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Raku creator fired up about work

Smoke drifts like fog through the red barn and out toward the field and oak trees.

William Turner, swaddled in a protective fire suit and wielding yard-long tongs, lifts urns and vessels from 1,800-degree kilns, each piece glowing lava-red.

Turner explains that this drama of heat and smoke has a much larger purpose: It transforms art into good business.

His sensual raku vases, bowls, hearts and female figures curled into abstraction have been carried by Rooms to Go, Marshall Fields and the Discovery Store.

On a Monday afternoon, Turner pauses to answer the phone in the barn, apologizing to a visitor for the interruption. It's a designer for a hotel in Las Vegas who calls to order vases by the dozen.

"I try to pick shapes that will last over time and fit into any home," he explains.

What distinguishes Turner from many other raku artists is technique: The color may change, but the shapes stay the same.

Of the 100 or so designs he offers, each can be reproduced precisely in molds, except for the color, which varies with each firing.

"It's a line of repeatable pieces," he says. "But still each one is unique, a little bit different."

A half-hour after the kiln's fires cool, he brushes his finished pots and sets them on a board in the late afternoon sun. The colors glow red, blue and purple with a touch of lighter blues, pinks and golds of twilight.

With roots in 16th-century Japan, where raku vessels were used for traditional tea ceremonies, the technique is defined by the type of firing and the resulting glazed ware.

Each piece, he explains, has a special raku glaze sprayed over it. The copper in the formula reacts with the flames and a lack of oxygen to generate a milky collage of colors and patterns.

"I can get lighter colors that you don't see that much in raku," he says. "People often think of the process as dark."

They also think of the process as slow, painstaking, with an end result that is beautiful but unpredictable.

Turner takes the guesswork out of the process.

His raku-fired pottery pieces are pulled from the kiln and placed in small metal containers with combustible material. In this case it's wet newspaper, which quickly cools them and brings out the lustrous colors that make each piece unique.

Turner, 52, who grew up in Miami and Shreveport, La., learned the hobby-ceramic business from his father, who owned a chain of craft stores in Florida. Though Turner graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in fine arts in the early 1980s, he also studied accounting, a skill that helped him look critically at how he sold his art.

From his family business, Turner got the idea that a sophisticated process like raku might be mass produced using the same hobby molds that people buy in craft stores.

"Everyone told me it couldn't be done," he recalls. "But I knew it was possible."

His retail prices range from $60 to $750, with much of his work now selling on eBay. In the last four years he's sold 2,000 raku pieces on the Internet auction site.

His red barn serves as both a studio and small packing warehouse.

He built the barn back in 1976 with the idea that he would always use it as a studio. A short walk away stands his house, an architecturally modified Jim Walters design with contemporary lines.

The peaceful home/studio setting with its nest of live oak trees, hammock and small pool sits deep in the Dover countryside, about 10 minutes from Interstate 4.

Turner lives here with his wife, Bonnie, 46, a dental hygienist, and their two daughters, Kelsey, 13, and Madeline, 8.

"One of the advantages of the kind of business I'm in is that I can spend a lot of time with my kids and family," he says.

Though he has always been an entrepreneur, Turner says his career once pulled him deeper into "the rat race" than he preferred.

A regular at the design mart in High Point, N.C., where he got his start with furniture stores that displayed his raku, he once needed a staff of eight employees to keep up with the demand.

About four years ago, he decided to leave High Point and put his business online.

"It used to be that if I wanted to introduce a new piece to the collection I would have to spend thousands and put out a new brochure _ and that could take months," he says.

"Now a new piece can be up on the Web site the same day."

_ For more information on William Turner's ceramics, go to