By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
At 80, Patti Warashina has accomplished a lot and received many prestigious awards in her distinguished art career, but her latest achievement was the 2020 Visionary Award from the Smithsonian Institute. And, this is the first time it’s been awarded to a ceramic artist.
Warashina almost went on a completely different path, had she not taken a career-changing art class in college.
Warashina grew up in Spokane and was raised by her mother, after her father passed when she was 10. Warashina’s mother was a stay-at-home mom for a few years, but was also very artistic.
Warashina remembers fondly of a large dollhouse that her mother made for her that she used to play with a lot. While her artistic influences came later, as a child, she was very interested in sports.
Her mother eventually worked at J.C. Penney in their display department and was able to get her creative juices flowing working with her colleagues.
Warashina’s father was a Japanese immigrant and his priority was to make sure his kids were educated.
“That was pretty unusual for my dad, who was a Japanese man, to have his daughters educated. We knew from the very beginning that we’d go to college. I prepared myself for that,” she said.
Warashina’s sister was a lab tech and planned to go into dental hygiene. Her brother was supposed to be a doctor. The family eventually moved to Seattle because there was a big Japanese community there.
Warashina had plans to go into medical tech or dental hygiene, but she ended up taking a drawing class during her freshman year, and loved it. In fact, it was taught by Dow Constantine’s father, John. She took more art classes and never left.
“The material was just hypnotizing for me, I’d spend all my time in the art department. I snuck into the building as an undergrad and got to know the grad students. I decided to go to graduate school not knowing what I’d do with it,” she said.
After Warashina graduated with a ceramics degree, she got married and applied for a job in the Midwest. There were only five ceramic jobs in the United States at the time. She found her way into teaching and it was a way to support her art. Along the way, she’s taught at Eastern Michigan University, Cornish College of the Arts, and the University of Washington.
In addition to local pieces in the Bellevue Art Museum and the Meydenbauer Center, her works are in the collection of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Warashina was also busy raising her two daughters during her career, but she still was able to keep up with her exhibition record.
“I was also interested in experimental ceramics at the time, it was really breaking out of the conservative mold,” she explained.
In the 1950s, the Bay Area became known for the front movement, and a fellow named Peter Voulkos started experimenting with sculptures, steel, metal, wood, and paintings.
“My work was really based on learning pottery. We were told to not just dip it in a glaze, but told to decorate. We were encouraged to take a lot of drawings at the time. Surrealism drew me into the figures and my work was becoming very tight, I felt more comfortable looking at literal imagery, and that’s how I got into ceramics,” she explained.
Warashina mentioned that ceramics have evolved over the years—it went from being pretty conservative and mainly used for utilitarian ware, but Voulkos made it more experimental.
Warashina was also inspired by her then husband, Bob Sperry, who had worked on experimental ceramics and large-scale murals.
“My studio is my work and I treat it like going to work every day. I really enjoy it, I enjoy problem solving and one idea leads to another, I’m along this quest to discover what’s in your head,” she said.
What she’s currently working on depends on the period. She’s working on a visual diary right now, and the content is often influenced by the everchanging daily news.
“The next piece is my favorite, it’s like working on a puzzle. My ideas are generated through what I read or seen on TV. I’ll have four cups of coffee in the morning while reading the newspaper, and then once I’m energized, I just go,” she said.
In addition, she’s working on a very large outdoor piece in South Lake Union for a private company. She’s very excited to reveal it next year. It’s going to be about 14 feet long in aluminum cast, similar to ceramic.
Warashina has a lot of projects going on at once. For example, she’s working on a series of cats and mostly experimental projects. She has a show coming up in California later this year.
She still has endless shows to look forward to, and there’s never a dull moment.
Nina can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.