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August 30, 2005 > Raku pottery: A Mike Bennett specialty

Raku pottery: A Mike Bennett specialty

by Venkat Raman

If you have an eye for ceramic art, you may have encountered some of Mike Bennett's creations in the Tri-City area. His passion for this art form makes him a prolific producer of Raku pottery in the Bay Area.

Bennett's interest in art formed early, watching his uncle draw and paint cartoons. Young Bennett participated in art competitions in grade school that kindled his interest further and helped him learn to draw better. Tangible success materialized when he won the seventh grade yearbook cover contest. He went on to win yearbook cover contests in his junior and senior years of high school as well. It was in seventh grade that he got an assignment to create a logo for himself that he would end up perfecting over the years and finally finishing about 10 years ago!

After completing schooling as a Castro Valley native, Bennett entered Chabot College in Hayward with an eye toward a degree in commercial art. It was at Chabot that Bennett got his first exposure to pottery through one of his art courses. However it would be decades before he would return to it in earnest. Bennett got married while in college and faced the need to earn a living for two. Though art was his passion, he decided that he couldn't make a living as an artist. He dropped out of college and became a sales agent in the insurance business and continues to do so today.

In 1980s he belonged to the Holy Redeemer Church in Newark where the pastor encouraged a relationship between art and faith, and Bennett contributed to the design by making several large (60 by 30 foot) banners. With encouragement from the pastor, he visited Grčnwald Guild, located in the Washington state, for a week in 1989. While the main activity of the week was weaving paramentes on the loom, he also took the initiative to learn pottery on the side - a return to this art after his introduction at Chabot College. "When I took that pottery class at the Grčnwald Guild, I felt a stirring in my soul," recalls Bennett, "I knew I needed to do pottery."

Following through, he joined a studio in Los Gatos - Blossom Hill Crafts - and learned pottery from instructor Joanne Brice. The studio accepts students of any age, whether skilled or not. Bennett feels even advanced craftsmen can benefit from working at the studio as they are able to interact with other advanced artisans creating an atmosphere of peer synergy. It is here that he learned and later taught Raku pottery technique.

Raku pottery technique dates back to 16th century Japan. In conventional technique, pottery is loaded into a cold kiln and then the kiln is heated up slowly to attain the requisite temperature. Later, the kiln is cooled down and the finished pieces are removed. In the Raku technique, pottery is heated in the kiln for seven to eight hours and quickly removed while still hot using tongs. It is then placed in another chamber along with combustible material like horsehair or newspaper and refired at 1750 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This second chamber is airtight and the combustion is allowed to happen for 30 to 40 minutes. The burning material lodges itself on the pottery and makes interesting patterns.

Most of Bennett's work these days is Raku pottery. He teaches once a year at Grčnwald Guild in Leavenworth, Washington. He is planning to go on a two-week art expo tour to France where he will see the altar piece designed by the artist Grčnwald.

He still continues to paint, but limits his activity to creations for his own use. As a member of the Fremont Art Association, he exhibits his wares in their annual Tri-City Open Studios event in June. He also participates in the annual Newark Open Studio event in November and a Christmas show in Los Gatos.

Through his affiliation with the Fremont Art Association, he received a commission to build a large piece in the form of a flat back relief sculpture suitable for mounting on a wall. It was necessary to build the piece in five sections using five different molds and assemble it on site. It took five months to complete the project and it is currently adding character to an entryway in Livermore.

"Creativity is a force greater than me," reflects Bennett, "I want to work in concert with this creative energy." He works every day in his studio in Livermore, and displays his work at the Gift Gallery in Fremont and The Mind's Eye in Carmel.

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