Esther Kang

Manhattan Beach cancels Raku class amid safety concerns, controversy

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The city’s ceramic studio is hidden behind the tennis court at Live Oak Park in Manhattan Beach. PHOTO BY ESTHER KANG

About two years ago, Susan Nagy, a lifelong Manhattan Beach resident, could be found every night sitting by her husband’s bedside at UCLA Medical Center. He was fighting a barrage of infections that stemmed from his pancreatic tumor.

He luckily emerged from the battle as a survivor, and Nagy emerged from her husband’s near-death experience with a newfound perspective on living.

“I decided it was time to grab life a little bit,” Nagy said.

Despite never having taken an art class in her life, she looked through the city’s Parks and Recreation course offerings and settled on a class called “Ceramics Raku Firing.”

The class, with a fee of $154 for residents like Nagy for each 11-week session, has been offered by the city for four years. But amid safety concerns that have recently surfaced, it was canceled indefinitely last month.

Raku is an ancient Japanese ceramic firing technique that uses fire and smoke to create colorful and unpredictable patterns and designs on the piece. After heating the ceramic in a gas-fueled kiln at 1,800 degrees for about 20 minutes, the piece is taken out with a tong and dropped into a metal bucket with combustible material, such as newspapers and sawdust. The heat of the pot sets the combustible material on fire, and once the flame is established, a lid is placed over the can.

This step in the process—post-fire reduction—is essential to raku: the flame draws oxygen out of the pottery, creating beautiful patterns and colors achieved only by this natural process.

Susan Nagy presents one of her completed raku-fired pieces, which underwent the post-fire reduction process in the metal can. PHOTO BY ESTHER KANG

“I fell in love with it,” Nagy said. “It’s been my therapy.”

Since her first raku class more than a year ago, she could be found every Saturday morning outside the city’s ceramics studio next to Live Oak Park in Manhattan Beach raku-firing one of her many ongoing projects, including holiday candle holders and rosary crosses.

But that all changed three days before the next 11-week session was supposed to begin the weekend before Thanksgiving. Nagy, along with seven to eight students who had enrolled, received an email from the Parks and Recreation staff announcing that the raku class had been canceled. It offered no explanation, but Nagy and the others knew it had something to do with the neighbor who had complained about the smoke and ashes coming into her house.

“When you come down and see people wearing that level of protective gear, I would imagine it’s intimidating and it would look like they’re doing something bigger than they’re actually doing,” Nagy said.

That neighbor was Nancy Dunn, who with her family moved into the three-story residence adjacent to the studio in June. The house was “a dream come true” for the family, Dunn said. Not only was it walking distance from Grand View Elementary where her son is a first grader, it was right across from Live Oak Park where he also participated in afterschool recreational programs.

Dunn, who also happens to be a cultural arts commissioner for the city, first noticed the smoke in late summer after she and her family returned from a summer trip and was beginning to settle into the house.

“At first we thought a building was on fire,” she recalled. “Then we looked down from our window and saw the smoke come out of these round trashcan-like cylinders.”

She didn’t think much of it, at first. She would run around her house and close all the windows, especially those in her bedroom, kitchen and son’s bedroom, which all faced east towards the studio.

But as time went on, she realized that the smoke was not temporary but a regular weekly event. She decided she had had enough. The smog and ashes that entered her house were affecting her husband’s asthma and family’s allergies.

So one Saturday in late October, Dunn decided to find out what was going on. She came out of her house and found Nagy, covered in protective gear, taking out a red-hot ceramic piece from the kiln and dropping it into the metal canister.

Behind a fence, Nancy Dunn’s three-story residence directly faces the studio’s patio — also known as the “Raku patio.” PHOTO BY ESTHER KANG

Dunn asked her what they were burning. She found out the smoke was from burning newspapers and sawdust. She also found out that this was part of a city-sponsored ceramics class.

When the city received her complaint, Richard Gill, director of the parks and recreation department—along with a risk manager, representatives from the public works department and a city supervisor in the cultural arts department—went to the scene to evaluate the situation.

“There’s real smoke coming out of this kiln and into this person’s house,” Gill said. “It’s not a subjective or arbitrary type of problem. Smoke can be hazardous to your health, so we’re taking a very reasonable, precautionary step here and trying to find a long-term solution.”

Because the city was notified of this issue just days prior to the start of the next cycle of raku classes, a decision had to be made right away, he said. City officials decided to cancel the class until they found a solution.

The city is currently looking into getting cost estimates for installing a commercial vent or structure over the raku kiln, which would scrub the air of the smog, Gill said. But for now, the class is canceled indefinitely.

In the four years that the city has offered this class, this is the first ever complaint about the raku smoke from a resident, a neighbor or otherwise, he said.

Dunn’s house is just one of two residences in the vicinity, with hers directly facing the studio’s patio. However, her residence was strictly used as a vacation rental prior to her family moving in this past June. “So there was no one here to complain,” Dunn said.

She said her real estate agent did not give her a disclosure, which she believes she should have received.

Dunn explained that when she initially relayed the situation to the city’s cultural arts manager, her intention was not to shut the class down but to find a solution. But once the city became involved, it was out of her hands.

“From the city’s perspective, they need to make sure that whatever they’re offering is not toxic or polluting the environment or negatively affecting residents,” she said.

“I wrote the city that as a resident and a commissioner, I’d be happy to partner with them in any way possible to find a solution,” she continued. “I’m a lover and supporter of the arts and I understand that the people who are passionate about this form of art are disappointed. I really get it.”

Nagy and her fellow raku enthusiasts are befuddled over the city’s decision to cancel the class. Nagy said there was no dialogue about how to ameliorate the smoke situation before they received the email. She even wrote a letter to the city, outlining a number of potential solutions, such as moving the class time from Saturday to a weekday morning when Dunn and her husband would not be home.

She also noted that the proposed vent over the raku kiln would do little to lessen the smoke in question because the kiln itself emits no smoke; the metal cans do.

“It seems like there could be happy solutions for everyone that should’ve been reached before it got this out of hand,” she said. “It’s really a shame that one person has effectively canceled an established city class. Does every citizen in this city have that kind of voice?”

That aside, Nagy will be unable to finish the hand-painted ornaments she was working on as holiday gifts to members of a local charity. Nor can she finish the rosary crosses she had hand-painted and was ready to raku-fire for the final touch.

“All of it gets thrown away,” she said.


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