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Marquette potter pursues passion

April 9, 2011
By RENEE PRUSI - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - His mother told Ed Risak in his youth impatience would be his downfall.

"But it has really helped me," said Risak, a potter whose work is on permanent display at the White House and the Smithsonian. "When I was younger, I was very impatient. But now I have found a balance of patience and impatience."

Risak, who partners in a gallery with his wife, Julie, does raku pottery, a 16th century Japanese technique of making pieces that involves quick firing and rapid cooling.

Article Photos

A native of downstate Birmingham, Ed Risak has lived in the Upper Peninsula since 1973. He’s become a well-known potter and has a studio/gallery in Marquette with his wife, Julie, as his partner. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)

"The throw rings are evident with the color changes," Risak explained. "I want (the pieces) to look painterly."

A number of steps is involved in throwing each piece.

"If I am patient with the clay, I can do lots of very involved things with it," he said. "I've done some things with it that they told me I couldn't do."

Fact Box

Raku explained:

"Each piece is different. No two will ever be the same and that's what attracted me," Ed Risak said of his pottery.

He offers this handout to explain Raku pottery:

Raku is a 16th century Japanese technique of firing pottery. The process involves quick firing and rapid cooling. The traditional raku glaze is a white glaze with black crazing caused by the rapid cooling and heavy smoke.

My current works have a copper matte glaze which is sprayed homogeneously on the surface of the pottery. They are then quickly fired in a gas kiln to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. When they reach temperature, the glaze is melted to the surface of the piece. Next, I open the kiln, remove the piece and then place it in a metal container filled with combustible material like straw or sawdust.

The container is covered and the piece is allowed to cool for approximately 20 minutes. During this time, the high concentration of copper in the glaze, combined with temperature variations within the container, cause the colorful pattern to emerge. The piece is then quenched in water.

A native of downstate Birmingham, Risak attended Eastern Michigan University, then transferred to Northern Michigan University in Marquette for his senior year.

"The Vietnam War was going on during my undergrad years," he said. "I wanted to get as far away from Detroit as I could."

Risak wasn't familiar with Marquette when he decided to transfer.

"I had never even been to Marquette before," he said. "I was in a university counselor's office and saw a brochure for NMU. I signed up for classes, sent my portfolio, got accepted and came up here.

"And I stayed here."

Risak moved to Marquette in December 1973 and started classes at NMU in January 1974.

"There's a major magnetic force that holds me here: Lake Superior. I don't fish. I don't hunt," he said. "But I have a visceral emotional attraction to the lake that I don't get from any other body of water.

"I guess I am a Yooper at heart. I go in (to Lake Superior) in June no matter how cold it is, although the cold determines how long I stay in," he said. "And when I am sitting in the largest body of fresh water on the face of the earth. I feel cleaner getting out of Lake Superior than I do getting out of the shower. It's 100 percent pure water and I just love it.

"I grew up with smog and that sort of thing," Risak said. "My eyes start to burn when I get to Saginaw, especially in the summer. I know why other people have been inspired by this place."

Ed and Julie Risak operate a gallery on Lakeshore Drive near the entrance to Presque Isle Park in Marquette.

"We see 60 to 80 people every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day and they come from all over the world," he said. "Look at our guestbook and you'll see China, Belarus, Ecuador, Alaska... This place is just beautiful. I had a lady from Switzerland say it is the most beautiful American-European city she's ever seen. The downtown architecture is reminiscent of Europe and then we're right by the lake. It's magnificent."

Through his career, Risak has participated in art shows all over the country. These shows are extraordinarily competitive, with thousands vying for perhaps just 20 spaces in a show.

Recently, Risak won two top awards at a show in Winter Park, Fla.

"It was an honor just to get into the show," he said. "It's one of the best in the country and they do a really good job in putting it together. It includes a jazz festival in the park at the same time that brings in the best jazz musicians in the country. It's amazing to be there, among this beautiful art, listening to jazz in the sunshine in March."

Competition is something Risak was raised on.

"For me, one of the reasons I do (competitions) is that I grew up in a family with five kids and my Dad was a hardcore sports guy," he said. "We watched all the professional teams and went to lots of games. We all have the competitive spirit but I am the only in the family involved in the arts."

The love of art is a big part of his life with wife, Julie, who works in a number of other media. But she was "drafted" into helping her husband when he had a broken arm years back.

"She did really well. She made pieces to help support our family and she did really good work," he said. "But we don't collaborate on pieces now. We are both way too stubborn."

The Risaks have four children: Jonas, who is in information technology for Marquette General Health Systems; Shane, who works at Hilltop RV; Chase, who's a DJ; and Thea, who's an artist studying at NMU.

"She's the one who will carry on the family business," Ed Risak said.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is



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