Columns Q&A: Patti Warashina Print

The UW’s ceramic arts program is ranked among the top five in the nation. Ceramic artist Patti Warashina, ’62, ’64, is one of the reasons why. She taught at the UW for 25 years before retiring early to take care of her husband and fellow ceramicist Bob Sperry, who was dying of cancer. Warashina’s own work—humorous, whimsical and slightly surreal—can be found in such major museums as the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum and the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan.

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Photo by Mary Levin.
You were born in 1940 and grew up in Spokane. Did you have any desire to become an artist growing up?
None. My dad, who was first-generation Japanese American, felt that women should be educated, which was unusual for that time. He was a dentist and always felt that you should have something where you could earn a living. So we were programmed to go into the sciences. I was supposed to be a dental hygienist.

You came to the UW in 1958. What was it like? Did you want to join a sorority?
It was a conservative place. Women went to college to get married. Sororities? As an Asian, you wouldn’t even consider it. It was totally Anglo. … You kind of knew your place.

It’s quite a jump from dental hygiene to ceramic arts.
Sophomore year I had an elective so I took a drawing class. I was really afraid of that class. People had art classes in high school and I had nothing. I didn’t even know what a charcoal stick was. But I just loved that class. When I took my first clay class, it was just mesmerizing. The material was really captivating. It also was a challenge learning how to throw on a wheel.

But you were still planning to be a dental hygienist?
Yes, I was still on that track. I took art classes because I liked them. Finally my adviser said, “Patti, just face it. Do it. Transfer over.” So I did.

When you were a student, Abstract Expressionism was the rage. Yet your pieces are based on the figure.
I never took any figure classes at all. It wasn’t cool. But the artists I was attracted to at that time—Magritte, Duchamp, other surrealists—were figurative. They were dream states. I liked the humor. I liked the ridiculousness. It’s just the way I saw the world.

You once said you have to be a masochist to be a ceramic artist.
Ceramics is a difficult medium. Not only do you have to paint the surface, but you have to know how to build. It’s very technical. Why would anybody in their right mind deal with a material that is so difficult? It can crack at any stage of the game. Then you have to put it in the magic box [a kiln]. You’re never quite sure what will come out. … With painting, you put a mark down and you know it’s there. With ceramics, there are always these horrible challenges. You never know.

How do you get your ideas?

I don’t know. I guess I’m like my mom in a way. She was kind of a dreamer. She had a great imagination.

Tell me how you got the idea for one of your most ambitious pieces, “ A Procession.” It’s on display downtown at the convention center. You made 72 figures out of white porcelain. They are all based on local artists, critics, technicians. Your late husband, Bob Sperry, is there.
It was the 1980s and the arts in Seattle were just exploding. I got a commission and I had been working on a series of white figures for a number of years. I wanted to do one big thing to culminate it. I got the idea from a Diego Rivera mural I saw in Mexico City. Rivera and Frida Kalho and their friends are all in the mural. So I decide to do this piece around the visual artists in Seattle. I decided to have them all on a bridge. … So I took 15 shots per person when someone would come to the house—Polaroids. Then I modeled out all these figures. It took about a year and a half. I gained about 20 pounds. It was pretty crazy.

Who’s in the procession?
Bob Sperry, Fay Jones, Bob Jones, Michael Spafford …

What did they think when they saw it?
I don’t really know because I was so burned out at that point, I didn’t really care.

Your work seems to have shifted. There is less whimsy and more political commentary.
I’m kind of a news junkie. It’s so crazy what is going on in this country. You can’t make this stuff up.

Your last series was called “Real Politique.” What are you working on now?
It’s called “The Drunken Power Series” and it’s a series of sake sets with political tones.

Would I recognize anyone?

In some cases, you’d see Cheney or Bush or Rumsfeld. In some cases they are just fictional characters.

You taught at the UW for 25 years, but I’ve always wondered if art can be taught.
It’s like a language. If you look at a lot of art over a long time, you build up your vocabulary. You’re training your eye. But it’s not like you can say, “This is good art and that is bad art.” Art is like science. You are always breaking rules. … I used to tell the kids that the only reason I’m here is that I try to find out what’s your voice. And I try to draw that out of you.

Are you ever a bit jealous of all the fame and money pouring into glass artists here in the Pacific Northwest, while ceramic art gets left behind?
What Dale [Chihuly] did is wonderful. Ceramics, glass, jewelry, fabric, they’ve always been regarded as “craft media.” They weren’t taken seriously. It wasn’t “art” unless it was painting or sculpture. It’s silly. Finally somebody was able to break through that ceiling.

Interview by Columns Editor Tom Griffin