Patti Warshina

Patti Warashina is known for her curiosity, effervescence, and healthy dose of skepticism. Her themes of human condition, feminism, car-culture, and political and social topics are raised by staying tuned-in to current news reports and her own subconscious voice. A prolific sculptress and retired Professor Emerita from University of Washington where she taught ceramic arts for 25 years, Warashina is revered by generations of ceramic artists and devoted collectors. She is the recipient of numerous awards and her work is featured in public collections worldwide including The Smithsonian/Renwick Museum, Washington, DC, Museum of Art and Design, NYC, Los Angeles County Art Museum, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Australia’s Perth Cultural Center, and Korea’s Icheon World Ceramic Center.

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What was most difficult for you when you finished school?

Finishing my MFA was a time of uncertainty, not knowing what was to come next. Hoping to use the creative skills that I learned as art student, it was a time of positive curiosity and excitement to travel to new parts of the country, meet new people, other artists, and importantly, to find new economic beginnings away from my family. At that time in the early 60’s, I was not aware of any artist residencies.

Therefore, toward the end of school, we were encouraged to apply for teaching jobs, which meant anywhere. If that didn’t pan out, it meant we would had to find some kind of work that would initially support starting a studio to make ceramics, which was generally a basement space in a rental house. At that time, my fellow ceramic student and husband, Fred Bauer, and I applied for every ceramic position that was available in the US. It seemed like there were perhaps only six available jobs. We were lucky to land one and split a full-time teaching position at Wisconsin State University in Platteville, which was ideal because it gave each of us more time to spend working, and start building a 2-chamber kiln in the one-car garage.

We also started a family and eventually had two girls. I always wanted children, but to stay in the house 24/7 would have driven me nuts. Before the women’s liberations movement, which started in the early 70’s, I needed, as a woman, to have adult contact and stimulation, especially after we moved to our second job in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and lived outside of town. I was hired at Eastern Michigan University’s Art Department teaching foundation classes.

Fortunately, as a student at the U. of Washington, I was given a TA to practice as an introduction to teaching at the college or adult level. At the time, I never occurred to me that I would eventually continue to teach college after graduate school.

Would you say that success or failure affects your work the most?

It’s pretty obvious, failure! Otherwise I’d be a potter. That’s why I have this incredible respect for potters. I think when you see the writing on the wall, and have to make some objective judgments about your own work…… the failures are what gave me the biggest impetus to see my work differently…….. perhaps even the dead-end ones. I’d say for me, it’s time to readjust. Sometimes if the work becomes too easy, there is no challenge, and the fun of creating and struggle is gone. I think it is problem solving the unknown, and curiosity for me, that keeps the working moving, challenging and compelling.

An example of this in the past would be the thousands of ugly stoneware pots that I loved to throw, which was the original reason I came to be in ceramics. When I see those old pieces now, it still disturbs me.

Clay is a hard medium to crack, because of the unforeseen technical issues that go along with the territory. It takes a long time to learn and observe throwing with some personal sensitivity. Then there is the act of bringing together the surface work for each piece, (a whole other dialogue) that is affected by the fire….. with some or no control over the outcome. Bob Sperry used to call it, “happy surprises!” I remember opening kiln loads and the glazes would have run or oxidized. I remember just pulling my bad pots out of the kiln and heaving them against a concrete wall above the garbage can and watching them drop. It was a cathartic experience, and gave me such joyful satisfaction!

Ceramics is difficult because the “magic box” (kiln) is generally the final judge. Likewise, I remember putting failed sculptures up on these big wooden cabinets at the studio, and pushing them off the top for “driveway fill”. It seemed so-oo satisfying!

I think that for those of us working in ceramics, it is a prerequisite that you be patient, stubborn, and love punishment, otherwise you leave and get out of the medium. Reflecting over the past years, I think that the main reason that I stayed with clay is the tactile and friendly “feel” that kept drawing me back, and seeing the potential of my ideas as my skill level developed. Even now, I still feel as though I am learning from the material, and the challenge is still there.

What were your professional goals out of school?

There were none! I was young and I just followed my inclinations for what felt good to me and took the opportunities that arose. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought ‘what am I going to do with this art degree that I really loved acquiring?’

After a while, I thought I would finish my BFA, postpone finding a job for another two years by acquiring a MFA, as long as my grades were good. The MFA would give me a two-year focus on my ceramics and help me find myself as an artist, as well as postpone the reality of survival. After my MFA, I considered getting an education degree at Whitworth College in 9 months. This would allow me to pursue a teaching job on a high school level, but future events did change for me.

As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate that my first job in Wisconsin gave me the start to a teaching profession. I’ve always felt that if I had a teaching position, I had the responsibility to keep up with my studio work, and know something about being a clay artist as a mentor for my students. If there is anything that I feel strongly about, it is the necessity to “push the envelope” of my studio work, or maintaining a curiosity that gives you the right to call yourself an artist. My career has given me a fulfilling life, and now I am able to enjoy the fruits of my struggle with the material. Currently I enjoy being able to play and free associate ideas, drawn from my life’s experiences.

Back to your question…..after leaving school, once the studio was set up and working, making and getting the work out of the studio was an important aspect to selling the work. By leaving the Northwest and going to the Midwest, I was able to meet other artists and get a feel of what the ceramic market was like on a national level. It was a natural progression for a young potter, that I participated in early local street fairs, entered many group competitions in regional and and national exhibitions, and visited institutions and galleries that had an interest in ceramics. As a working artist, life seemed to fall in place, with its highs and lows.

How did you keep that balance between working at the school and keeping up your studio practice and taking care of your kids?

Balance???? I was a “nut case”, especially when the kids were little. The children were my biggest worry. I divorced when the girls were very young, about 3 and 4. They were quite sensitive to my insecurities of the moment ……going to a job, being an artist, taking care of the home, and being a Mom. I remember sitting down with them when they were little, and having some serious talks with them about helping me out by being “very good” (in behavior), so that I could continue to work in the studio for our livelihood. They seemed to get it. On Saturday afternoons, after cleaning the house, we had regular helpful “one-to-one confessions” (some heated) to vent any problems that occurred during the week. I thought that this was a democratic way of letting everyone express their frustrations. It seemed to work for 3 stubborn individuals.

A typical story that speaks to running my crazy household:
The girls attended a cooperative nursery school in the neighborhood. I confessed to my children, …..”I can’t be a “typical Mom” like Rita Shinn and Paula Grey, who were these incredible, warm, organized and perfect mothers who brought cookies, etc. to the school. Frazzled, I just barely managed to be there on my required days.

One day Rita Shinn kindly asked me if my daughters, Gretchen and Lisa, could come for a weekend sleepover with her daughter. I obliged. After the sleepover, Gretchen and Lisa came back home on Sunday morning saying to me, “Mommy you’re not suppose to make toast like that!” I looked at them rather puzzled. Lisa then said, “I told Rita Shinn that when you make toast, you are supposed to take the toast to the sink and SCRAPE IT.” I was absolutely mortified, and could barely face Rita at the next parent meeting.

In finding time to work on my ceramics, my mantra was, “after eight o’clock, it’s my time.” I would go to my studio and work until I got tired, sometimes until after midnight or 2 AM. The next morning I would wake up with the kids and get them off to school. I was lucky because I didn’t require a lot of sleep. I’ve always been like that….. not much sleep, like my Mom and Sister.

Other tricks to get through a chaotic life, was that I made long lists. It felt so great to strike the items off when I finished them. I remember trying to stay focused on one item at a time, so as not to be distracted until I was done.

Much of the time the kids were “latch key” kids. I also had a list of about 15 college and high school babysitters if I had to go out in evenings. The ones at the top of the list were my first choice. I would just go right down the list until I found one. I also hired “Thema,” an older woman, who used to come by bus, and meet the kids when they would come home from school when I was teaching. I also used my next door neighbor, in case of emergency, such as the time the girls were in the house and a burglar came in. Yes, life was full.

When the girls were about 12 or 13, our household mantra was: “YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN!!” It continues to this day.

These are a few pointers of life that got me through those early days. My Mother used to say to me, I don’t know how you (Patti) “lucked out” with them (the girls). My retort to her was, “ Good parenting.” (I was the “black sheep” in my family).

Anyway, my girls were the best kids to raise. We are still close, and none of us are in prison!

How did you end up in Seattle and how does this community influence your work and help your work?

I ended up here originally when I came to the U. of Washington for college because my parents wanted me to get out of Spokane, having been raised by a Japanese family in eastern Washington. It was very important to my parents that their children were taken care of, and at that time (late 50‘s) there were probably more marriageable Japanese Americans here in Seattle. Being from a chauvinistic Japanese society, my immigrant Dad was “ahead of his time” in that he believed his daughters should be educated. My Mother also believed in pursuing your passion, which she missed, as she felt that if you followed your passion, one would eventually do well in it.

Later after graduating with my MFA from UW in Seattle, I taught for 4 years in the midwest, and came back to teach in Seattle. This was a dream come true for me, as it was back to my roots. Crossing the Cascade Mountains, I could smell the salt water and thought to myself, ‘I’m home again’. I missed the foreign food and the fresh fish, which at that time was hard to get in the midwest. Currently, that has fortunately all changed. I believe that where you live definitely affects the way you see your art. I believe that were I living in New York City my work would be very different. Seattle is a natural greenhouse, and for me and my love for plants, it has an overabundance of sensuous plants, and on the bad side, an overabundance of grey skies!! I think that the environment does affect the way I deal with and think about my work.

The arts community in Seattle has grown immensely since my days in college. At one time, I could go to an opening and know everyone there. Now, I may not know anyone.

There was a renaissance in the arts here in Seattle about the 1980’s. Dance, theatre, visual arts, film, and music were flourishing. Because of this, the ceramic scene has also been a part of that growth, as the UW ceramic program was influential in stimulating interest and graduated a number of successful clay artists in their program.

Historically, this region has promoted the “Crafts” since the 50’s, with the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair and the NW Crafts shows that were held annually. Since then Pottery Northwest and the Seward Park Ceramic Center are strong proponents of clay. The ceramic scene is getting large enough to support many clay artists at different venues. The number of social activities in each venue has become a plentiful resource for a clay artist to participate and share. Ceramic communities are generous by nature and supportive of one another.

How have you stayed connected with the ceramics community and other arts communities?

I am assuming you mean on a national level. Since I left school, I have always been actively showing my work in local galleries in the midwest, northwest, and nationally. Competitive shows were available at the time, and eventually after initial exposure to my work, invitational shows were offered, and later lectures on my work. Rejections are sure to come, but that is a big part of being an artist. Rejection is not for the weak.

For years, painting and sculpture galleries did not accept or recognize ceramics as a legitimate media to make art. But that has been changing. There is now more acceptance of clay media.

I think being a clay artist is no different than being an artist in other medias. It is all visual art, and learning from other art communities to “see” gives you a larger perspective, and only enriches your own ideas in your studio.

You were talking about galleries. I want to know when you exhibit your work, how do you know what venues are right for you and how do you find them?

Over the years it’s changed a lot. There used to be these venues called craft galleries, which carried much production ware from clay, fiber, and metal. Eventually there were a lot of incredible artists like Voulkos who really broke that threshold. They did experimental clay art that was not very commercial. Over the years, those artists opened up the painting and sculpture galleries for clay people, as alternative spaces where you could show clay. I think the clay community is more accepted now. It’s not considered like a stepsister, but it still has a long ways to go. I don’t think it’s made it yet, but it’s gotten a lot better.

What venues are right for you? I would say that when you see enough galleries, you tend to visit galleries and museums with artist’s work to which you respond. It will probably be similar to your ideas that are going on in your own work. I think that you instinctively gravitate to gallery that are attracted your work, and have shown interest in exhibiting your work.

Thinking over the years, I’ve rarely change galleries, as I’m either too lazy, or am happy with my relations with them.

Things have changed since you finished your masters. Do you think there’re certain advantages or disadvantages that didn’t exist several years ago?

I think the field has gotten huge, so the competition has gotten bigger. Also, the number of galleries has expanded, so it’s all exponentially gotten larger.

I think that the overall quality of the work is much better because there’re a lot more people in the field (which fosters new ideas), and over the years many of the fundamental questions of ceramics have been worked out, and have been addressed through writings and workshops. Technology of firing, glazing, etc. has all changed for the better. In the 50’s, studio ceramics was all thrown stoneware vessels and very narrow and primitive. Currently, the field has expanded to all temperatures, techniques and form.

There are a lot more post-secondary options now, which did not exist earlier, such as residencies and other places you can go after college to continue to focus on your ideas. There was a time of expansion of clay programs in the US; however, there seems to be a contraction nationally in recent years.

There are also many more programs that offer ceramics compared to a long time ago. I think in general it has gotten a lot better just because there’re so many people and it has attracted a lot of talented people who might’ve gone to painting or sculpture. It’s drawing from a bigger talent pool.

What do you think the greatest challenge facing students who are coming out of school and entering the field as professionals is?

Trying to find a dealer and/or trying to find a way to market your work. I don’t think that ever stops and is one of the most difficult problems to face. It’s just one of those things that you have to do if you want to make a living at art. The fun part is in the studio; the hard part is when it leaves the studio. As I mentioned before, you have to have a personality that is patient, stubborn and loves punishment, or you leave the field. It’s just a matter of doing it. The best advice I ever received was from the Director of the UW art school who said, ‘enter as many exhibitions as you can so that your work will be seen,’ (i.e. exposure). I think that was the best advice I’ve ever had as an young, emerging artist.

Any other advice you’d give an emerging artist or parting words?

The name of the game is to continue to work hard and steadily (not just for a show), and to learn and evolve from what you’re doing. I do think you have to be a little driven and nuts. For me, I would rather be in the studio and often find myself getting frustrated when I can’t be there. When I was a student, I didn’t understand what it meant to be an artist. Later, I realized I was an artist because working in the studio was a necessity, like eating or sleeping.

My advice: Good luck.