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 Post subject: Profile: Sara Rayner
PostPosted: Fri Feb 03, 2006 2:03 pm 

Joined: Wed Feb 20, 2008 7:35 pm
Posts: 163
Location: The Art of Bonsai Project
Profile: Sara Rayner
Photograph by Sara Rayner

Sara Rayner is a self taught potter of 30 years, the last 14 years of which she has worked solely on producing bonsai containers. Sara works out of an old carriage house in her home town of Red Wing, Minnesota.

She originally became interested in Bonsai 17 years ago when she attended an IBC convention in Minneapolis. She then joined the Minnesota Bonsai Society and has been an active member since. Much of her time is taken up with bonsai pot production and attending various conventions around the country. Some of it is reserved for her real passions, which include maintaining a manageable collection of bonsai trees, and serious bird watching. You can see Sara's gallery here.

The following is an on-line interview conducted with Sara Rayner:

AoB: Sara, you have been a potter for over 25 years and you have been making bonsai pots for almost 15 of those, what changes have you seen in bonsai pottery and in what direction do you see this art heading?

Sara: I'm not as aware of changes in the actual style and design of bonsai pottery as I am aware of the public's acceptance of the more non-traditional containers. 12 years ago when I had my first exposure on the West Coast of the US, much of the bonsai teaching was done by traditional Japanese masters. Just picking up and examining one of my pots was a no-no. This attitude has softened and changed as new artists and teachers emerge and bonsai in the US has become a bit more Americanized. So long as I stay in the "zone" of what is needed for good bonsai pot design, my less than traditional containers seem to be more widely accepted. However I don't see any major changes in the direction that bonsai pottery will take. There will be more new faces, with different techniques and approaches, but I truly believe we cannot wander too far from the forms and finishes that good bonsai demands. I feel that individual expression backed with solid traditional design elements have been, and always will remain, the key to a great bonsai container.

AoB: Your pottery is all hand thrown or altered on a potters wheel, this is slightly unusual in a world where slip casting, molds, and mass production is common, would you say that as mass production techniques become more prevalent that the artistic quality is being lost?

Sara: I believe that mass produced pottery has its place and is important for what it can provide. I don't feel, however, artistic quality will be compromised altogether as there will always be a demand for unusual, high quality containers as long as there remains a bonsai community of serious artists. There is a common misconception that just because it's hand thrown means it's good, likewise, because it's slip cast means it's poor. Any technique used in making bonsai containers can produce a high quality product as long as attention to detail of design, finishes, and the quality of materials are being met.

AoB: The glazes and textures on your pottery are amazing. We know that you use hardwood ashes in many of your glazes to achieve this effect. What other techniques led to the quality and appearance of your pottery?

Sara: I began as a studio potter and, like most, I work with high fired, iron based stoneware clays. When fired in a reduced atmosphere (oxygen starved), it produces a warm clay body and soft flowing glazes. This in itself sets it apart from most bonsai pot production, and gives the pottery its unique look. I altered my glaze recipes to tone them down and soften the surfaces. I also overlap one glaze over another and use textured slips for interest.

AoB: What are your main sources of inspiration?

Sara: My main source of inspiration comes from studying trees in their pots and seeing what works and what doesn't. If a certain composition is outstanding, the pot plays an important part. I study it to see what I like about it, visualize where I would like to go with it, and use what means I have to incorporate aspects of that design into my work. If the results are positive and effective it can be carried on to other ideas. If it bombs (which happens quite often), I do some serious re-evaluation.
Bonsai, pot, and photograph by Sara Rayner

AoB: When creating pots for a wide range of bonsai enthusiasts, what are the main challenges of your profession and how do you go about solving them?

Sara: In general making bonsai pots, as opposed to functional and art pottery, is a challenge in itself. Where once the clay had a great deal of freedom, as when it was loosely thrown into bowls, cups and vases, it's now confined into tight, pre-planned shapes that have definite boundaries. Where once the decorating was bold, colorful and shiny, it's now subtle, simple and sometimes dull. This is not to say that creativity has been lost in the process, it certainly has not; it just has to be applied in different ways. The challenge lies in keeping it interesting and unique within its boundaries. It took my passion for bonsai to want to make the switch, and this is why all bonsai potters also grow bonsai trees.

On the more technical side, the main challenge I face is producing some shapes, specifically ones with corners. Although I find working on a potter's wheel to be an advantage in many ways, it has its limitations. The rectangles and squares begin as round collars of clay, then are gently pushed and trimmed into their finished forms. The end product is a sort of rounded, soft cornered pot. They are the most time consuming and difficult shapes I make, but when they work it's very satisfying.

Another challenge is matching the surface and size of a custom ordered pot. There is a 15 to 20% shrinkage in the clay bodies I use, so by the time the round pot is thrown and altered to the oval pot it then shrinks 15% thru drying and firing. It's really a guess as to how large to initially make it. If they were made in molds I would know exactly what size they would end up, when completed.

Also, the glazes I use have a range of hues and surfaces they can produce, varying from pot to pot and from firing to firing. This is the beauty of high fired reduction pottery, but also where the difficulty lies in being accurate. When asked to make a custom pot I usually plan on making several, in hopes that one comes close to the customer's expectations.

AoB: Antique pots from China are the most sought after items amongst bonsai pots. For those of us who are not as knowledgeable in this area as you are, what is it that makes those pots so valuable? Is it their cultural and historical significance and their rarity, is it the artwork, or is there something in their quality that cannot be duplicated with today's technology?

Sara: I really am not very knowledgeable in this area. You would need to have studied art history and I don't have that background. I do know that glaze formulations can be lost, and once gone can be very difficult to duplicate. Also many of the antique pots were exquisitely painted by hand, an art also probably lost through the generations, and certainly not economical today. I think all of the above that you mentioned probably says it all.

AoB: What do you think was the biggest modern innovation in your art?

Sara: I would have to say the modern kilns, (gas electric, oil) that are accessible to most potters have made pottery making relatively simple. Where once you needed to work with a family or master who knew how to build and fire a wood kiln, you can now buy a kit, read a book, hook it up and, with some trial and error, learn by yourself. The wheel and clay are not complicated and pots can be formed by almost anybody, but without a working kiln at your disposal you can never have a finished product.

AoB: Bonsai pot design has always been limited by the necessity of function and form seems to have always been a secondary consideration. Do you think we will ever see pots that stretch the limits of function and break away from simple bowl designs? For example, a pot that looks as though it has been affected by the same forces as the tree?

Sara: I think I've already stressed the importance of staying within certain boundaries that bonsai requires, but in the same breath I would say that anything is possible within those boundaries, so long as balance is maintained. I think they can be stretched, and exploration encouraged, but when balance is lost it snaps you back. I don't think this is something you can define and explain; it's something you just feel and see. This is why traditional forms and finishes have remained constant for so long... because they work.

This is one reason why Tokoname pots have always been considered some of the best. They have maintained the strong, traditional balanced forms but have a special eye for detail when it comes to clay bodies, surface techniques and craftsmanship.

AoB: When you design and make a new pot do you envision a bonsai for it or is there another motivating factor for the design, shape, and glaze chosen?

Sara: Usually when I'm designing and making pots I'm more interested in getting that form where I want it than I am in visualizing a tree for it. After years of production you learn what surfaces, beadwork, feet, lips, etc. look good on what shape, and what glazes will work on those details. If it's a good design, executed well, I'm confident that a variety of tree forms will work in it. When it's finished, I'll know if it's a poor design if I can't visualize it in a composition.

AoB: What are your views on selecting a pot for a bonsai, what should we consider when doing so?

Sara: Here again, I tend to go more by the book. Not because I feel I need to be told which pot is the proper pot for my tree, but that the traditional guidelines are based on the same artistic and visual principles that tell you when a composition is balanced. That balance must have regard to color, form and texture.

The guidelines exist, but are not always explained. Some of it seems obvious. A formal upright tree looks unbalanced in a round pot, and a tree with a 3 inch trunk looks like its being swallowed up by a 5 inch deep pot. But a great deal of it is not obvious. I truly believe that selecting a "perfect" or at least appropriate container for a given tree is a learned skill, something that comes with time and experience. After a while the selection process becomes automatic. I haven't reached this point yet, but there are some things I don't question.
To this day I have yet to see a pine or juniper look convincing in a glazed pot. Why not, other green trees work in them? Maybe it's that glazed containers have a feeling of liquid or water, something not usually associated with a needle tree.

The subject of container selection is highly debated among bonsai enthusiasts, and I wouldn't know where to begin or stop with it, so I will sum it up: Study the guidelines; study the art of bonsai; look at a lot of quality trees, and practice.

Last edited by Will Heath on Wed Apr 19, 2006 11:21 am, edited 3 times in total.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2006 8:17 pm 

Joined: Fri Dec 16, 2005 7:29 am
Posts: 515
Location: Brisbane, Australia
Beautiful glaze on that pot, shown.
I'd love to be able to source pots like that, here in Australia.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2006 6:47 pm 

Joined: Mon Aug 08, 2005 8:04 pm
Posts: 244
Location: South San Francisco, CA
I've been a confirmed fan of Sara's work for about 10 years. I bought my first Sara pot at a convention in Washington DC.
I just went outside and took a count. I have 14 Sara pots so far, and always look forward to acquiring another.
Sara has made several custom order pots for me. When I discuss with her what sort of pot I'm thinking of, it seems that she has the uncanny ability to read my mind, and comes up with near exactly what I want.
Sara, I know for sure that you have many fans here in California. Keep up the great work You are appreciated.
Best Regards

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Feb 09, 2006 12:57 pm 

Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2005 10:44 am
Posts: 269
Location: Huntersville, NC USA
Like Mike, I am a big proponent of Sara's pots. She makes some very high-quality pots and has been gracious enough to provide me with several that I made speical requests for. I have about a dozen of her creations and I always consider her for more. I have a shohin size JWP that I am going to be seeking yet another of Sara's pots for in the near future.

And DURABLE pottery is a forte she creates with her techniques/experience. I have lost several other "good" quality pots from drops after high winds or animals knocked bonsai off the shelves. I have one wisteria semi-cascade in a Sara Rayner pot, that due to excessive growth will topple over quite easily, when I am not mindful of the conditions. It has taken the longest fall (5-6') of any of my bonsai on at least six occasions and never even chipped. This is a sign of a very well made container (although I certainly don't recommend you test them that way). It, and all the rest of her pots in my collection, were worth every penny!!!

A wonderful article on an even more wonderful person.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed Mar 22, 2006 8:56 am 

Joined: Mon Feb 28, 2005 9:40 pm
Posts: 383
Sara is one of the good guys. I always enjoy talking with her when we have been at the same shows together. Her pots are wonderful, I have probably ten of them.

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun Mar 26, 2006 12:11 am 

Joined: Thu Mar 03, 2005 7:08 pm
Posts: 9
Location: Zone6 Columbus oHIo
Sara is a wonderful person indeed. I have met and talked to her on many ocassions and she is truly a down to earth artist for sure, and her art gets better year after year.
A Friend in bonsai

 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Aug 05, 2006 2:58 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
Posts: 6469
Location: Michigan USA
Sara is featured in an article in the Summer 2006 issue of the Journal of The American Bonsai Society which I just received today. The article is titled, "Making The Perfect Pot - Bonsai Pottery as Art."
It's a four page spread with pictures of her making pots, nine finished pots, and an in-depth article on the process's she uses.
Congratulations Sara on an article well done!

Will Heath

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