Wong fires up ceramic art business in Manitou

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Mark Wong shapes another of his many creations in his Manitou Springs studio before letting the heat do its work (inset), leading to the finished product.

On the back patio of Penrose House, a small crowd gathers around Mark Wong, as he fires a ceramic vessel in a portable kiln. It’s a dark — but not stormy — night, and Wong’s firing is part of a celebration of the arts organized by Christina McGrath, who heads the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region.

The white glow of the fire is occasionally punctuated by tiny flickers of blue as Wong prepares to lift away the insulated sides of the kiln and remove the pot.

Fire abated, the vessel glows white-hot, as strange and unearthly as a freshly fallen meteorite. The crowd gasps as Wong seizes the pot and puts it into a plastic wastebasket full of crumpled newspapers. The papers burst into flame, Wong throws more newspapers in the container, then claps on the lid.

“That’s a reduction atmosphere,” he explains. “We’ll leave it there for a while.”

Manitou resident Wong has made his living as a full-time ceramic artist for almost 20 years. He’s a familiar figure in Manitou, riding his skateboard down the hill with two enormous dogs trotting behind.

“Actually, I don’t go out with both of them that much,” he said. “One of them is getting a little old.”

Wong learned ceramics at Fountain Valley School, a private boarding school in southeast Colorado Springs.

“I was a day student there,” he said, “and I thought I’d check out the ceramics department. I spent four hours there, made a mess, and missed my bus. The next day I did the same thing, and I still couldn’t throw anything. The teacher said he’d never seen anyone make such a mess and not make anything.”

After graduating from Fountain Valley, Wong attended Pomona College in California, where he studied under renowned ceramicist Paul Soldner.

“Soldner just wanted you to work,” Wong said. “As long as you were in the studio producing, that was OK.”

Graduating from Pomona in 1990, Wong returned to Colorado Springs and became a full-time ceramic artist. He specializes in thin-walled raku ware, adding small amounts of copper carbonate, iron oxide, and silica to a base glaze. In Wong’s work, the characteristic copper tones of raku glazes are deepened and heightened.

How does he do it? That’s a trade secret.

He’ll only say that he has “developed my own clays and glazes to complement each other and work with my throwing style. The thin walls of my vessels radiate the heat more rapidly after the firing. This allows me a range of color rarely seen in raku.”

“The process of raku firing,” Wong writes on his website “involves removing the pieces from the kiln at the moment the glaze has melted and then putting it into another chamber full of leaves, paper, wood shavings, or anything else that easily burns. The chamber is then closed to restrict the amount of oxygen available to these materials. This is called a reduced oxygen, or reduction atmosphere. By creating such an atmosphere, the oxygen within the glaze is drawn out of the glaze. This varies with factors such as airspace around the piece; mass of combustibles; and the tightness of the lid. These differing amounts of the reduction bring out the varied copper, violet and green palette of raku.”

Wong does everything himself, in a cluttered backyard studio he built two years ago.

“I was renting a garage in Manitou for years,” he said, “and I finally decided to stop renting and have my own space. Now I have my own clay company!”

Asked how many pots he produces every year, Wong demurs.

“I can’t tell you exactly how many,” he says, “On days that I throw, I try to go through 100-200 pounds of clay — so it depends whether I’m making large or small pieces. And when I fire, I try to put as many pieces as possible into the kiln. It’s at 2,300 degrees, so I’ll put little pieces around the big ones. Besides, every ceramic artist will tell you that little knick-knacks are the bread and butter of the business.”

Wong is in the midst of an ambitious (and decidedly entrepreneurial) arts project.

“I’m taking the myth of the origami cranes,” he said, “and making them in clay instead.”

That myth says that folding a thousand origami cranes brings luck and fortune to the maker and recipient alike.

Wong is throwing and firing a thousand platters, each different, and each decorated with the outline of a crane. The plates will be the subject of an exhibition at the downtown UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, opening Feb. 8.

Wong has already thrown and fired 382 platters, and he won’t stop until he reaches 1,000. Each platter costs $40, and 25 percent of the proceeds will go to the gallery.

They’re available at the gallery, or on Wong’s website at http://www.wongwares.com. You can’t reserve a specific platter — they’ll be distributed by lottery at the end of the show.

“Some are 12 inches (in diameter), some are 18,” said Wong, “so if you get a big one, you’re really getting a deal.”

The smoke is dissipating at Penrose House, and Wong expertly draws the still-glowing pot from the burnt newspapers. He sprays it with water, and a design emerges, a delicate tracery of painted-on glazes. The pot shines faintly, and then glows a bright burnished copper as the raku glazes cool and set.

“It’s like magic, isn’t it?” said an awed onlooker.

“Yes,” said Wong, “it’s magic.”