Photo caption: Patti Warashina’s “Passage Through Venetian Light,” 2012. Low-fire clay, underglaze, glaze, mixed media 122 1/4 x 60 x 60 in. Collection of the artist. Photo credit: Rob Vinnedge.

Patti Warashina’s world is an exuberant place where people of many sizes and shapes run, ride, dance, tumble, balance acrobatically and stand majestically. Some colorful, some stark white, they act out domestic dramas, political commentaries, inside jokes and reflections on the human condition. “Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom,” on view now through Oct. 27 at the Bellevue Arts Museum, is an exhilarating trip through her cosmos of clay.

It is hard to know where to begin to describe this show of more than 130 works spanning a prolific career. On a purely visual level, these ceramic sculptures are dynamic and colorful and fun. But underlying each piece is a story or opinion, usually alluded to rather than literally expressed. Warashina confronts stereotypes with sly humor and veils sadness in whimsy. The show is arranged in roughly chronological order, a journey through a remarkable range of ideas, aesthetics and scale. In five decades of making art, Patti Warashina has never stopped moving and has apparently never run short of inspiration, fearlessly mining life and world events for subject matter, not shying away from things that are personal, difficult or that make her angry.

“I have always felt that if you were short on ideas, look at the news!” she told Bellevue Art Museum’s Stefano Catalani recently in an interviiew. “It’s full of Surrealism and you don’t have to look very far.”

Warashina made a career of defying expectations. A sansei (third-generation Japanese American) raised in Spokane, she — like many Asian-American children — was groomed to be a scientist. At the University of Washington, she discovered the school of art and the ceramics studio.

“I just liked the feel of clay, and I never got bored with clay,” says Warashina. “It still creates a challenge for me.”

She entered the field when abstract expressionism was the major movement in art. “Everybody else was just splashing this stuff around…but it wasn’t very personal to me,” she recalled.

Influenced by pop art and funk, she elaborated on traditional vessel shapes, glazing them in bright colors. The term “representational” loosely applies to artifacts like “Airstream Turkey” (1969), a stylized chrome turkey complete with drumsticks, housing a diorama of a camping trip. For her Kiln series, Warashina re-envisioned everything from a cottage (“Sure Fire Kiln” 1971) to a convertible (“Convertible Car Kiln” 1971) in brick and cartoon flames — parodies of the ceramics kiln.

The evolution of her work from vessels to figures is illustrated through several pieces. “Ourselves” (1975) is a pyramid of stacked vessels inspired by the bento box, decorated with autobiographical imagery: portraits of Warashina, her husband and daughters, dragons, the rising sun, the Space Needle (actually a pair of legs supporting a hot pot). With the “Altar” series (1976), Warashina began the transition from two- to three-dimensional figures. Painted portraits of women in stereotypically feminine roles, their sculpted arms and noses projecting toward the viewer, the “Altars” pieces take aim at cultural and gender bias.

In her three-dimensional figurative sculpture, Warashina pushed clay to its physical limits, asking a solid earthen material to defy gravity, to fly or drape like fabric, to climb like a vine. For her “White Figures” series, she combined simple porcelain figures in complex narrative groupings. Several themes and symbols recur: birth (eggs, butterflies and cocoons), art (paint cans and brushes), mazes (her daughters owned an ant farm). One of the most poignant themes is transition and loss as symbolized by the long boat. “Lighter Side” (1989) was executed during the terminal illness of her friend and colleague Howard Kottler. Evocative of funerary vessels crossing the River Styx, the piece is ultimately optimistic, emerging from darkness into light.

Twenty-five pieces in the show represent the “White Figures” sculptures, a major body of work that occupied Warashina for a decade.

By 1990, she was ready for a change in the scale of her work. Larger-than-life female figures, one more than 9 feet tall, evoke Nile temple guardians and classical caryatids, influenced by her travels in Egypt, Turkey and Italy.

In the past decade, she has dialed back the scale and ratcheted up the political and social content. Warashina refers to her current work body of work as “Conversations.” Groups of figures are again important, but they don’t fit under glass, they fill rooms. Viewers can stroll among and stand eye-to-eye with the nine figures in “The Circus: Real Politique” (2003-2004), allowing a rare intimacy with the art. “Scrutiny” (2011) comprises five female figures of indeterminate age sitting on a shelf. A person standing on a large, red “X” on the gallery floor will find themselves the focus of the women’s gaze. The viewer becomes the viewed, and should feel fortunate to be part of this conversation.

“Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom” is on exhibit through Oct. 27 at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Information and a schedule of educational and art-making activities can be found at www.bellevuearts.org. A full-color catalog with essay by local art historian Martha Kingsbury accompanies the show.

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