Ceramicist Ruth Ehrenkrantz: Speeding Into Her Third Career

Ruth Ehrenkrantz’s Raku ceramics remind me of some of the finest work I’ve seen in Japan (the place where the Raku technique began). 

Raku is a process in which pottery is fired at under two thousand degrees (a low temperature for ceramics). While the pottery is still red hot, it is moved to a closed container filled with combustible materials, such as paper or sawdust. The paper or sawdust ignites and causes a reaction that creates colors and patterns on the pottery’s surface. There is no way to control exactly what those patterns will look like.

Having a BFA and MFA in ceramics, I know how difficult it is to control the process. When Ruth told me she’d only seriously begun doing Raku in 2019, I was astounded. Then, she was accepted into the prestigious American Craft Council show in Baltimore as an emerging artist. Ruth’s new career was taking off. 

Getting to ceramics was a twisting path for Ruth.

This was not Ruth Ehrenkrantz’s first foray into crafts, but getting to ceramics was a twisting path. Her first encounter with clay was when she was nine years old.  “There was a neighbor about five blocks away who was a ceramicist and she had classes in her home. I went there for a couple of years. It was a wonderfully permissive place to fall in love with ceramics.”

She didn’t continue with it. Attending Syracuse University as an undergraduate, she designed her own major in arts management. From there, she got a job at an artist colony in Southern California named Dorlin Mountain Colony. Ruth told me, “I was interested in helping other people do their own work. I hadn’t really found mine.”

After two-and-a-half years, she returned to school at Cal-Poly in Pomona, California. There, she got a master’s degree in landscape architecture, focused on regional planning. While working as a regional planner in San Francisco, she took a class on creating pyro-engraved gourd vessels: gourds with varied tones etched into them through fire.

That creative pursuit only lasted a short time. “I had a gallery opening, and I sold my work at a store in Berkeley. I loved doing that work, but then I got pregnant. The pyro-engraving smelled like hot dogs over an open fire, and I could not stomach it, so I stopped.”

While raising her children, she did quilting. In 2016, when her youngest son was a junior in high school, she took a ceramics course at UC Berkeley. That began her serious pivot to ceramics. “They have a studio for anyone who wants to sign up. I was all in. You could ask to be an intern. As an intern you went and helped once a week in the morning, unloading and loading kilns, mixing glazes, learning how to put together a studio.”

Learning those lessons helped her realize she could create a studio in her garage. After doing a serious clean-up of the garage, she purchased a potter’s wheel and kiln and set up a working studio. 

“In July 2019, I took my first Raku workshop.  I said to the instructor, ‘You have to show me how to fire work in a Raku kiln, because I’m doing this.’”

Click image to enlarge.

The next year she took a workshop on naked Raku and was totally hooked. Naked Raku uses slip (liquid clay) instead of glaze. It is more difficult to create than typical Raku. The slip contracts and cracks during firing. Pots are removed from the kiln hot and put in a reduction chamber, (an aluminum can with paper), a fire starts, and the lid is put on the can. The carbon from the fire embeds in the clay imprinting a pattern onto the pot’s surface. Ruth did a lot of experimentation before she could create pieces successfully on a repeated basis.

Many of Ruth’s vessels have lids that are topped with a stack of small flat stones. When I asked how that came about, she told me, “I was on a beach with my husband, and I picked up a perfectly round pebble. I knew exactly what I was going to do with the piece. I knew what they were going to look like. I just had to figure out how I was going to put them together. The lids have holes in them, so that I can tie the rocks down onto the pieces.”

Selling the work required a new, distinct set of skills. She started slowly with a sidewalk sale in her driveway. But Ruth’s work is not for someone looking for a handmade mug or bowl to use in their home. It is collectors who are interested in buying her work. She realized she’d need to be in high-end craft shows. 

“I thought, if I am going to try to get into shows, I want to start at the top,” said Ruth.

She told me, “I thought, if I am going to try to get into shows, I want to start at the top. I sent in two or three applications, having no idea whether I would get in or not. I got accepted, and I was shocked that I actually got in.”

In Baltimore, the show did a lot to educate the fifty craftspeople selected as emerging artists. A series of workshops helped them learn how to price their work, publicize it, and put a booth together. Ruth attended every one and found them tremendously helpful. 

“When I got to the show, I felt prepared. And it was through that show that I got three galleries to represent me.  That really got me started.”

After exhibiting at one of the biggest, most prestigious craft shows in the country, I asked Ruth what she wanted to do next. She’s again aiming high, planning to apply to other high-end shows like the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Philadelphia Museum of Art craft show. Looking far ahead, in five years’ time, she’d like to have a one-person gallery show of her work.

Ruth is also looking forward to doing more experimentation. She has registered for a semester class with Don Ellis, an instructor who specializes in naked Raku.

Her final words about her new, third or fourth career were, “At this time in my life, I’m willing to try anything. I love making the work. but they’re all these other pieces of selling and marketing. I’m not scared of them the way that I would have been as a younger person. That’s a good thing about it being a third or fourth career.”

© Karen Gershowitz (3/6/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Visit Ruth Ehrenkrantz’s website to see more of her work. Pieces are available for sale at galleries and craft shows, and also through private appointments.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

All images were provided by Ruth Ehrenkrantz for use in this post. All rights reserved by Ruth Ehrenkrantz.

 

Tags: American Craft Council, ceramicist, Ceramics, Dorlin Mountain Colony, Karen Gershowitz, Kiln, Philadelphia Museum of Art craft show, Raku, Ruth Ehrenkrantz, Smithsonian Craft Show

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