The Figure in Monumental Ceramic

Patti Warashina’s ceramic sculptures reflect diverse influences – an approach clearly on display in Coupling, on view at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Rooker Library

Patti Warashina, American (Spokane, Washington, 1940 – ), Coupling, 1991, low-fire clay, underglaze acrylic, glaze, 93 x 67 1/2 x 24 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Purchased with gifts from Art-In-Bloom / Forum 1993 and Edward R. Roberts, New York. 1992.073.a-.h.

Artist Patti Warashina’s ceramic career has been ever evolving – in both form and scale. Her output ranges from wheel-thrown functional vessels made during her graduate school years in the early 1960s, to the stark-white, slip-cast figural groups of the 1980s, to the monumental and boldly colorful ceramics of the 1990s. “She sought color when only brown was easily available,” noted Vicki Halper, curator of Warashina’s 1992 retrospective exhibition. “She embraced painting when the rough clay surfaces and surprises of firing were obstacles in that path; she forced herself to produce mountains of molds with which to create her figurines; then she demanded scale though her kiln and studio are small and her sculptures too heavy to lift; above all she required the illusion of movement when stasis is safer and more congenial to a fragile medium lacking in tensile strength.”

Born Masae Patricia Warashina in 1940 in Spokane, Wash., to Japanese parents, Warashina grew up during the height of World War II. Because they lived inland, Warashina’s family was not forced to relocate to internment camps established for Japanese Americans; however, her maternal aunt and maternal grandmother, both of whom lived in Tacoma, were relocated to the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. Pride in her Japanese heritage would have a profound and lasting effect on her career. “I have always been aware of my Japanese heritage,” Warashina said, “because of my parents’ mantra, ‘to study hard,’ and ‘to not bring shame to your family name,’ words I have always found very hard to live by.” Following her education in Spokane, Warashina traveled west to Seattle. There, she attended the University of Washington, which she felt “was an outlet for me to get out of that whole thing [Spokane] – the social pressures had been so huge.” Liberated from family constraints placed on her to become well-educated and economically independent, Warashina gravitated to the art school. Reflecting on her decision to pursue an artistic career, Warashina recalled, “If I thought I had to support myself, I probably never would have tried art.”

While at the University of Washington, Warashina studied with ceramic artist Harold Myers. Myers had studied with pioneering ceramic artist Peter Voulkos, who challenged the technical and aesthetic properties of the medium. “When Voulkos came along, no one had to deal with the past anymore,” Warashina later recalled. Throughout her career, Warashina has consistently challenged herself to see how far she could take her human figures in both scale and subject. “I wanted them not just standing still; I wanted to see if I could make them running, because when you’re doing ceramics, your limitation is gravity. And when you have a figure running in space that is kind of the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. So I always kind of buck – I always did things I wasn’t supposed to do.”

Coupling on view at the Central Arkansas System’s Rooker Library

Nowhere is the full panoply of Warashina’s artistic conventions better illustrated than in her monumental sculpture Coupling (1991), on view now at Oley E. Rooker Library. Made up of eight distinct pieces, the eight-foot sculpture towers over the main reading room. It is a conjoined figure – half coded masculine and half feminine. Both sides are professionally attired: on one side a black suit, red bow tie, and black shoes; on the other, a cream dress and high-heeled shoes. The masculine figure points in one direction, while the feminine figure embraces the other half with one arm. They run through a cloudy, grassy landscape painted en grisaille. Are they coming? Are they going? It’s not clear, leaving us to our own imagination to create the narrative. With its disjointed presentation, the sculpture recalls the Cubist works of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, or Georges Braque. The enigmatic narrative also alludes to Warashina’s reverence for the art of Rene Magritte, Frida Kahlo, and other Surrealists, as well as the dream-like landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. Other artists who had a profound effect on Warashina include Arshile Gorky, Joan Miro, and Paul Klee, as well as the artists of the Chicago-based group, the Hairy Who, who embraced use of the human figure and a bold use of color.

Warashina is nationally recognized for her work, both for her academic career teaching ceramics at the University of Washington, and for her artistic endeavors. This year, Warashina will be honored with the Smithsonian Visionary Award, which is given annually to an artist who has demonstrated distinction, creativity, exceptional artistry and vision in their respective medium.

– Brian J. Lang, Chief Curator and Windgate Foundation Curator of Contemporary Craft