Under the Sun

With Three New Exhibitions, Artist Patricia Sannit Doesn't Have Time to Sit Still

For the piece Many Hands (hold me), Sannit commissioned plaster hands from strangers.
For the piece Many Hands (hold me), Sannit commissioned plaster hands from strangers. Patricia Sannit

Patricia Sannit won her first art award when she was 7.

“It was for a watercolor I did in second grade,” she said last week. “I was very definitely an art child. I took classes all the time, especially ceramics classes, early on.”

Later, she studied history at a liberal arts college and attended art school in Norway. At the University of Minnesota, she focused on ceramics, studying under potter Warren MacKenzie in the Mingei-Sota tradition, a group of Minnesota potters who emphasize the vessel over the artist who made it.

Time spent excavating archaeological digs in Jordan gave Sannit some real perspective. “I was young, and working there gave me a real anchor,” is how she remembered it. “I became convinced that the ancient people whose artifacts we were excavating had the same motivations I did. That common humanity was an important idea that changed me.”

Living abroad also shifted Sannit’s aesthetic. “I had always worked with patterns,” she said. “But seeing ancient relics and how they were marked was something I responded to. I began using a lot of those marks more deliberately and less decoratively in my work. I was using natural clay on glaze because I was interested in the archaic nature and the continuity of some forms through time.”

Born in Cleveland, Sannit was raised in Minneapolis. “I think of that place as my spiritual home. But Cleveland was important because my parents took me to the Museum of Art there. I felt really at home there. The sculptures had a huge impact on me.”

Sannit settled in Berkeley, then moved to Phoenix when her husband took a professorship at ASU. She’d always been a maker of things, she admitted, someone who went every day into her studio without giving it any real thought. But the pandemic gave Sannit pause.

“My impulse to reach out to the community took precedent, and that thinking really shifted my studio practice. I started to think about making objects without intent, and about how there’s so much crap in the world already, so much junk you can buy at Target. I couldn’t see any reason to keep on adding more stuff unless it had some greater meaning.”

Out of that thinking came a couple of different purpose-driven exhibitions. Sannit founded Roadside Attraction, a series of accessible outdoor galleries showing work by more than 200 local artists at different locations. Another project that she called Many Hands (hold me) landed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts as part of its “Socially Distanced” exhibition, on display now through January 9.

“For that one, I set up an outdoor clay studio in my yard,” Sannit said. “I invited anyone who wanted to participate to come to my studio and make clay hands. I had senior groups come. Kids from south Phoenix came and made hands. It was amazing in so many ways. The clay hands were representing touch and humanity, but it was the people talking about themselves and their lives that was really remarkable.”

Sannit recently returned from an artist residency in northern Iceland. She went expecting dull, dark volcanic terrain and found instead grassy green fields and verdant landscapes.

“I got lost in the grass and the wind,” she said, “and ended up doing a series of time-lapse videos. I painted cloth to match the rocks and the grass and hid in them, blending into the grass.”

She doesn’t know what she’ll do with the videos. “I’d love to show them,” she said. “I’ve shared them with some curators, but I haven’t found the right person to respond to them. I may just present them myself.”

First, she’s got to finish moving to a new studio complex called the Rocking S Art Ranch.

“I’d always wanted to build a community ceramics studio,” she confided. “Every other city I’ve lived in has had one that provides studio space and kilns.” Sannit and some friends went looking for a building where she could locate her ceramics studio and share her equipment with other artists who could rent space there. They found a complex with two outbuildings, one of which will house weavers and jewelry makers, the other home to Laura Spalding Best’s newest public art projects.

“I do have a lot of stuff going on,” she said. “But it’s all positive. I don’t think art can save the world, but I do think we can make work that sends a positive message and isn’t just filling space on a shelf.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela