One part of FHSU's iron conference comes out of ancient Japan

05/24/12 mcw/kb

HAYS, Kan. -- An ancient Japanese method of smelting iron, the tatara furnace and tradition, was the focus of a lecture on Thursday at Fort Hays State University's Albertson Hall.

The presentation by Wayne Potratz, a professor of art at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, was part of the Western Cast Iron Art Conference, under way at various locations at FHSU and in Hays.

A demonstration of tatara is scheduled to last all day Friday, May 25, in the foundry yard of Rarick Hall on the FHSU campus.

Potratz's lecture included detailed descriptions on how the Japanese construct the furnaces and the smelting process that converts the ore to iron. Potratz said the craft dates back to around 400 B.C. and is thought by some historians to have followed the course of Buddhism from India.

The tatara practice is still honored in some Japanese communities. Potratz has made tataras of his own, and dimensions are critical during the construction process, he said. Even the size of charcoal used to create a continuous fire requires consideration. The furnaces can be created using clay or brick.

"You cannot deviate from the process," said Potratz.

Potratz spoke of his experiences in seeing the construction of the tatara, scooping in ore, and the final product: an enormous piece of steel known as a "bloom." The metal, known as "tama-hagane," is used for making blades for swords and knives. In Japan, he has attended tatara festivals, which bring communities and neighboring cities together for the work -- hard work -- he said, and after three days of it, the tatara is torn down to reveal a huge piece of steel. Potratz said the community has a huge celebration afterward.

Jenai Virgil, a student at the University of Colorado, Denver, and one of about 150 registered participants in the conference, said the tatara process was all new information to her. "I had no idea about this before," she said, adding that she is looking forward to the demonstration on Friday.

In addition to the tatara demonstration, Friday and Saturday include a number of other events, including, on Friday, a performance of iron pouring at the Robbins Centerbeginning about 7 p.m., and a sand mold workshop in the Rarick Hall foundry and a ceramic shell workshop in Rarick Hall, room 124. Both workshops will last all day, beginning about 8 a.m.

Saturday has another iron pour scheduled, beginning about noon.

Sunday is scheduled for cleaning up and an brief exhibition in Rarick's foundry yard of the work produced during the pours.

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