Casper potter finds inspiration in Wyoming landscape
Even stiff and frozen, the sweeping grasslands of the Shirley Basin make Dandee Pattee want to shape clay.
The Casper potter finds inspiration in Wyoming’s weather and topography.
“It’s the way the snow just engulfs everything and softens the landscape,” she says.
She often makes the drive to Hanna to help at her father’s business, but Pattee still finds time to spend around six hours a day in her garage studio in central Casper. Signs and pictures of anything from fine art to science puns ("of quartz I love geology!") are tacked to the wall. But the real art happens on the pottery wheel that spins on command in the back corner of the space.
There, Pattee glides her fingers up and down a mass of wet clay, shaping it into what could become a cup or small bowl that sits on a Wyoming table or sideboard. From here, she might refine the piece further, using sharp tools to give it shape, texture and curves.
It’s equally possible that this particular fistful of white clay could become nothing at all. It takes only one nick from an errant knuckle for Pattee to squish together the white-gray material and begin again.
Pattee has high standards for her own work, but it’s not as though she demands perfection in everyday life. The pots she creates might be fragile, but her approach more closely resembles the wet, malleable lump on the wheel.
In her hand, she cradles a piece she’s finished. The turquoise cup, clearly envisioned and created by an artist, is polished and glossy. But its clay origins are apparent. It’s chunky, easy and comfortable, not tortured or transformed. Pattee rubs a thumb along its base.
“My work could be described as more casually touched,” she says, and smiles. She also extends that philosophy to the people in her life. “We come with our blips and our nuance, and I consider that perfect.”
Pattee, who has a master’s degree in fine arts as well as other degrees, has studied ceramics extensively under a range of teachers. She’s thoroughly capable of engaging in high-level debates about the nature of art, and whether craft – making something that’s both beautiful and useful -- is equal to fine art. But she prefers not to.
“I don’t find (that debate) engaging at all,” she says, and shrugs. For her, it comes down to this: “All art is is problem solving, in some form or another. You want to paint the mountain -- well, how do you go about doing that? So that’s your problem to solve.”
If she’s happy with the result of her work on the wheel, Pattee wiggles fine wire between a piece’s wet edges and the rotating platform on which she shapes it, called a bat. The technique leaves a clean finish and preserves the unusual sensuality of the piece, such as bulbous handles that satisfy the well of your palm or a smooth spout your creamer can’t help but cling to.
Then, she turns her garage kiln to about 1,940 degrees and fires the air-dried pots to a velvety white finish in her garage. From there, she’ll dip and pour colored glazes to give the piece its final dash of personality, then fire them in a final kiln at Casper College. The soft colors of her cups, bowls, teapots, berry bowls and vases evoke nature – a soupy spring green, the dove gray of winter.
The kinship to the natural world is no accident. Pattee, a Lander native, has followed educational and artistic opportunities around the country. Her career has taken her to Nebraska, Washington, D.C., and Florida, among other spots, but she could never shake the feeling that Wyoming was where she belonged.
“Eventually, I realized I was homesick,” she says. “I realized I could make pots and make a living anywhere.”
She has been back in Wyoming for about a year and a half, and now she lets the Western landscape and elements inspire her. She often treks to Carbon County, where she keeps the books for her father’s business.
She’s inspired by the sharp and surprising curves she sees in the Shirley Basin in the winter. “I wish I could capture that a little bit more in what I make,” she says. “The basin form and the berry bowl form are larger and get a little bit closer to that.”
Pattee gestures to a couple of vessels on her shelves. They’re still stark white, but their shapes are soft and enticing. The basin bowl – about the size of a large mixing bowl – begs to settle into your palms. The berry bowl – a perforated vessel nestled into a larger bowl that catches the water as it drains – is graphic and modern, with crisp holes of various sizes dotting the inner piece.
They are works of art, but Pattee doesn’t want her pieces to sit on a shelf and collect dust. She wants them to function, to fill a need. She sees ceramics as an opportunity to bring beauty and utility to everyday life.
“What I like about pottery the most is that function fences in my ideas,” she says.
That, however, is where the fencing stops. Pattee is not keen on limiting anyone else’s ideas. In fact, she worries that people see a glass ceiling between themselves and their creative potential.
“We breathe and we problem solve, and we are all creative,” she says. “I wish people would stop and honor what they already have.”
To that end, she teaches ceramics workshops at the Nicolaysen Art Museum and at Art 321 in downtown Casper. She knows most people will simply dabble in the art, but that’s OK with her.
“It’s an opportunity for anybody to come and engage in something they’re interested in,” she says. “They can take it as far as they want.”
She also is one of five core members of the Casper Pottery Tour. All five have MFAs, but she’s careful to point out that each artist has a unique style. The tour is held the two weekends after Thanksgiving, but Pattee remains devoted to her art throughout the year, teaching classes and preparing for other exhibitions in the region.
Right now, she’s preparing for a show in Kansas City, filling her garage shelves with finished pieces in her muted, earthy palette.
But if she gets her way, the journey won’t end here. These vessels, or ones like them, will find their way to homes in Wyoming and other places, where they’ll be part of someone’s daily life.
“People use these objects every day,” Pattee says. “Why not bring something beautiful to that?”