Peter Syak’s ingenuity in his younger years kicked off a lifelong love of clay. As an engineering student at Case Western University, Peter was looking for a way to get the most for his money at $1 beer parties…so he set out to make a giant ceramic beer stein. He fell in love with ceramics, but nevertheless began a corporate career which lasted several years. During this time, he participated in a ceramic workshop on Raku at the Summit Art Center, and it rekindled his interest in the art form. In the mid-1990’s, Peter decided to switch gears and open his own ceramic studio, working to refine his Raku process. In addition to running his studio, Peter has taught at Kean University for the past seven years and at the NJ Center for Visual Arts in Summit, NJ for over 20 years. He also runs private workshops from his studio.
Peter is a member of the NJ Potter’s Guild, and when he reached out to me, I had already been contacted by several members of the Guild to participate in “Hands On.” I politely declined his offer to photograph a Raku firing, knowing nothing about ceramics at the time, but his persistence and a promise to be firing Christmas ornaments won me over. Honestly, the process is quite something to observe and I’m thoroughly glad I went.
On the day Peter and I met up, he had been leading Raku firing workshops and firing for his own business for over a week straight at his studio, which is behind his Bloomfield, NJ house. In addition to Christmas ornaments, he had some hand built vases and boxes on tap for firing that day. Each batch of pieces in the kiln takes approximately 45 minutes from start to finish, so I was able to capture multiple iterations of the process. Peter was being assisted by one of his Kean students, Eric Putzer, who was firing some of his custom made jewelry that day.
“So what is Raku?” you may be asking. Raku is a process which, after bisque firing green clay objects, special Raku glazes are applied. These glazed pieces are then placed in a kiln and rapidly heated to 1750 - 1800°F. After they are complete (based on visual inspection through specially designed peepholes in the kiln), the red hot pieces are removed from the kiln and are placed in a shallow hollow of sawdust. The sawdust bursts into flames and an airtight container filled with straw is placed over the top to choke off the oxygen. If the vessel stays closed, the piece that results has a coppery luster and a richly colored surface. If oxygen is allowed into the container during the cooling process, the glazes turn aqua or green. Any surfaces that haven’t been glazed become black from the soot. The residue from the fire is scrubbed away to reveal the finished piece.
In addition to his ornaments and hand made boxes he creates for commercial sale, Peter has an annual personal project. Each Christmas, he creates a unique stamp from clay, which he uses to make a limited edition Christmas tile that he gives to family and friends. What started out as a very small production run is now up to 170+ tiles per year.
Peter is a highly recognized potter and has had many exhibitions in New Jersey and Colorado. He also participates in Art Shows as a member of the Potter’s Guild. I encourage you to go to his website, www.artifacts-bydesign.com if you want to learn more and to see his work. Many thanks to Peter and Eric for allowing me to snap away while they worked!