Work Glows On You
By SUSAN M. GREEN The Tampa Tribune
Published: Aug 3, 2006
DOVER - It's almost 90 degrees out, and the sun's still just playing with the thermometer. But that won't keep William Turner from cooking.
In a barn beside his house, two of five giant kilns have been cranked up to nearly 1,700 degrees for three hours. Soon it will be time to open the lids and lift out the pieces baking inside: urns, vases and ceramic dragonflies and lizards.
Turner's raku pottery is hot stuff - so hot, it ignites newspapers when it first leaves the kiln. It's also hot on the Internet market, where the longtime artist has staked his claim in recent years.
At 54, Turner is still all fired up but ready to slow. Thanks to eBay, he can make a living at his own pace and spend time with his wife, Bonnie, and two daughters.
Peddling pottery used to mean ever-changing exhibits in a showroom far from home, more than a dozen sales representatives commanding a commission, a constant scramble to fill orders and a wearying travel schedule.
Available at Rooms To Go and Marshall Fields, his work created such demand that he had to hire help. Art became a production line, with Turner and company churning out up to 200 pieces a week. All five kilns burned daily, and the artist worked a pulley system to crack open the lids one by one while someone else removed the pieces and another person waited to receive them.
"You had all the rules you had to play by for shipping and packing it," Turner said. "Every six months, you had to have something new. Add to it. Add to it. ... It got out of hand."
Then a major retailer demanded that he come up with his own computer bar code. That put an end to the madness.
"It costs a lot of money," Turner said.
He gave up his showroom in High Point, N.C., in 2000 and started cutting back. A one-man operation again, he produces 40 to 60 pieces a week during the peak fall season leading up to Christmas.
Painting With Fire
Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are firing days. The figures Turner made from molds have been spattered, sprayed or sponged with a gloss glaze and coated with a copper matte formula he developed. Fire turns the dull green spots and streaks to vibrant colors with a metallic gleam.
Turner was exposed to ceramic molds through his parents' crafts business in Miami and his sisters' former business in Tampa, C & F Wholesale Ceramics. He uses molds to make the pottery that will wear the colors. Fire and glaze make each piece unique.
"By having the molds, I could repeat the same pieces, and the raku would make them different," Turner said.
"The shapes were like my canvas, and the raku would be my painting."4>
After he applies the glaze, Turner bakes the pieces in kilns at high temperatures. Clad in fire-resistant Kevlar from the waist up, he uses long tongs to remove pieces one by one, each glowing like the end of a poker pulled from a fire.
To start the cooling process, each piece goes into an aluminum trash can lined with newspaper. Flames shoot up at the first touch. Turner slams a lid on and then beats out the flames that lick the rim of the can, making sure the container is sealed.
"Copper reacts with the flames and the lack of oxygen," Turner said. "That's when the colors come out."
Sometimes unexpected patterns will emerge, and the artist is left to guess what sparked them.
"I wish I knew exactly what went on in the [trash] can," Turner confessed. "There's no way to know. If you open the can now ... you could actually watch the color disappear. It's like someone took an eraser to it."
After about an hour in the cans, Turner pulls the pottery out and brushes off soot and ashes. Then he rinses it in water and gently bakes it in another kiln to evaporate the water and coddle the colors.
Some people douse their raku when it's too hot, he said, and the shock of cold water on hot clay spells disaster.
"There's a lot of cracked raku," he said. "People want to see it too soon."
Science and patience play into Turner's art. Over time, he has developed a ceramic mix that will withstand the heating and cooling process and a glaze that holds its color for many years.
Turner said he dabbled in various forms of art as a child growing up in Miami. His family predicted he would become an artist.
When he enrolled in college in Monroe, La., he was studying for a business career. Then his sisters started selling ceramics in Tampa, and Turner tried his hand at pottery.
"I said, 'I'm switching to art,'" Turner recalled. "I changed my major, got a wheel and started playing."
He moved back to Florida before finishing college but later earned a bachelor's degree in fine art from the University of South Florida. He said he started experimenting with the raku method in the early 1970s. "I kind of liked it," he said.
He moved to Dover about 30 years ago and built the barn he uses as a studio. He estimates he has been making a living from his raku for about 15 years.
He offers a line of 200 pieces, including wall mounts crafted to resemble frogs, fish, cow skulls and other critters. The most popular pieces range from about $20 to $125.
"Most people buy more than one piece," Turner said. His best seller lately has been the dragonfly wall mount.
"I can't do enough of those," he said.
He also makes cremation urns. Some people have asked him to include bone ash from their cremated pets in the glaze for an urn.
"It gives it a little raised texture," Turner said.
The artist also sells his glaze and conducts raku workshops.
For information, visit www .raku-art.com or call (813) 659-1764.
Contact reporter Susan M. Green at (813) 657-4529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.