Sperry, Robert (1927-1998)

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 12/01/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20486

One of America's preeminent ceramists, Robert Sperry was a restless creative force who helped shape the University of Washington's ceramics program into one of the country's most influential. Hailed as "one of the great contributors to ceramic art as we know it today," Sperry pushed clay to its boundaries as a medium (Armstrong, in Bright Abyss, 7). Fascinated with chemistry from an early age, he always considered himself an experimentalist. He brought an inquiring, scientific mind to his work as an artist, but what he loved most about ceramics was the element of chance. First perfecting his craft as a potter and glaze technician, Sperry expanded the decorative possibilities for functional ware, then explored the realms of sculpture, abstract expressionism, and large-scale public-art murals. He was also a painter, printmaker, and filmmaker who helped launch the UW's film program and co-founded Northwest Designer Craftsmen. Works by Sperry appear in numerous collections, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the Renwick Gallery, both in Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Seattle Art Museum; and Seoul Metropolitan Museum of Art in Korea.

Early Years

Robert Harry Sperry was born March 12, 1927, in Bushnell, Illinois, the only son of Clarence Robert Sperry (1887-1967) and Myrtle McElvain Sperry (1891-1982). Bob had three older sisters -- Dorothy Louise (1912-2004), Marjory Emma (1914-1991), and Virginia Elizabeth (b. 1920) -- and he would remember his upbringing as dominated by females.

Clarence Sperry was a farmer who moved back and forth between land in Illinois and Canada, but after Bob's birth the family settled in Druid, Saskatchewan, population 80. Bob went to school with 15 to 20 other students, ranging from first to 10th grade, in a schoolhouse with no electricity or plumbing. It was, he remembered, "as country as you could get" (Harrington interview).

Living conditions for the Sperry family were primitive, too. In 1936 Clarence installed a gas generator to run electric light bulbs in the house and in 1943 put in indoor plumbing. The family had no electrical appliances until after World War II.

Bob would remember his father as his greatest influence. Although Clarence had only an eighth-grade education, he was an independent man who did what he loved. "I always kind of had his independence," Sperry said (Harrington interview). Small-town life was dull for an energetic boy and Bob was wild, pilfering cigarettes and drinking alcohol when he was just 12. He was stubborn, too. In 10th grade, proud of being an American citizen, Bob refused to salute the Canadian flag. His conservative teacher kept him after school every day for a month, before eventually relenting. Sperry never did give in.

The following year, his mother sent him off to Luther College High School, a Christian boarding school in Regina, Saskatchewan. Science captivated him and he thought about becoming a chemist. But in his final year, at Christmas time, Sperry dropped out and went to Illinois to stay with relatives. He felt trapped by the dull, dry prairie and small-town life.

Military, Matriculation, Marriage

Sperry first tried to enlist in the navy, but nearsightedness and a blind spot in one eye kept him out. Then the army, less particular, drafted him in 1944. On the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Sperry got orders to ship to Japan. Those were canceled, and instead he was sent to communications school and became a radio operator, spending six months of his two-year service in Europe.

Growing up in the wilds of Saskatchewan, Sperry had no exposure to art. But while stationed in Germany in 1945, he met an artist who had lived in India and whose paintings intrigued him. The two visited art shows and Sperry began trading his friend cigarettes for painting lessons. A whole new world of possibilities opened up, and he began to reconsider his future.

After his discharge from the army, Sperry returned to Luther College to finish 12th grade, but was soon kicked out. He had to go back to Druid to finish high school at the Dodsland School, where he got his diploma in 1947. As a 20-year-old veteran, he was the only student the teacher allowed to take cigarette breaks. From there, he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan and, wavering between the registration lines for agriculture and art, settled on art. Initially, that meant studio painting classes and forays into modernism, heavily influenced by Picasso.

In 1949 Sperry married Edith (later Edythe) Catherine MacDonald (1924-2005), a nurse from Quebec, and he experienced for the first time the thrill of showing his paintings, at the Fourth Provincial Federation of Canadian Artists Exhibition at the Saskatoon Art Center. The following year their son, Van, was born, and Bob graduated with a bachelor's degree. He decided to pursue his art training in a professional program. He was accepted at the Chicago Art Institute and traveled there in advance of Edith to secure housing for the family. At that time he had a romantic idea of how an artist should live, so he searched out what seemed like the perfect, shabby one-room apartment, not exactly a garret, but dripping with character. When Edith arrived with the baby, she was horrified. Sperry soon went out and found another apartment.

A New Direction

Sperry started out by studying painting at the institute, but during that time saw an exhibition that introduced him to some of the ceramics being made at the Archie Bray Institute in Montana. The work of Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) and Rudy Autio (1926-2007) especially piqued his interest. He also met the potter Rod Kendall, who was active at Archie Bray. Intrigued, Sperry decided to give ceramics a try and enrolled in a summer class taught by Leah Balsham (b. 1915). He immediately switched his major. Painting he found predictable, but ceramics was a medium that appealed to the chemist in him.

The instructor Myrtle French, a former student of Charles Binn (1857-1935), was another important figure for Sperry in Chicago. She specialized in glaze technology, and during Sperry's studies with her he never once saw her throwing pots. He later recalled, "We spent tremendous amounts of time making glazes and glaze formulating and empirical formulas and things like that" (Harrington interview).

Sperry completed his BFA in the winter of 1954 and got a job at the University of Illinois post-office substation for a few months. He had applied for a residency at Archie Bray and was accepted, so that spring he and Edith packed up all their possessions and drove out of Chicago in the rain, headed for Montana. They spent the summer of 1954 there with the charismatic Voulkos, one of the most inspiring and technically proficient ceramists Sperry ever met. At the time, Voulkos was throwing big, high-fired vessels, bottles -- some three feet tall -- and covered jars on pedestals. Sperry would remember that summer at Archie Bray as the most valuable experience of his professional life:

"I learned more in three months than I'd learned in eight years of school ... [J]ust to be in the presence of somebody with that kind of energy and with that kind of creative flow. You can't help but be influenced, you know" (Harrington interview).

West to the University of Washington

Through his Archie Bray connections, Sperry was invited to attend the UW's graduate program in ceramics. At the end of summer, he packed up the family again and moved, to Seattle. After the high-energy Voulkos, Sperry suddenly found himself studying with someone whose teaching style, personality, and philosophy left him cold.

Paul Bonifas (1893-1967), head of ceramics at UW, was a Swiss artist who had worked in France in a traditional atelier setting, where he conceived and designed objects that were then produced by skilled technicians. This was antithetical to Sperry's American, hands-on work ethic. "Here you did everything yourself. I mean it was just unheard of to let somebody else touch your work" (Harrington interview).

Much more to Sperry's liking was an Asian approach to art that he had gradually been discovering. In Montana he had studied and helped glaze some pots that legendary Japanese ceramist Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) and British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) had made on an earlier visit to Archie Bray. And at UW, Sperry found himself drawn to the work of one of his fellow graduate students, Henry Huan Lin (1915-1989), father of artist and architect Maya Lin (b. 1959). Among other things, Lin showed Sperry how to decorate pots with an Asian brush, a technique Sperry liked and used. He would remember Lin as another important early influence.

Meanwhile, Sperry was producing works at a terrific pace that were being accepted into competitive ceramics exhibitions around the country, ranging from the Young Americans show at the American Craftsmen's Council's America House in New York City -- where he won first prize -- to the Northwest Craftsmen's Exhibition at UW's Henry Art Gallery and the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair in Bellevue. He cofounded Northwest Designer Craftsmen with jeweler and metalsmith Ruth Penington (1905-1998) and others and served as the group's first president.

When it came to cooperating with Bonifas, though, Sperry rebelled. To fulfill the MFA requirements, Bonifas had instructed Sperry to write a 100-page paper about ceramics and make five pieces for a thesis show. Instead Sperry wrote five pages and made 100 pieces -- or something like that. Sperry's account of the numbers varied somewhat over the years, but his disdain of Bonifas's methods was clear enough. As he later put it: "Old men are into philosophy and young men are into action" (Harrington interview).

Nevertheless, in 1955 Sperry got his degree and was hired as a UW instructor. A few years later, Bonifas, in poor health, retired and Sperry was chosen to replace him as head of the ceramics program. As art historian LaMar Harrington later noted, "He began to lay the groundwork for what would become one of the most influential ceramics departments in the nation" (Ceramics in the Pacific Northwest, 47). Sperry was instrumental in hiring innovative ceramists Howard Kottler (1930-1989), Fred Bauer (b. 1937), and Patti Warashina (b. 1940).

A Blossoming Career

In short order Sperry had established himself as a premier force in Pacific Northwest ceramics, and the awards were pouring in. In 1957 he won first prize in both the ceramics and painting divisions at the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair, the purchase award at the Northwest Craftsmen's Exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, and a prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant. He used the money to build a salt kiln at the university and began experimenting with salt-glazed porcelain.

Sperry continued to send pottery to exhibitions around the nation. Working in wheel-thrown stoneware, he experimented with glazes and surface decoration on technically impeccable forms -- from elongated bottles to spherical vases and broad, low casseroles. Surface decoration varied from overall patterning to geometrics to floral or plant motifs, and abstract Sumi-e style brushwork. By the late 1950s his vessels began sprouting abstract sculptural shapes, which led Sperry to move away from function into a series of Garden Sculptures -- large, unglazed, organic abstractions, some totemic, others altar-like. In 1961 he was honored with a solo show at America House in New York (later the American Craft Museum and subsequently the Museum of Arts & Design). He also experimented with ceramic wall murals, using ideas kindled from relief panels by Rudy Autio that he had seen during his summer at Archie Bray. Sperry's energy seemed boundless.

"Besides the intuitive -- or creative -- part, there is a bit of mechanics, a bit of chemistry and quite a bit of labor," he told a reporter at the time. "In a day of producing plates, bowls or vases in my shop, I handle a couple hundred pounds of clay" ("A Potter Needs ...").

Learning in Japan

By 1963, Sperry was ready for a sabbatical and decided to spend time in Japan. He knew about the village of Onda through Bernard Leach's influential A Potter's Book and wanted to see how work was done in that traditional folk-pottery village. With grants from the Japan Society in New York and the Center for Asian Studies at UW, Sperry, with Edith and Van, headed off for a three-month stay. Spending that time in Onda played a pivotal role in Sperry's thinking. He learned to consider the action of the kiln as a kind of co-creator:

"They let the fire take its course, and what the fire does to the [object] is terribly important ... The fire was an entity, a real living thing" (Harrington interview).

Sperry took his first movie camera along on the visit to Japan, determined to document what he saw. He returned with a collection of Japanese pottery, which he later donated to the Henry Art Gallery, and with the footage for his first film, The Village Potters of Onda.

Sperry built a kiln at his house in Bothell, and in the mid-1960s hired a fourth-year ceramics undergraduate, Regnor Reinholdtsen (1944-2014), to work as his assistant. With a "nearly telepathic" ability to translate Sperry's ideas and a thorough knowledge of his glaze formulas (Bright Abyss, 41), Reinholdtsen made possible a period of high productivity, based on the apprenticeship and division-of-labor model that Sperry had documented in Japan. With his work in great demand and bringing premium prices, Sperry used pottery sales to fund his new fascination with filmmaking. By 1966 he had cut back on teaching ceramics at UW and initiated courses in film and design.

Making Movies

From 1966 to 1970 film became Sperry's main focus. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman, Marshall McLuhan, and all the developments in popular media, he simply dove into the process with no training. His most well-known experimental film, Profiles Cast Long Shadows, was made in Seattle in May and June 1968, some of it shot at the city's first "Be-In" at Volunteer Park. With poetic, surreal imagery in black and white, the story follows a psychologically unhinged young woman, played by Seattle arts administrator Mickey Gustin (ca. 1933-2007), to her eventual death.

Profiles debuted at the Bellevue Film Festival, where it won an award, then took another award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and was picked up for distribution. It later showed in the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Sperry called the making of that film one of the great highs of his life.

With the success of Profiles, Sperry soon leapt into another project, a feature-length film with a cast of 20. Over the course of a year he shot reels and reels of footage, some he considered really great, then spent another year trying to edit The Room into a unified whole.

"I was going kind of crazy at the time; it was about the time of my divorce, and I was depressed and ... terrible things happening. One day I burned the film; I guess I thought it would be a catharsis or something" (Harrington interview).

That was the summer of 1970, and before that year was out he and Edith had divorced.

Another New Direction

The 1970s brought another new phase in Sperry's life and work. After a period of depression, he returned to making pots and began pushing his use of clay as a medium into new territory. Around that time he and UW colleague Patti Warashina became a couple. They married in 1976, and Sperry adopted her two daughters, Gretchen Yayoi Bauer (b. 1964) and Lisa Midori Bauer (b. 1965). The couple then built a studio and residence in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood.

With the advent of Seattle's 1 Percent for Art program in 1973, Sperry began envisioning ceramics in larger, more architectural terms. At first he made a series of square slab plates with opulently decorated surfaces of brushed and dabbled glazes, some incorporating silver or gold luster, that could be hung on a wall in groups of three.

Then he progressed to large-scale, unified murals. To achieve them he built an easel that could hold grids of 16 kiln shelves -- 16-inch ceramic squares -- glazed black. He treated the grid essentially as a single canvas, splashing and brushing the surface with white slip that would blister and erupt into earthy textures in the kiln, and masking or scraping areas to expose the black base. These 16-panel units could then be assembled into even larger grids, such as the 11-by-30-foot mural Untitled #625, the result of an award from the King County Arts Commission.

In 1983 the arts commission chose Sperry for a $30,000 Honors Award, given annually to an important, mature Northwest artist for the creation of new work. Sperry cut back his teaching schedule at UW to devote time to the project, produced over a two-year period. Untitled #625, Sperry's largest artwork, was installed in 1985 in the lobby of the King County Administration Building and is considered a masterpiece. In 1984 Sperry also received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a gold medal from the International Academy of Ceramics in Geneva, Switzerland.

Final Years

That decade marked the pinnacle of Sperry's career in ceramics and the beginning of its gradual demise. In 1991, after a lifetime of highs and lows, Sperry was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder and began treatment. Then, in 1995, he learned he had multiple myeloma, a terminal cancer affecting white blood cells. He retired from teaching and took time to travel with Warashina. They spent three months in Rome and cruised the coast of Turkey by boat.

During his final years Sperry continued to make art. No longer strong enough for the rigors of working with clay, he taught himself how to use Photoshop and began generating a series of cosmic and ethereal images that were later produced as prints. Robert Sperry died at home in 1998.

In 2008 the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, organized a retrospective of Sperry's work and published a comprehensive book on his career, with text by Seattle art critic Matthew Kangas. The exhibition traveled to the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2009.


LaMar Harrington, oral history interview with Robert Sperry, August 11, 1983, Smithsonian Archives of American Art website accessed August 12, 2017 (https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-robert-sperry-13172); The Village Potters of Onda (Robert Sperry, 1963), video available at YouTube website accessed December 1, 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtZIzoBmdfo); Robert Sperry: A Northwest Master (Ann Coppel Productions, Northwest Designer Craftsmen, KCTS Television, 1998), video available at YouTube website accessed December 1, 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXO9kwWfTMA); Matthew Kangas, Robert Sperry: Bright Abyss, foreword by David W. Armstrong (Pomona: American Museum of Ceramic Art, 2008); LaMar Harrington, Ceramics in the Pacific Northwest: A History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Robin Updike, "Former UW Art Professor Robert Sperry Dies at 71," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1998 (www.seattletimes.com); "Seattleite Took Her Love of Art to L.A.," Ibid., September 19, 2007; "New Group Organized," The Seattle Times, November 10, 1955, p. 42; "Man Wins 2 Firsts at Arts Crafts Fair," Ibid., July 28, 1957, p. 18; "A Potter Needs Artistic Talent, Plus Muscles," Ibid., January 12, 1958, p. 27; Deloris Tarzan, "Sperry's Ceramic 'Canvases,'" Ibid., Tempo section, October 7, 1983, p. 3; Bernard Leach, A Potter's Book (London: Faber & Faber, 1940).

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