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Tuesday, April 14, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Former UW Art Professor Robert Sperry Dies At 71

Seattle Times Art Critic

Robert Sperry, one of this region's most influential and respected ceramic artists, died Sunday after a long struggle with bone cancer. He was 71.

A former University of Washington art professor who helped mold several generations of art students, he was also a risk-taking artist whose openness to experimentation helped make the university a hotbed of ceramic art in the 1960s and 1970s.

Though Sperry started out making functional vessels and fantastical garden statues that he liked to call "sentinels," in his later years Sperry won praise for his huge ceramic "murals" and "monoliths." With their richly textured surfaces and attention to black-and-white palettes rather than bright colors, Sperry's work often suggested Japanese folk pottery, and indeed he was influenced all his life by the aesthetics of Japanese folk ceramics.

Two of his most visible local sculptures are the untitled, free-standing, 17-foot-tall monolith in front of Safeco headquarters at Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, completed in 1991, and "Wall No. 625," a ceramic-tile mural in the Fourth Avenue lobby of the King County Administration Building at Fifth Avenue between James and Jefferson streets, completed in 1984.

The Bellevue Art Museum organized a major retrospective of Sperry's work in 1985, and he has had numerous art shows throughout the U.S., in Europe and in Japan.

His work is in the collections of the American Craft Museum, in

New York, and the Seattle Art Museum, among others.

Born in Bushnell, Ill., Sperry moved with his family to a farm in Saskatchewan when he was a child.

He joined the U.S. Army at age 18, and took his first art lessons while stationed in West Germany.

In 1953, after leaving the army, he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the era when vanguard young artists revered abstract expressionism, and Sperry painted in the muscular, gesture-driven style of the abstract expressionists, the spirit of which remained in his work all his career.

It was a during a stay at the famous Archie Bray Foundation in Montana, in 1954, that Sperry fell in love with clay. The foundation is dedicated to ceramic art and it was at Archie Bray that Sperry met Peter Voulkos, the single most important innovator in the history of contemporary American ceramic art, and Rudy Autio, another highly influential ceramic artist.

Sperry earned his master of fine arts at the University of Washington in 1955 and was hired that year to teach at the UW. He taught there until his retirement in 1982, spending many years as the head of the ceramic-art department.

He was responsible for hiring Howard Kottler, a renegade ceramic artist whose own work was deeply rooted in the West Coast funk-art movement. Though Sperry's work never reflected the fashionable funk movement, he is credited with having the open-mindedness to encourage the then-dynamic art movement to flourish at the UW.

In 1976, Sperry married Patti Warashina, a ceramic artist who had been a student of his at the UW before becoming an art professor there. Sperry had been married previously to Edyth MacDonald. They divorced in 1970.

An intellectual with a rich sense of humor and wide interests, Sperry became interested in film in the 1960s and he produced two award-winning films. One was "The Village Potters of Onda," a 1963 documentary about traditional pottery-making in Japan. Another was "Profiles Cast Long Shadows," an experimental film shown at the 1968 New York Film Festival. He also made prints and, in the past few years, as the cancer kept him out of his ceramic studio, he made computer prints.

LaMar Harrington, a 50-year friend of Sperry's and the former director of the Bellevue Art Museum, said "Bob had a powerful physical and psychic strength and energy. He was very open to new ideas, to risk taking. He was willing for accidents to happen in his art. At the same time, he had a great reverence for the material. Those were some of the qualities that made his work so original."

Besides his wife, Sperry is survived by a son, Van Sperry of Seattle; daughters Lisa and Gretchen Bauer of Seattle; and two sisters. There will be no public funeral service. Remembrances can be made to the Robert Sperry Memorial Ceramics Scholarship Fund at the University of Washington School of Art, 206-543-0970.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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