Inducted into the College of Fellows in 1994
“I’m sneaky,” says ceramic sculptor Patti Warashina, referring to the effect her exaggerated figures—often a blend of the human and animal, perhaps in ironic or fantastical tableaux with cars or other everyday objects—have on viewers. Approach her work with curiosity. Feel the ways in which it’s startling. Then, figure out why.
“I like to make you search for what I’m thinking about,” the artist says. The context might be politics, cultural pressures, or societal frustrations; Warashina, 82, is a self-described news junkie, after all. But it’s easy to see the myriad ways in which the artist is always considering, and revealing, her fascination with the less-conventional aspects of human nature and the human figure.
After discovering clay at the University of Washington, where she earned her BA and MFA, Warashina ditched her studies in dental hygiene. Obsessed with the soft, sensual tactility of clay, Warashina snuck into the university’s basement studio every night to experiment. She learned to throw and build, work with slabs, and paint surfaces. Inspired by surrealist figuration and by the California funk art movement of the 1960s and ’70s (with its embrace of form and found objects), Warashina began creating politically satirical works and humorous figural sculptures that illustrate her take on the human condition.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Warashina—along with her husband, Robert Sperry, and Howard Kottler—also ran the ceramics program at the UW School of Art. Working in low-fire polychrome ceramic and porcelain, she continued innovating with surface decoration at once minimal and vividly animated. Within her body of work, Warashina’s figures are playful; their proportions teased to impossible lengths or widths, their situations bizarrely poignant, the complex arrangements in which they’re found “seethingly alive,” as the artist has said.
Warashina’s tremendous, unparalleled contributions to the world of ceramics have earned her three National Endowment for the Arts grants and the Smithsonian 2020 Visionary Award. Her work is held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; LACMA; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan, among others. Her sculptures were included in Humor, Irony and Wit: Ceramic Funk from the Sixties and Beyond in 2004, organized by Arizona State University’s Ceramic Research Center in Tempe. Her retrospective exhibition Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom (with exhibition book) occurred at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, in 2012 and the Bellevue Art Museum in 2013.
"I'm sneaky." —Patti Warashina
Warashina’s preoccupation with the body, critics have argued, includes her own. The artist is often her own subject: full of vitality, observing and mirroring the personal and cultural situations—from feminism to car culture to global politics—in which she lives. Tellingly, in her current work, Warashina is further abstracting the figure and minimizing the adornment, so body and coverings read as two spatial realities interacting. In creating such optics, she erases time and place, gender and race in her work. The result is work that speaks to the universality of the human experience, as well as to the quirks inherent to human nature.
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