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.
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. I had hopes to use the creative skills that I learned as an art student. It was also a time of positive curiosity and excitement about travelling to new parts of the country, meeting other artists. It was also important for me 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 anywhere we could find them. If that didn’t pan out, we would had to find some kind of work that could initially support starting a inexpensive studio to make ceramics. 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.
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 only six available jobs. We were lucky to land one and split a full-time teaching position at Wisconsin State University in Platteville. This was ideal because it gave each of us more time to spend in our studios.
Would you say that success or failure affects your work the most?
It’s pretty obvious, failure! The failures are what give me the biggest impetus to see my work differently. Sometimes if the work becomes too easy, and there is no challenge, the fun of creating disappears. I think problem solving in unknown territory keeps the curiosity alive which provides momentum in the studio.
Clay is a hard medium to crack. There are many unforeseen technical issues and it takes a long time to learn and observe making with some personal sensitivity. Then there is the act of bringing together the form with the surface of the work. This is a whole other dialogue. The effect of the firing gives you only 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 would pull my bad pots out of the kiln and heave them against a concrete wall above the garbage can. It was a cathartic experience, and gave me such joyful satisfaction!
With that being said, I think that for those of us working in ceramics, it is a prerequisite that you be patient, stubborn, and love punishment. 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 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 postpone finding a job for another two years by acquiring a MFA. 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 which would allow me to pursue a teaching job on a high school level, but future events changed for me.
As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate that my first job in Wisconsin gave me a start in the teaching profession. I’ve always felt that I had the responsibility to keep up with my studio work while teaching so that I could mentor my students from a well informed standpoint. It is a necessity to “push the envelope” of my studio work which gives me the right to call myself an artist.
Back to your question, an important goal after leaving school was to sell 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. As a young potter, I participated in early local street fairs, entered for acceptance into many regional and national exhibitions and 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. I divorced when the girls were very young, about 3 and 4. They were quite sensitive to my insecurities of the moment. It was very difficult teaching, being an artist, taking care of the home and being a mom. I remember sitting them down and having some serious talks with them about helping me out by being “very good”, so that I could continue to work in the studio for our livelihood. They seemed to get it.
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 that I can’t be a “typical Mom” like Rita and Paula, who were these incredible, warm, organized and perfect mothers.
One day Rita 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 that when you make toast, you are supposed to take the toast to the sink and SCRAPE IT.” I was absolutely mortified.
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.
Other tricks to get through a chaotic life, was that I made long to do lists. It felt so great to strike the items off when I finished them.
Much of the time the kids were “latch key” kids. I also had a list of about 15 babysitters if I had to go out in evenings. 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 became: “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 “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?
After graduating with my MFA from UW in Seattle, I taught for 4 years in the midwest, and then 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 believe that where you live definitely affects the way you see your art. Seattle is a natural greenhouse. I love plants and it has an overabundance of sensuous plants. On the bad side, there is also 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. The UW ceramic program was also 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 in. Ceramic communities are generous by nature and supportive of one another.
How have you stayed connected with the national ceramics community and other arts communities?
Since I left school, I have been actively showing my work in galleries in the midwest, northwest, and nationally. Initially I participated in competitive shows and then invitational shows were offered. 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 through 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.
As far as knowing what venues are right for you, I would say that I think that you instinctively gravitate to galleries that have similar work to your own.
Over the years, I’ve rarely changed galleries. 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 are certain advantages or disadvantages that didn’t exist several years ago?
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. The overall quality of the work is much better because there’s a lot more people in the field, which fosters new ideas.
Technology of firing and glazing 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. 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. The talent now comes from a bigger pool of people.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing graduates that are entering the ceramics field as professionals?
Trying to find a dealer and/or trying to find a way to market your work. I don’t think that challenge ever stops and it is one of the most difficult problems to face. 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. It’s just a matter of doing it. The best advice I ever received was from the Director of the UW art school. He said, “enter as many exhibitions as you can so that your work will be seen,”. 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 driven and a little 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.