We were so in love with Kathy and Thomas Arakawa's unique style of ikebana (Japanese art of flower arrangement) pottery that we asked them to develop a custom line of ceramic bonsai pots for us. We now carry more than a dozen beautiful styles of bonsai containers handmade by this creative pair. Read on to learn how they make pots, and what the process of creating pottery means to them.
From opening a bag of clay to delivering a finished container into its new owners hand takes the Arakawas 30-45 days. Half of that time is in the actual production, and the other half, in the process of being a small business owner - delivery, shows, paperwork (e.g. inventory management, planning,) coordinating with customers, and website updates.
Their pottery making process starts with planning a production schedule to specify form, size, quantity, and type of clay and glaze that will fill up and/or fit into the kiln. The most important step is ordering an adequate supply of clay to support each production cycle - about half a ton of clay every time. Kathy manages the clay forecast and ordering on a rolling 1 1/2 month schedule to ensure they never run low.
The Arakawas are constantly dealing with 3 production cycles - the previous, current and next - simultaneously, and each production includes 50-200 pots. They start making the pottery for a production 10 days after they complete a planning cycle. During those 10 days between, they're finishing the previous production. A typical day starts at 6am, preparing clay for that's afternoon new pots, and taking care of pots created the previous day. After lunch, they work on new containers.
All of the vessels are from their own designs, and they make special templates and tools. Thomas throws pottery on a potter's wheel, while Kathy is a hand builder. A typical production cycle takes about 5 to 7 days to fill up the 36 cubic feet of space in their kiln.
Drying and Bisque Firing
Once the production is completed, the unfired pottery known as greenware needs to be conditioned by drying on a rack. This process takes about 2 to 3 days in summer, 5 days in winter. Once the greenware is completely bone dry, they load it into an electric kiln for the first firing or "bisque fire". Firing bisque takes about 12 hours, with another 12 hours needed to cool the pots down. At this stage, they become bisqueware. While Thomas and Kathy wait for the greenware to dry enough to enter the kiln, they glaze and fire the bisqueware from their previous production cycle and make plans for their next production cycle. A potter's work is never done!
Glazing and High-Firing
Kathy and Thomas glaze and load the containers into the kiln as a team over two days. They begin by sorting the bisqueware by color, and apply glaze on each pot color by color. There are many glaze application techniques; each produces different results. Thickness of the glaze produces differences in color and texture. Different clay types produce different colors from a single glaze. How they load the kiln can make a difference in the glaze color because the flame in the kiln runs through "like a river of water" between the glazed bisqueware. They make a loading plan, sorting the pottery by size, shape, and glaze color to ensure each piece is loaded into an ideal location in the kiln. They love how many variables they can apply to realize different outcomes. The difficult part of glazing is that they can’t see the result until after they finish firing the bisqueware.
High-fire is the final stage of the clay's 20-day journey. During the firing, the kiln heats from room temperature up to 2350 degrees Fahrenheit (1300 degrees Celcius). The firing takes just over 13 hours, and another 36 hours to cool down. During this time, the Arawakas do not rest; they begin planning for their next production cycle, bisque firing their previous production cycle, and coordinating delivery of their finished pottery.
If you're fitness-minded, take note: Pottery-making is a good workout. Thomas and Kathy each lift and move about fifteen thousand pounds of clay every month!
Thomas believes that transforming a lump of clay into a object that serves a purpose for his customer is "like having Christmas every 10 days". Perhaps Thomas and Kathy are a modern day Santa and Mrs. Claus - they are certainly kind and generous enough! They derive so much pleasure out of unloading the kiln that they invite visitors to stop by their studio in San Jose, California on unloading day to experience it first-hand.
Adapted with permission from the original article written by Thomas Arakawa.