On Tuesday morning this week, a bit of magic happened in the garden of local ceramics artist, Sophie Lankovsky, with a raku firing of clay artworks that she and I had made in our respective studios.

Raku firing is always a fascinating process; it is unpredictable, in that one never knows what the process will deliver. It is risky for the artwork because of thermal shock (the translucent and glowing sculptures are removed with tongs at 1000deg C and placed in a bin of sawdust) and also for the inexperienced participant in this time-critical dance with fire and extreme heat.

Sophie, whose glittering likenesses of the native birds of New Zealand are sold in galleries in Hawke’s Bay and around New Zealand has been doing raku firings for 12 years. She owns a raku kiln and has acquired the confidence and skills that comes with trial and error and multiple repetition.

As a young woman she came to this country from her native Germany and was fascinated to learn that the primary land species were birds, not mammals. Since that time she has lived mainly in Hawke’s Bay where she constantly marvels at the native birdlife in her garden, the inspiration for her distinctive ceramics.

In recent times she has turned her attention to the birds she does not see in her garden. These are the endangered black robin, the takahe, kakapo, blue duck, kaka and kea, kingfisher, saddleback and stitchbirds, even the albatross. Her work is closely representational of the contours and proportions of each species and finished with the lustrous metallic hues of raku glazing – copper, iridescent blues and greens that catch the light as they are moved to create the amazing flashes similar to many of our native birds, such as the tui.

Her research has taken her into the wildlife refuges at Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf and Zealandia in Wellington where she sees these rare birds at close quarters, informing her artwork and her understanding of the tragic consequences of predation by introduced mammals on native birdlife.

“New Zealand birds are discreet in colouring,” she says, “so unlike the showiness of the rest of the world’s parrots. Our birds are mostly feathered in subdued colours with shimmering lustres in certain lights … I love them. The raku firing process produces such a natural-looking colour and it’s so satisfying to see them emerge from the process in their finished state.”

The origins of raku firing are Japanese and Sophie discovered its possibilities with the Auckland Studio Potters about twelve years ago.

Her technique involves allowing her bird forms to harden to the leatherhard stage before coating them with a super smooth clay slip called terra sigillata and then fired in an electric kiln. She then mixes and applies special raku glazes to the body, wings or tail sections of the bird and fires them again in the gas-fired raku kiln. Removing them with tongs when red hot and glowing at 1000deg C, they are immediately transferred into a bucket of dried sawdust and covered with a lid to snuff out the oxygen, a process called ‘reduction’ that brings out the metallic effects and infuses the smooth unglazed surfaces with black carbon.

This dramatic process risks breakages through thermal shock, but it brings equally dramatic and exciting results that her art buyers love.

I owe thanks to Sophie for the heart-in-mouth collaborations as I learned the process over the past year when my own ceramic figures were given the raku firing treatment in her garden.

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