Global Warnings, 2005. Porcelain, 55 globes, 5 in. diameter each. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Paula Winokur: Formative Landscapes

Paula Winokur’s sculptures, which resonate with dignified authority and considered focus, take porcelain to its limits and transform it beyond expectations. Organic forms built with a sense of restraint declare her resolve through thoughtful attention to detail. The white palette establishes and galvanizes these bold, yet nuanced sculptures.

Calving Glacier, 2009/10. Porcelain, 50 sections of various sizes, 34 x 48 x 60 in. overall. Photo: Courtesy the artist

With the exception of a few years, Winokur (who died in 2018 at the age of 83) spent her life in the Philadelphia area, where the arts community nurtures and encourages artists working in clay. She studied at the Tyler School of Art and later went on to establish the ceramics department at Beaver College, now Arcadia University, in Glenside, Pennsylvania; she taught there for 30 years. She exhibited throughout the United States and internationally, but most of her major shows took place in Pennsylvania.

Winokur met her husband Robert, another committed clay artist who spent many years teaching ceramics at Tyler, when she was an art student. Their marriage was a pairing of minds in a relationship based on deep mutual understanding, support, and respect. Each, in his or her own way, would mine the potential of clay over decades. The Winokurs had adjoining studios. Robert’s area was called the “dark side,” since he worked in stoneware surfaced with somber-colored glazes, while Paula’s studio was referred to as the “white side.” Their works were sometimes exhibited together in group shows, often at the Helen Drutt Gallery, which represented both artists from the time of its opening in 1973.

Like many of her generation, Winokur began with functional ceramics, influenced by the ideas of British potter Bernard Leach and the legendary Japanese craftsman Shoji Hamada. Yet this was just a starting point. The 1960s and ’70s, when Winokur came of age, were exciting decades for clay artists in the U.S. Conventions were being reconsidered, and challenged, as ceramicists began to think about the innovative possibilities of their medium, rather than seeing themselves solely as custodians of tradition. Clay works became bolder, more sculptural, and driven by new ideas and concepts. In many cases, non-functional forms—pieces to be considered for their own inherent value—replaced utilitarian objects.

Installation view of “Material Legacy: Masters of Fiber, Clay and Glass at the PAA,” 2015. Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: Courtesy the artist

In this heightened creative environment, Winokur began to codify her personal aesthetic position, unencumbered by ceramic history or precedent. In the early 1970s, she built modestly sized ceramic boxes that referenced Art Nouveau objects. She experimented with surfaces, imprinting the porcelain with lace when it was still wet and pliable and sculpting fluidly carved faces on some of the lids. Dream-like and intimate, these works reveal an artist looking inward for direction, while at the same time reinterpreting elements of a historical style.

Winokur’s work was never static. She began with stoneware and switched to unglazed porcelain in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, her work shifted fundamentally when she began to think about landscape and then rendered her ideas into hand-built sculptures. Explaining this, she wrote, “My work has been influenced by information gathered at various ‘sites,’ places in the natural environment that I have responded to visually. The earth itself, particularly cliffs, ledges, crevices, and canyons: the effects of wind, earthquakes, glaciers, and natural phenomena such as geological ‘shifts’ and ‘faults’ interest me. In Iceland and Greenland, I observed calving glaciers and huge icebergs. The works…are indeed abstractions of what I might have seen in my travels, and some are informed by information gathered in various locations. For example, the knowledge that icebergs float with two-thirds of their mass below the water and only the ‘tip’ showing above has been the idea behind a series of wall pieces. Black Ice refers to the oil spill off the coast of Alaska some years ago. Glaciers Edge: Illulisat responds to that particular glacier seen from a small boat. It is not my intention to create literal images of what I remember but rather to present to the viewer the ideas lurking in my memory.”

While there are many artists who could be called “landscape painters,” few sculptors depict landscapes in their works. Yet Winokur skillfully manipulated porcelain into forms that are simultaneously literal and abstract. They present fragments and impressions of things seen, while at the same time offering a pure aesthetic experience.

Palisades Pinnacle, 2012. Porcelain, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Winokur relied on very few visual elements to calibrate her works. The skin of her sculptures is attentively managed through an arrangement of smooth and rough surfaces enhanced with flat or slightly glossy finishes. When color is applied, it is done with focused restraint. Shadows and negative spaces complete these pieces, creating understated, yet substantial sculptures. The forms are simple and direct, giving no clues as to the complexity of their fabrication. These pieces challenge prevailing assumptions about the character of a medium thought to be fragile, delicate, and often translucent. The clay that defines Winokur’s work reads as dense and formative, more aligned with a Richard Serra sculpture than a bone-china teacup.

Winokur was a master craftsperson who evolved into an astute sculptor; an introspective artist, she also expressed a concern and interest in a world beyond the personal. She was always clear and deliberate regarding her intent. The penetrating allure of white gives meaning to her sculptures while the malleable nature of porcelain directs the forms. After a lifetime considering the possibilities of ideas translated into objects, Winokur has left a compelling body of work that is acutely personal, authentic, and meticulously considered.