke and ash on the polar bear, much of the ash proves hard to get off and Richard has to work hard to get the polar bear looking smart. Finally the finished piece is placed on the shelf alongside his fellow polar bears, hares and even a unicorn!
It was fascinating to see the process of the Raku firing, a real honour to watch such a talented artist at work. It was a shame to miss Carol, who is usually here working with Richard to get pieces fired, cleaned and sculpted. Today I just photographed Richard, but I know this is a real team effort and together Richard and Carol have sculpted many animals that now live in homes all over the country.
To view all the raku pieces we have for sale on our website, click HERE
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