VERO BEACH — Beyond the austere white walls of Vero’s Museum of Art’s galleries lie the cauldrons of Sean Clinton’s raku class: four soot-covered garbage cans.
Within them are the products of his students’ creativity, earnestly tendered and entrusted to him and his wildly unpredictable fires.
Clinton has for the past dozen years taught the ancient Japanese technique of smoking pots – literally.
At 44, he is a black-belt karate instructor, graphic designer for clients like Piper and FPL, and single dad to 11- and 13-year-old sons.
His classes are to the museum’s education wing what a Weber grill is to a backyard, a hot, sweaty, unpredictable and very grimy art, and the results are spectacular – or disastrous.
Call him the Bobby Flay of clay.
“It’s like Christmas, every time you open up the garbage can,” he says.
In the flames, fueled by gobs of shredded paper, the budding potters’ bisque teapots, platters and pots, painted with a special high-silica glaze, are bathed in smoke.
They have been fired twice in the museum’s kilns, brick cubicles fed with a gas flame to a temperature of 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, in a recently enclosed garage-like area just off the museum’s classrooms.
After the final firing, when the pottery emerges brilliant orange and translucent with heat, Clinton is at the ready in clunky gloves, a heavy full-length leather apron and a face shield propped up on his head. With long tongs and fast action, he lifts the pieces and gingerly places them into the garbage cans.
The cans act as a sort of reduction chamber, cooler than the kiln despite the flames that ignite the second the hot pots touch the paper.
There, the glaze cools faster than the clay, contracting on the pottery’s surface.
The exposed cracks blacken with carbon from the smoldering paper once the garbage can lid smothers the flames.
All the while, Clinton and his pupils stand by in an almost ceremonious awe, watching while their work goes through the raku rite of passage.
Beyond the glazing, there are other aspects of raku out of the hands of the artist. Raku glazes often contain metals like copper that change color in the firing process, clouding or clearing in smoky iridescence.
And the clay itself sometimes cracks.
“I talk to other teachers, they lose 40 percent of their wares,” he says.
That chimera is what intrigues those at the mercy of the art. For Clinton, it is just another crapshoot that keeps getting him good results.
“You throw everything to chance,” he says. “It’s like fishing. You can bait your hook and put your line in, but you don’t know what you’re going to catch.”
“It takes courage in pottery to come in and make a masterpiece and put it through the firing. So many things can go wrong.
“I tell my students it’s not finished until you get it home and put it on the shelf. I’ve seen people make stunning things and drop them in the parking lot going to their car.”