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A mesmerizing spin with ceramist Patti Warashina

Wit and wisdom take ceramic form in the hands of the artist, whose work can be seen at American Museum of Ceramic Art.

September 15, 2012|By Scarlet Cheng
  • Red Hot Pot, 1969, by Patti Warashina.
Red Hot Pot, 1969, by Patti Warashina. (American Museum of Ceramic…)

Patti Warashina has spent half a century making clay do her bidding rather than give in to what is expected of clay. Bowls and pots? She'd already proven while at the University of Washington in the early 1960s that she could make beautiful ones. Instead, what about going Pop like Peter Max in the late '60s, or creating tableaux about liberated women in the 1980s, or addressing warfare and corporate greed in sake sets in the naughts?

She figured out how to do all those things, with flair and humor, as evidenced in her retrospective at the American Museum of Ceramic Art, "Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom" (through Sept. 29).

A spin on the potter's wheel had her hooked. "Clay was just mesmerizing," says the Seattle-based artist, standing among work that ranges in size from table-top to larger-than-life. "I just wanted to conquer that wheel, so I threw millions and millions of bad pots!"

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She readily admits being inspired by other artists — including Hieronymus Bosch, Arshile Gorky and Louise Nevelson — as well as current events. Works from the late '60s are high-colored and surreal, such as a giant pair of red lips with a tongue sticking out and a handbag with a golden handle and grass growing atop "I was influenced by the era of the Beatles," she says with a smile.

In the 1970s she became interested in the human figure and how to express it in clay. Having gone through a divorce and single motherhood, she was also thinking about her life as a woman. In her "Altar" series, powerful women are enshrined, although they may also be constrained. In the "White Figures" series of the 1980s, small female figures prance about, having fun and being naughty — "skiing" using giant cutlery or trying to break through a plexiglass ceiling with a fork.

Christy Johnson, AMOCA director and curator of the show, remembers seeing these works in the magazine Ceramics Monthly. "Her work was very different from what I was seeing," Johnson says. "At the time I was a young mother, and I had three children, and I felt overwhelmed by my job. Right away I identified with these pieces."

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Warashina was also a ceramics teacher for more than 30 years, retiring to take of her ailing second husband, Robert Sperry, also a noted ceramist and teacher.

Her newest series, "Conversations," is populated with doll-sized figures with oversized heads and bodies and spindly arms and legs. They don't wear clothes but instead have strategically placed black bands or squares or stripes across their bodies. And they have attitude, lots of it.

In "Scrutiny" (2011) five figures sit in a row on a shelf mounted to the wall, with the viewer asked to stand on the spot marked "X." One piece, "Passage Through Venetian Light," was finished just before the exhibition opened, and in it playful women clamber up a pole with protruding steps and become birds. It's a piece both joyous and somber, a philosophical meditation in ceramic.

"You go to art school, you learn all the rules," Warashina says. "Then when you leave, you break them."

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