Paula Colton Winokur, 82, one of the region’s most prominent and influential ceramic artists, known for her concern for the environment, her monumental porcelain works, and the many students she guided during three decades of teaching at Arcadia University, died Sunday, Feb. 4, of complications following surgery.
“She had a long and incredible life,” said her son, Michael. “She admired [sculptor] Louise Nevelson, who lived to be 91, and she expected to live and work at least that long. So she was cheated out of nine years.”
Her husband, the ceramic artist Robert Winokur, who shared a studio building with his wife, said their relationship was unique.
“We were partners more than husband and wife,” he said.
Mrs. Winokur, who worked in pale porcelain, referred to her side of the studio, on the couple’s land in Horsham, as the “white side”; her husband worked with clay in darker, earthier tones, so she called his “the dark side.”
An energetic woman, universally described as warm, generous, and seemingly indefatigable, Mrs. Winokur was born and raised in Philadelphia and graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, where she met her husband of nearly 60 years. Both studied ceramics under Tyler’s legendary ceramic artist, Rudolf Staffel.
Mrs. Winokur went on to teach at what was then known as Beaver College, now Arcadia, where she established the ceramics department and taught generations of young artists, helping them throughout their lives. (Her husband followed Staffel to teach at Tyler.)
“She had this amazing generosity,” said Michael Winokur, a filmmaker and photographer. “She gave advice and time and friendship to all kinds of people.” She was, he said, “a guide for a lot of younger people.”
Mrs. Winokur and her husband were leading figures as Philadelphia’s ceramics and craft artists emerged into the national spotlight over the last half-century.
Her work is in the collection of many prominent institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Houston Museum of Fine Art, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art.
Jennifer Zwilling, curator of artistic programs at the Clay Studio, characterized Mrs. Winokur as groundbreaking as an artist and as a woman.
“She set an example for us as a pioneer woman in academic arts,” Zwilling said, noting that Mrs. Winokur was told that she could not gain a tenure-track position “because she was married with children.”
“She kept fighting,” Zwilling continued, “and became a lodestar of the art department at Arcadia University for over 30 years. … Her art is evocative, relevant, and powerful.”
Mrs. Winokur is known for her work in porcelain, which is often viewed as a delicate medium associated with tea cups. Not to Mrs. Winokur.
“Considered the primary clay from which all other clays are derived, it comes from the earth as pure white, strong, and durable,” Mrs. Winokur once said in an artist’s statement. “Fired, it can resemble both snow and ice, depending on surface texture and treatment.”
She became increasingly concerned with environmental issues and realized that the whiteness of porcelain evoked monumental sheets of ice breaking apart with the relentless progress of global environmental degradation. She witnessed the process firsthand in treks to Greenland and Iceland.
“For years, she has explored the precarious nature of the world’s icebergs,” said Zwilling, “both creating stunning formal compositions and drawing attention to a serious cultural issue.”
Helen Drutt English, the doyenne of Philadelphia’s ceramic renaissance, called Mrs. Winokur’s work extraordinary.
“As the women’s movement developed, her interest in exploring the possibilities of porcelain became central to her work,” English said. “Impressed surfaces with lace and dream boxes emerged from her imagination. Paula’s interest in nature empowered her exploration of landscapes and, in her later years, the evolution of glaciers and icebergs commanded her sculpture. Paula was warm, generous, and unassuming. She held her countless awards and recognitions with quiet dignity.”
Michael Winokur said that his mother “didn’t want to be seen as a woman artist; she wanted to be known as an artist.”
Among many honors and awards, Mrs. Winokur was a fellow of the American Crafts Council, and the recipient of several grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. A Leeway Foundation Opportunity Grant was bestowed in 2003, and she was Arcadia’s 2003 Professor of the Year.
She was a past board member of the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts and the Clay Studio, and was a member of the International Academy of Ceramics.
In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by son Stephan.
Services will be private.
Donations may be made to the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, 10 Brick Hill Rd., Newcastle, Maine 04553.