Warashina, Patti (b. 1940)

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 9/15/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20442
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The queen of Northwest ceramics, Patti Warashina is internationally recognized for her technically refined, figurative sculptures that helped expand the boundaries of clay as a medium. While poking fun at the macho attitude prevalent in ceramics studios of the 1960s and 1970s, Warashina worked alongside some of the top names in the field -- Robert Sperry (1927-1998), Rudy Autio (1926-2007), Howard Kottler (1930-1989), and Fred Bauer (b. 1937). At the University of Washington, where she studied and later taught, Warashina was part of a movement to push ceramics beyond function, to use clay as a sculptural medium on par with any other. Influenced in the early years by Surrealism, Pop, and California Funk, Warashina made her mark with images based in feminism, art history, politics, and personal psychology. Over time, the human figure became her primary focus, in sculptures and in paintings. Her work is exhibited across the U.S. and Asia, as well as in England and Australia. She was married to Fred Bauer from 1964 to 1970 and has two daughters, Gretchen (b. 1964) and Lisa (b. 1965). In 1976, Warashina married Robert Sperry, and they lived and worked at their Seattle studio until his death in 1998.

What Happens If ... ?

Curious, irreverent, and easily bored, Patti Warashina starts her work with a simple question: What happens if ... ?

In the early 1960s, as a student at the University of Washington (UW), Warashina was put off by the Abstract Expressionist credo then pervading the art department, the notion that paint was supposed to look like paint and clay was supposed to look like clay:

"And I started thinking -- I can make it look like anything. Clay doesn't have to look fired; it can look soft; it can look runny; it can look like dust. It can look like anything -- so I just kind of revolted. Not in an outward way, but unconsciously" (Farr interview).

Earliest Memories

Rebellion didn't come easily to a young Japanese American woman whose family lived through the anxiety and repression of World War II. Masae Patricia Warashina was born on March 16, 1940, in Spokane in Eastern Washington, the youngest child of Heijiro Warashina (1899-1951), a dentist, and Aiko Konzo Warashina (1909-1999). The couple did their best to raise their children -- Emily (b. 1932); Tadeo (b. 1938), known as Bud; and little Patti -- in a typically American way: to speak only English, attend the Methodist church and the local public schools, and to dress and act in accordance with mainstream culture.

Still, after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, life changed for the family. FBI agents raided Heijiro's dental office and the family home, searching for anything that might be deemed subversive. Dr. Warashina was allowed to continue his dental practice, but forbidden to accept payment, and the family's bank accounts were frozen for a time. Members of the Warashinas' extended family living in Tacoma were sent to internment camps. Anyone of Japanese heritage lived with fear and uncertainty. Those were the years that shaped Patti's earliest memories.

After the war, another shock jolted Patti's life. Her father was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died June 14, 1951. Patti, just 11 years old, was "utterly deranged" by the loss (Kingsbury, 18) and had to be taken outside during the memorial service, crying inconsolably. Losing her father left her feeling "abandoned ... like you're the only person that doesn't have a father," and "deathly afraid of death" (Kingsbury, 19).

Early Lessons

Patti's mother eventually found a job doing displays for the local J.C. Penney store and continued creating the beautiful home environment she loved, sewing slipcovers for the chairs and sofa, choosing wallpaper. Aiko Warashina also collected Japanese antiques and, although she was born in America, had a strong sense of how to care for kimonos, urns, and scroll paintings and display them properly -- an early lesson in visual aesthetics for Patti.

Patti liked the art lessons in school and helped paint Thanksgiving and Christmas murals. In third grade, at the home of her maternal grandmother, she discovered a Buddhist home alter tucked away and was fascinated by that secret object, with its wooden doors hiding mysterious bits of hair, paper, and beads. For Patti, this was a lesson in "how objects emanate power" and remained a touchstone for her (Kingsbury, 18).

Nevertheless, art wasn't something Warashina considered as a career. She figured that in college she would study to be a medical technician like her sister -- at least until she found a husband. That was expected of women at the time. "You go to college and pursue a career that makes money, but you go to find a husband. That was it. So my dad would have killed me had he lived: I did everything wrong" (Farr interview).

Falling in Love with Ceramics

Warashina enrolled at UW and, as an elective, signed up for a beginning drawing class taught by graduate student instructor John Constantine (whose son Dow Constantine would go on to a prominent political career in King County). Instantly she was hooked. "I thought, wow, this is great; it's amazing. I didn't even know what a charcoal stick was. I found myself in there at night doing these drawings" (Farr interview). One quarter after another she signed up for drawing and then, in her sophomore year, tried a ceramics class. She never left. "I just wanted to spend my time there all the time. It was really sick. The tactile feeling of the material: it's seducing" (Farr interview).

First she fell in love with the material and then later started to learn the history of ceramics and connect to the tradition of Japanese pottery. Respected UW ceramics instructor Robert Sperry, who had spent time studying in Japan, was influential in that evolution and, among other things, taught her about dealing with the surface of clay. "Bob told me to take a lot of painting, so I did ... He was very influenced by Japanese brushwork and he taught me that" (Farr interview). The visceral, risk-taking work of ceramics instructor Harold Myers provided a counterpoint in Warashina's training. She also took jewelry courses from Ruth Penington (1905-1998), a strong female role model and nationally known jewelry maker.

The UW art school was small in those days and Warashina was part of a particularly gifted group of students, including the painter Chuck Close (1940-2021). They'd all get together and party: students, grad students, and instructors. The artists wouldn't leave their studio work until after midnight and even with those long nights Warashina wanted more. Before going home on Fridays, she'd leave a window open so she could sneak back in on the weekend:

"That's how bad it was. I was really addicted. I had these roommates and they got mad. They said, 'Patti, you need to go out at night.' But I told them I like what I'm doing" (Farr interview).

She mastered the skill of "throwing" pots on a wheel, and even got into competitions with her male classmates to see who could pull 25 pounds of clay the quickest: shaping and controlling the material into a perfect vessel. She was good, but throwing didn't hold her interest. She designed her pots to have surfaces she could draw and paint on. Her first exhibition as an undergraduate was at the Phoenix studio and gallery on Capitol Hill, owned and operated by the sculptor Philip Levine, where she also taught ceramics classes.

"Two Outstanding Young Potters"

One day Warashina was in the basement of the Henry Art Gallery, checking in participants for the annual Northwest Craftsmen's Exhibition and noticed a man walking down the stairs. "He was so different looking, sort of a hippie ... He had this red beard and blond hair, a funny hat on. So how could you not remember that? How can you forget it!" (Farr interview). It was Fred Bauer, a ceramics grad student, and their relationship seemed inevitable. Both of them were obsessed with clay.

They got married in 1964, shortly before getting their MFA degrees, and that spring had a two-person show at the Northwest Craft Center at Seattle Center. Seattle Times art critic (and later bestselling novelist) Tom Robbins (b. 1932) called them "the two outstanding young potters in the region" and described Warashina's pots as "shimmering with glazes that often seem ephemeral clouds of evaporating color" ("Gallery Is ...").

Not a bad debut. Then the Bauers moved to Wisconsin, where they shared a teaching position for a year at the University of Wisconsin. They had their first child, Gretchen Yayoi Bauer, in 1964. Lisa Midori Bauer was born the following year. By then Fred was teaching at the University of Michigan and Patti at Eastern Michigan State University.

The Bauers bought 10 acres of land with a pond and two streams, built a house, and settled into a 1960s-style life. They were just 15 miles out of Ann Arbor, a magnet for creative and radical people: the Weathermen; the Once Group; lots of experimental performances and concerts, including the Youngbloods, a rock band that Fred's brother Joe played drums in. It was an exciting time. At one point Pop artist Claus Oldenburg (b. 1929) came to town with his stylish wife and collaborator Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009). To Warashina, Oldenburg -- dressed in a white shirt and slacks -- didn't look like an artist. All their artist pals dressed in raggedy hippie garb.

She and Fred were exhibiting together locally and being selected for national group shows independently. Warashina's work had evolved from elegant stoneware vessels to porcelain spheres and plates with surface painting inspired by the loose, swirling gestures of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948). She was included in the 10th International Invitational Ceramic Exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in 1965, and the Craftsmen USA '66 exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.

Craft or Art?

Professing to be "bored" by sleep (Jeck interview), Warashina in those days worked alone at night after the kids were in bed. "After 8:00 it's my time," she recalled years later (Warashina email).

In 1967 her work took a dramatic shift. She started crafting looser, baglike forms, firing her clay to low temperatures. Unfamiliar with the bright palette of low-temperature glazes that were marketed to hobbyists but mostly unknown among studio potters, she substituted acrylic paints for glazes to decorate her surfaces. This gave her the colorful palette of a painter, which she deployed in a kind of funky, realistic Pop-art style. No longer restricted to high-temperature glazes and the earthy, subdued colors then in vogue among her peers, she found freedom using room-temperature paints. Later Warashina learned that those bright colors and detailed imagery could be achieved with the low-temperature glazes and underglazes used by the hobbyists.

In the 1960s artists working in clay as well as glass, fiber, and metal were rethinking how to define their work. There had long been a sharp distinction drawn between "craft" materials and fine art, defined in part by whether the resulting object was useful or not. A teapot or bowl or quilt was dubbed "craft," while a painting was "art." Fine art was supposed to have a metaphorical level or some intellectual impetus, but those distinctions were not always clear.

Warashina said it's easy enough to tell a work of art: "It raises your blood pressure ... It alters your being" (Jeck interview). For her, clay was simply a medium to express her inner world:

"It gives you this kind of freedom of thought that you can manipulate this material and make it into something three-dimensional with maybe some ideas behind it. You have to shun those who say this is just craft. And also craft is kind of an odd word, because you have to have craft to do anything, to draw or paint; it's a skill" (Farr interview).

Learning How to Build

Life in Michigan was going well for Warashina, but Bauer was eager to get back to the West Coast. On a trip through Seattle he landed a job at UW, so in 1968 they sold their property and moved to a house in the Montlake neighborhood, near the university, where they put a studio and kiln in the basement. Warashina got a job teaching at the Cornish School (later Cornish College of the Arts) and continued to develop her work with sculptural form. She later recalled:

"I started learning how to build ... It just came to me how to start building in clay, using slabs, and it was almost like I went, oh wow, why didn't I think of that before" (Farr interview).

Her sense of humor emerged, with a propensity for puns. In 1969, Warashina created the show-stopping, silver-luster Airstream Turkey, now in the Seattle Art Museum collection, part of a series of distinctive, high-spirited sculptures.

Then, in 1970, a job in the ceramics department opened up at Mills College in Oakland. Warashina said later:

"Everybody in the UW wanted that job. It was the Bay Area, where [Peter] Voulkos and all those guys were. It was the job that year. Fred applied for that job and got it. And our marriage fell apart almost overnight" (Farr interview).

The separation and divorce were contentious. The kids were little. Warashina told them, "I'm not going to be like your regular mom. I have to make a living and keep my work up. They were wonderful" (Farr interview).

Bauer's departure left the UW ceramics department short-staffed for fall, so Howard Kottler, head of ceramics and a close friend, asked Warashina to fill in. After a search, she was hired for the permanent position. Two years later Bauer quit teaching and making ceramics and moved to a remote farm in Northern California.

Experimentation and Expansion

Despite all the personal upheaval, Warashina entered a fruitful period of experimentation and expansion in her work. She turned to evocative forms -- the altar, the kiln, the pyramid. She draped emotionally fraught images in humor. Warashina was done with the role of submissive female and she was tired of the macho attitude prevalent in the ceramics studio, where women were excluded from technical discussions about kiln construction and firing. To Warashina, a kiln was like a womb.

When she exhibited some of her kiln series, including the punning Car Kilns, (Warashina pronounces it "kils"), a Seattle Times critic wondered: "What would the Freudians say about a kiln fixation?" (Voorhees).

Around this time Warashina and her colleague Robert Sperry -- who had quit teaching ceramics to open the Film Program in the School of Art -- began a romantic relationship. He was going through a divorce and Patti had no desire to get married again, but she loved Bob and so did the girls. After a few years of much arguing about it, Bob forced her hand. He told Patti he would give her five years to make up her mind. In 1976, when that day arrived, Sperry proposed and Warashina put him off again. She wanted more time. Angry, Sperry packed up his clothes and drove off in his mobile home.

Later, Warashina felt contrite and went down to the ceramics studio to look for him. She found his mobile home and Sperry in it -- with a woman. Warashina was horrified. Later he came over and reminded her "You said you weren't going to marry me," and Warashina told him "I give up; you win" (Farr interview).

After the wedding, they didn't argue anymore: "We had fought it out and there was nothing left to fight about. It was all because I didn't want to get married" (Farr interview). Sperry adopted Gretchen and Lisa in their teens. He and Warashina built a studio and residence in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood.

The Human Figure

Warashina had mastered scale, proportion, and surface treatment, and by the late 1970s was ready to introduce the element she found most challenging: the three-dimensional human figure. The nude white forms she chose to work with -- usually powerful and exuberant females -- began appearing as actors in little vignettes and dioramas. Warashina refers to them as the White Figures and traces their genesis to the nude white bodies depicted in Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Working with images of flight, creation, metamorphosis, and mazes, Warashina let her subconscious lead the way.

In 1984, the Seattle Arts Commission chose her for a prestigious public-art commission that became one of the city's most celebrated artworks. A Procession, a 48-by-120-by-36-inch tableau built of whiteware and mixed media, required every bit of skill, experience, ingenuity, and stamina that the artist possessed. The idea for it came on a trip to Mexico with Sperry. They were having a drink in the Hotel del Prado, looking at a mural by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) that featured many of the artist's friends and his wife Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). "I thought this is great; I'm going to use that," Warashina said later, "Seattle was just starting to open up with the visual arts and music and theater, so I wanted to do something to celebrate that" (Farr interview).

A Procession includes 72 figures parading over -- and floating under -- a bridge, each depicting a person in the Seattle art world, among them sculptor George Tsutakawa (1910-1997); painters Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Gwen Knight (1913-2005), Roger Shimomura (b. 1939), Margaret Tompkins (1916-2002), Robert Jones (b. 1930), and Fay Jones (b. 1936); ceramists Sperry and Kottler; and art critic Matthew Kangas.

When the piece was installed in the foyer of the Opera House at Seattle Center in 1986, people gathered around it daily, trying to identify each of the figures and their significance, and decipher the humor and hidden meanings of the piece. It even prompted a letter from an intrigued Opera House visitor to The Seattle Times "Troubleshooter," asking for information. A Procession was later moved to the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle.

A Master of American Ceramics

By the late 1980s, Warashina was widely acknowledged as a master in the world of American ceramics. Ceramics textbooks featured her prominently, including the cover of LaMar Harrington's Ceramics in the Pacific Northwest. She showed in galleries across the country, participated in workshops and symposia, and her work was added to the permanent collections of New York's American Craft Museum (previously known as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts and subsequently as the Museum of Arts and Design) and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others.

But three devastating losses would mar the next decade. Her close friend and colleague, Howard Kottler, died of cancer in 1989. In 1995, Bob Sperry was diagnosed with cancer and Warashina took early retirement from the university to enjoy their remaining time together. They traveled the coast of Turkey on a boat and lived in Rome for three months. When Sperry died in 1998, Warashina was undone. The following year, her mother, Aiko, died. Warashina's imagery of the period, which includes paintings as well as sculptures, circles around bereavement.

Warashina had started a series of large head sculptures inspired by classical works she had seen in Rome. After Sperry's death, she moved beyond them into a breakthrough group of elongated, large-scale figures that she related to Egyptian statuary and the Roman columnar carved figures called caryatids. She dubbed them the Milepost Queens and some of them, reminiscent of tomb guardians, towered up to 12 feet tall. When the Nisqually earthquake rumbled through Western Washington in 2001, six sculptures in the studio were shattered. Nevertheless, that December Warashina exhibited the Milepost Queens series at the Howard House Gallery -- her first one-person show in 10 years.

Following that show, Warashina -- a self-proclaimed news junkie -- continued to innovate. Turning her attention to the world of politics, she created a series of circus figures she titled Real Politique and later a group of exquisite little tableaus that are actually functional saki sets, dubbed The Drunken Power Series, among other sculptures, paintings, and prints.

In 2002 Warashina received a Twining Humber award of $10,000 for outstanding lifetime achievement of a woman artist age 60 or older. In 2012, the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, organized a 50-year retrospective and published a book on Warashina; the exhibition traveled to the Bellevue Arts Museum the following year. Warashina regularly exhibits new work and travels often as a sought-after speaker, juror, and artist-in-residence.


Sheila Farr interview with Patti Warashina, May 4, 2017, notes and transcript in possession of Sheila Farr, Seattle, Washington; Patti Warashina, email to Sheila Farr, September 2017, in possession of Sheila Farr; Doug Jeck oral history interview with Patti Warashina, September 8, 2005, transcript available at Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art website accessed September 13, 2017 (https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-patti-warashina-12864); Martha Kingsbury, Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom (Pomona, California: American Museum of Ceramic Art, 2012); LaMar Harrington, Ceramics in the Pacific Northwest: A History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Tom Robbins, "Gallery Is Esthetic Supermarket," The Seattle Times, March 8, 1964, p. 56; John Voorhees, "Patti Bauer All Fired Up for Show," Ibid., April 21, 1972, p. C-1; Shelby Gilje, "Visitors to Opera House Ask of Sculpture: What Art Thou?" Ibid., October 14, 1986, p. D-7; Karen S. Chambers, "Important New York Exhibit Has a Strong Washington Influence," Ibid., October 26, 1986, p. L-4; Sheila Farr, "Clay Artist Warashina Honored for Her Work, Ibid., April 28, 2002, p. I-6; Sheila Farr, "Life's Losses Find Form in Clay Figures of Seattle Artist," Ibid., December 7, 2001, "Ticket" section p. 40; "Our History," American Craft Council website accessed September 14, 2017 (https://craftcouncil.org/post/our-history); Sheila Farr, "The Wit and Wisdom of Artist Patti Warashina," Seattle Met, July 11, 2013 (https://www.seattlemet.com/articles/2013/7/11/the-wit-and-wisdom-of-artist-patti-warashina-july-2013).

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