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Scene & Heard: Racine County potters play with fire for ArtSpace show

Scene & Heard: Racine County potters play with fire for ArtSpace show

Playing with fire. That’s the basic concept used by a group of local ceramic artists, as they create unique, fascinating surface decorations on their work.

By experimenting with everything from different kinds of kilns and combustible materials to various firing temperatures and atmospheres, these artists take a chance with each firing. And, by doing so, they often end up with a beautifully random, one-of-a-kind surprise.

That element of surprise is something that the seven artists featured in the “Alternative Firing Techniques: Racine County Potters” show at the Racine Arts Council’s ArtSpace Gallery, 316 Sixth St., seem to cherish.

“We rely on the happy accidents of playing with fire,” said Alex Mandli, one of the group, which also includes Kevin Pearson, Mary Rhomberg-Spengler, Mark Hyde, Diane Caron, Jeff Shawhan and Tony Macias.

When pit-firing ceramics, for example, artists don’t have as much control over a finished piece as they would when using a more conventional method, explained Mandli. Changing temperatures and other variables in pit firing can create interesting surface effects, but they can also cause stress on a pot, causing such methods to have a higher “fatality rate,” said Mandli.

Isn’t such lack of control frustrating, when you’ve already put so much work into a piece? It can be, he said. “But, every once in a while you get a little gem that makes it worth coming back.”

Examples of other alternative firing methods — including raku and smoke firing — are also featured in the ArtSpace show. And the pieces shown reflect a wide range of effects achieved through such methods, as well as the individual experimentation of each artist.

Anything that burns — from dead leaves to comic strips and sawdust — can be used during a firing, and each can affect the surface differently. Even variables such as how tightly a piece of newspaper is bunched up before burning can alter the surface during firing, Rhomberg-Spengler said.

Because alternative firing techniques tend to be more labor-intensive, as well as less predictable, they are used less often than others, according to the artists. They also have roots in craft traditions that date back to ancient cultures, Hyde said. And all those things are what draw these artists to such interesting methods.

In addition to offering visitors the chance to explore such techniques, the “Racine County Potters” show offers the unusual opportunity to see the work of these seven area artists in one show.

Gallery hours are normally limited to noon to 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (or by appointment). But ArtSpace is extending its hours during the National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts Conference (NCECA), now taking place in Milwaukee. Now through March 23, the gallery will be open from noon to 5 p.m. daily. The show runs through April 26 (www.racineartscouncil.org).

In print

Want to know more about pit firing techniques? A new book, "Pit Firing Ceramics" by artist Dawn Whitehand, explores both modern pit-fired ceramics and the history and culture of this ancient tradition. And, Racine’s Alex Mandli (www.alexmandli.com) is one of about 30 artists whose methods and work are featured in the book.

For more about Whitehand’s book, go to www.amazon.com.

DeKeuster is back

Another ceramic artist with Racine roots is showing his work in Milwaukee this week, in conjunction the NCECA conference (www.nceca.net). Kevin DeKeuster, who grew up in Racine and graduated from St. Catherine’s High School, is exhibiting his ceramic artwork at Milwaukee’s Rock Bottom Brewery, 740 N. Plankinton Ave., through Saturday, March 22.

This show of sculptural and functional pieces, which will also feature work by DeKeuster’s wife, JoAnne, is the first opportunity for the public here to see the Racine native’s work, which is greatly influenced by the wood-fired kilns of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Japan, where DeKeuster studied while earning his masters degree in ceramics from Northern Arizona University.

Both he and JoAnne worked as art educators in Arizona for more than 20 years, and now live in Taos, New Mexico, where they own the Enchanted Circle Pottery Gallery (www.enchantedcirclepottery.com). An artists’ reception will be held tonight (March 20), from 5 to 7, at the brewery.

Lee Roberts is the arts and entertainment reporter for The Journal Times. Scene & Heard appears periodically in Out & About. Lee can be reached at 262- 631-1755, by email at lroberts@journaltimes.com and by mail at 212 Fourth St., Racine, WI 53403.

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