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Artist Profile Series: Patti Warashina

Erika Enomoto

Communications Manager

Photo: Erika Enomoto, 2018

Located in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle is the home and studio of 2002 Twining Humber Award and 2013 Grants for Artist Projects award recipient, Patti Warashina. I met with her at the concrete block and corrugated steel studio, which she built with her late husband and respected Pacific Northwest ceramic artist, Robert “Bob” Sperry.

The studio has a stunning view of Lake Union and Gas Works Park with an open air patio, housing a small koi pond and a lush garden of potted plants. “When we got together, Bob wanted to build a studio, so we looked for three years around Lake Union. He said ‘where do you want to go?’ and I said, ‘Let’s go down here because it’s cheap.’ It was cheap! Nobody wanted to live down here because it was a bunch of hippies.” As we touched upon hot conversation topics, including Seattle’s ever increasing cost of living, rising rents and property taxes, and the mass exodus of long-term, often elder residents that can no longer afford to live here, Patti exclaimed, “I don’t want to, nor can I move. I just want to die here!”

Masae Patricia “Patti” Warashina was born in Spokane in 1940. Her mother was a nisei (second generation) Japanese-American, and her father emigrated from Japan when he was 17 years old. Patti describes the Spokane of her childhood as, “A very conservative town and there wasn’t a lot of art around.”

Living in Eastern Washington during WWII, she and her family were not among those forcibly moved and relocated to internment camps because, geographically, they didn’t pose a threat. “We weren’t sending signals to Japan using mirrors or smoke signals. But all my relatives that lived on the West Coast had to go and they were shipped all over the country to camps. My aunt went to a camp in Arkansas. She was a dietitian, who’s trade could be utilized in the camps, so she was separated from all her friends in Tacoma.” Patti’s uncle, a Japanese-American and a professor of mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois, specializing in air conditioning, was contracted to work on a project with Boeing and was assigned a bodyguard while working on the West Coast for his safety.

That isn’t to say that life was easy for the Warashina family and other Japanese in Spokane during the war. They suffered hardships, including not being able to take out any money from the bank because their accounts were frozen. Patti’s father practiced dentistry and was a community leader for their relatively small Japanese-American community. This prompted the FBI to search his office and their home, which contained several steamer trunks filled with kimono and other Japanese textiles including a small souvenir Japanese flag. “If they had found it, my father might have been taken to prison,” said Patti. Some people were really kind to her family during that time, but it was still a pretty difficult time to be Japanese-American. “It’s like that Japanese saying ‘shikata ga nai,’ there’s nothing you can do about it so you just move forward.”

“Every once in a while I’ll do a piece on the Japanese internment; these ideas come spontaneously in my work. I did one called Tule Lake Retreat (2003), which was of a typical guard tower in the camps. It had this guy and his hat was the roof, he had these bulging eyes, and was holding a flashlight. It was all made with clay to look like a wood structure.”

When Patti was 10 years old, her father passed away so her mother raised her and her older brother and sister as a single parent. An immigrant to the United States, her father instilled in his children the value of a good education and hard work, and emphasized the importance of excelling at courses in math and science. Therefore, Patti didn’t even think of studying art until she moved to Seattle for college.

With the intention of majoring in a science field at the University of Washington, Patti enrolled in a drawing class as an elective course. “I didn’t even know what a charcoal stick was, but I thought ‘wow this is great!’ I’d stay after class and continue working on my drawings until late.” She continued taking drawing and design classes at the U, which eventually led to her discovery of ceramics. “I would walk past the ceramic studio and see people ‘throwing’ on the wheel and thought, ‘that looks kind of cool.’ Finally in my sophomore year, I took a ceramics class and then I never left.”

This first encounter with clay was all it took to get Patti hooked. She camped out at the ceramics studio and stayed there day and night, even taking extreme measures to evade the campus police on weekends. “The undergrads were supposed to be out of the building by 11 PM and we couldn’t work there on the weekends. I made friends with some painting grad students and they would let me in the building. There were these windows right off the quad that go into the basement. I would leave the window ajar, jump onto the lockers, then go to my studio in the basement. At night, I could hear the police coming and the jingling of their keys so I’d jump into the birch cupboards and hide. I heard the guy coming through the door and I watched as he stood there, looking around. The lights were still on and my wheel was still turning with wet clay all over it.”

In the 1960’s, Patti told her mother that she was thinking of going to graduate school to pursue a graduate degree in ceramics. Rather than trying to deter her, Patti’s mother responded with, “If you love something well enough, then you’ll probably do well in it. I support you.” Nearly six decades later, to anyone aspiring to pursue art as a career, Patti laughs and jokingly warns, “Don’t do it. Get a job. Get a life.”

As an accomplished artist who has spent over 55 years practicing and perfecting her craft, receiving the Twining Humber Award in 2002 was a special moment. “It’s a milestone. Anytime you get an award like that is pretty significant because someone recognizes that you have put time into your practice,” she shared.

On what continues to inspire and attract her to artmaking, Patti enthusiastically replied that, “Art is all about curiosity and problem solving. I think of my work in that way. I just need to see an idea or vision, and then I go into the studio and see if I can resolve it.” A few of Patti’s newest visions have come to fruition and featured in her solo exhibition Transitory Conversations at Mesa Contemporary Art Museum in Mesa, Arizona. Her most recently completed ceramic sculptures incorporate contemporary political leaders and issues in a satirical style.

Reflecting on the current socio-political environment, Patti acknowledged the importance of artists to continue making work especially in trying times when art, culture, and creativity are under threat. “Art has the capacity to nourish and heal, as well as give identity. I can’t imagine a life devoid of art. It would be empty and dead. I’m not sure why I make art, but for me it’s essential to my existence, like food.”

Patti’s work is currently on view in Transitory Conversations at Mesa Contemporary Art Museum in Mesa, Arizona until August 5, 2018. She is represented in Washington State by Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art Gallery. Recently, Patti received the 2018 United States Artist Fellowship. More information about her and her work can be found on her website.