Spreading holiday spirit in their own way


Raku Santas might look tired, but they are no less festive

Santa is coming but he scarcely resembles the jolly fat man we all know. Ceramic artists Susan and Jim Kirchmer fashion raku Santas that are as long and lean as El Greco figures, with expressions that reflect the laborious firing process used to create them.

The Kirchmers fire their raku pottery then transfer it to a closed container with combustible materials (newspaper and leaves) that ignites and causes a reaction that creates colorful crackled patterns on the design.

“The Santas and angels go through this tortuous raku process,” Susan said. “We sometimes drop them by accident, and they crack on occasion from the rapid expansion and contraction, so they tend to look tired, bored or angry.”

She finds that the caricatures seen in movies such as Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” make for far more interesting sculptures than those that people associate with being cute.

“I’m not opposed to cute, but I like something that’s more thought provoking,” she said. “If they just looked jolly, they’d be just like the ones you can buy anywhere.”

Kirchmer’s Santas come in three sizes, the largest measuring 19 inches high. They also create raku angels, and next year, they’ll offer whimsical snowmen with quirky faces. While they are nearly sold out of both Santas and angels for 2008, the couple is accepting orders for next year.

Susan, a member of the Rancho Santa Fe Art Guild, first became involved with ceramics in 1975 after taking a class in Ohio. Her husband, Jim, joined her in the artistic quest about a year ago after retiring from his job in the computer industry. They work together out of their Lake Hodges studio and garden situated on nearly an acre of land. The rural area tends to inspire their work.

“Clay being earth draws its inspiration from things in nature, and we live in an area where we can grow things year around and be outside so much,” she said. “We feel very moved by nature and we’re often carving flowers and bonsai motifs on the pieces.”

Jim has always had a hand in the business. He built Susan’s first kiln and kick wheel and helped design her studio. Now that they’re doing a lot of raku pottery, she’s found that it really does take two to do the firing process.

“He now understands the intricacies of what goes into the making and glazing of each piece,” she said. “I create all the wheel-thrown pieces, but he adds his own touches with carving on the front and by helping me with the glazing before we do the firing process together.”

The couple shares a love of gardening and landscaping and Jim, who grows bonsai trees, is now carving bonsai drawings onto their lidded vessels, which often have an Asian flair to them. The Japanese tradition of placing a written wish inside a lidded vessel inspired their Memory Keeper designs.

“I think vessels have a certain spiritual feeling to them,” Susan said. “People are attracted to the raku because they are fired in this ancient method that moves people, and they can place a message inside it that commemorates an event, a goal or a commitment.”

For the past year, The Kirchmers have been focused on creating raku, but Susan also creates functional works such as teapots, garden lamps and birdhouses.

Learn more about their ceramics at