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A pipe-cleaner portrait of her family in green, purple and pink colors hangs on a wall in Tana Patterson’s home studio. Her mellow Heinz 57 breed dog Connor Orion lies in a sunny corner.

Surrounded by sunshine, family and her much-loved pet, Patterson creates vases embellished with eager dog faces, precocious cats and noble horses. The vases have as much character as the real animals Patterson admiringly honors through her ceramic art.

When the well-known artist finished grad school more than a decade ago, she returned to her hometown of Billings and produced life-size female figures. The works, several of which decorate her Billings home, were difficult to fire in her small kiln so she opted for smaller, more useful creations including pitchers, bowls and vases.

Patterson shapes her vases according to the animals she paints on them and uses different colored slips, which are raw colored clay, to paint in faces and fur.

“There is this great fusion of sculpture and paint. Unlike a painting where you could take the paint off, this is permanent,” Patterson said.

Her vases have captured the attention of fellow artists and educators, including Linda Ewert, education director at the Yellowstone Art Museum. Ewert said if you fall in love with one of Patterson’s pieces, you should buy it.

“They are reminiscent of Rudy Autio’s work,” Ewert said, referring to Montana’s famed ceramic artist. “She does wonderful ceramic sculpture and you don’t often have a chance to purchase her work.”

Some of Patterson’s ceramic pieces are included in the YAM’s permanent collection.

Patterson’s master’s degree in art from Texas Tech in Lubbock helped seal her fate as a ceramic artist. But the seed was planted long ago in the 1970s when Patterson entered what was then Eastern Montana College and caught some of art professor Marcie Selsor’s fire.

“I failed my entrance exam at Eastern, but they had to let me in because of the college deferment still in place from the Vietnam War,” Patterson said. “Back in my day, we didn’t have kids that were special, you were stupid.”

Patterson said she most likely had a learning disability that made reading difficult for her until the eighth grade when she overcame it and got through her first long novel — “Gone with the Wind.” The next year, in ninth grade, she remembered reading “The Communist Manifesto” because she had heard so much about the fear of communism in school she wanted to see for herself what it  was about.

Patterson said she’s known since she was 5 that art chose her, and she spent most of her life making art or thinking about making art. Eventually, she found her way to teaching and now works at the Salvation Army nurturing young artists in an after-school program. Patterson also taught at St. Labre School for seven years.

“I could never do anything but make art,” Patterson said. “Every once in a while I run into a kid who is driven to make art and they have to do it. That was me. It’s not like it’s cognizant, like I want to be Tim Burton and make films, but I have a need to make art.”