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Patti Warashina combines the venturesome spirit of a great artist with the down-to-earth charms of a screwball comedian.

Maybe that’s why “Patti Warashina: Wit and Wisdom,” a terrific retrospective of her career at Bellevue Arts Museum, is simultaneously so impressive and so entertaining, even when it’s probing prickly personal or political subject matter. Spanning more than half a century, from 1960 to 2012, the exhibit is a provocative delight from start to finish.

Warashina is a key West Coast figure in the transformation of ceramics from mere pottery to extravagantly imagined sculpture over the past 50 years. Her work has been collected by the Museum of Arts and Design (New York), National Museum of Modern Art (Kyoto) and Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.), along with every major museum in our region.

BAM hosted a Warashina retrospective in 1991, but this new show originated at the American Museum of Ceramic Arts in Pomona, Calif., last year. (AMOCA focuses exclusively on ceramic art with an emphasis on “historic innovations in ceramic technology.”) Most pieces come from public and private holdings on the West Coast, as well as Warashina’s own collection.

Born and raised in Spokane, the youngest of three children, Warashina, now 73, came to the University of Washington in 1958. Her parents, though interested in art, antiques and flower arranging, encouraged her to “go into something useful.” (Her sister, a medical technician, thought the young Patti should be a dental hygienist.)

Warashina took her first drawing class at the UW. By her sophomore year, she recalled in a recent interview, the ceramics department had caught her eye. She persuaded some potters there to show her how to make her first rice bowl — and she was hooked.

“I mean, I couldn’t leave,” she says. “The material was really what drew me in.”

Soon she was eager to move beyond the potter’s wheel’s “concentric thing” and began building increasingly eccentric ceramic sculptures. Jubilant pop-art influences and a zany sense of humor abounded in her work. “Red Hot Pot” featured a bright pink removable tongue, while “Ketchup Kiss” looked like a mutant creature/contraption out of “Yellow Submarine.” By the late 1970s, the human figure was sneaking its way into her work — this, despite her never having studied figurative art.

Abstract expressionism — a movement that shunned representational art in favor of shape, color and texture that conveyed emotion or ideas — was all the rage among students back then, she recalls: “You just wouldn’t take a figure class. You wouldn’t be caught dead in one.”

Warashina tried to go with that flow but couldn’t resist the allure of surrealists René Magritte, George Tooker and the man she calls “the ultimate Surrealist,” Hieronymus Bosch.

She remembers one 1973 piece, “Altar with Egg” — a colorful, elaborate, oddly shaped shrine that’s an early highlight of the BAM show — as a turning point.

“After this point,” she says, “I felt like pretty much: If I can see it, I can build it.

Warashina has little truck with artistic theory. Instead, she’ll speak simply of her curiosity to see how a piece that she’s pictured in her mind will turn out. A lot of her work isn’t consciously planned or executed, she says. “It’s all this stuff that comes in at you in your everyday life.”

Her “women shrines” of the 1970s, for instance, were triggered by the collapse of her first marriage, to fellow ceramic artist Fred Bauer, in 1970.

“I was going through this madness at this time,” she says with a laugh. “I was really pissed.”

The four shrines in the show (“Moth Ball,” “You Captured My Heart,” “Over the Hill,” “Tiger Lily”) are extraordinary feats of painting on earthenware. They also, with their “pop-out” components (flying moths, an arrow-pierced heart), find Warashina edging toward a full embrace of three-dimensional objects and figures.

When it finally came time to do free-standing 3-D figures, Warashina abruptly dropped color. At the same time, she began cooking up increasingly complex scenarios for these cheerfully antic “white figures” to take part in.

The culmination of this “white figures” phase was “A Procession” (1986), a huge undertaking, now on display at the Washington State Convention Center. (Too expensive to transport to BAM for the exhibit, it’s represented in the show by a handsome photographic display.) Commissioned by the Seattle Arts Commission, “A Procession” pays homage to the cultural coming of age in Seattle in the mid-1980s.

The project, with its 70-odd individual small figures (including likenesses of George Tsutakawa, Jacob Lawrence, Dale Chihuly and dozens of other artists and personalities), took more out of her than she anticipated, and by the time she completed it she was ready for a change. Her way out, she thought, was to bring back the color and make bigger figures … say, around 4 feet high.

Her next thought: “If you’re going to go 4 feet, you might as well go 8 feet.”

By the early 1990s, the pieces emerging from her studio were ever more fanciful and tall. (One of her “Mile Post Queens” is over 9 feet high.) Sometimes it was necessary to insert metal rods inside a multipart sculpture to keep it upright.

“I was trying to defy gravity,” she laughs.

After reaching lofty “Milepost Queen” heights, Warashina’s figures returned to a more modest scale, but were configured in ambitious installations often imbued with jittery reflections of world events.

“Real Politique” (2003), a circus-ring assemblage of nine surreal figures, is an example. One of its components, “Blow Back,” shows a goggle-eyed giant skewering an airliner through his own head, in an obvious reference to 9/11. Another piece, “Strong Man,” has a red exclamation point as his head — and the barbells he’s holding turn out, on closer examination, to be bombs.

Warashina’s latest phase has been marked by two new developments. Her heads have gotten bigger while her bodies have gotten smaller. At the same time the clothing-like coloration on them lost all connection with the usual body-conforming cut of clothes.

As Warashina puts it, “They’re clothes, but they’re not clothes.”

Instead, these geometries of color — squares, zigzags and wraparound stripes that pay no heed to human physiology — work more like emotional states. They’re used to particularly potent effect in “Gossipmongers,” an installation of 13 figures engaged in a game of telephone.

Warashina still lives in the Eastlake studio home she shared with her second husband, ceramic artist Robert Sperry, until his death in 1998. Before they married in 1976, Sperry hired her to teach art at the UW, where she worked for 25 years. She makes light of how she combined teaching, child-rearing and art over the years, but clearly it could be a struggle, with all-night sessions in the studio routine for her.

“I used to tell the kids, ‘After eight is my time,’ ” she recalls. “Fortunately, I don’t sleep. … I could never sleep eight hours. It would drive me wild.”

Warashina’s work is so hallucinatory that it seems safe to guess that, when she dozes, she must have the most vivid dreams and nightmares imaginable.

But that’s not the case.

“I don’t dream,” she says. “It’s really weird. I wish I did … because I could get more ideas.”

Michael Upchurch: