PENDLETON — Marie Pratuch of Pendleton is a contemporary ceramicist who creates classic and rustic shapes with a sense of delicacy and ingenuity to her craft.
Pratuch during a recent creative session grabbed a hunk of wet clay and slammed it on the pottery wheel. She wrapped her hands firmly around the muddy gray clay, spun the wheel and motioned it to remain centered.
“This is the hard part. I might have to stop talking,” Pratuch said. “This is a little firmer than I usually work with, so sometimes I have to hold my breath. This is the hardest part, I think, is throwing and centering.”
Pratuch sat in her workspace at the Alice Fossatti Ceramics Studio inside the Pendleton Center for the Arts. After a couple of minutes, the clay sprang up from its wet disheveled form and blossomed into a wide bowl.
“It’s a sense of touch that you end up acquiring,” Pratuch said. “I can throw with my hands and my eyes blindfolded. I think just over time you acquire that sensation that feeling.”
As she guided the clay with the palm of her hands she reflected on her upbringing in the town of Boring in Clackamas County.
“My mother and stepfather worked for Albertsons,” she said. “One was a checker and one was a receiving clerk. My biological father was a metal worker and woodworker. From his side, I come from a line of craftsmen.”
No time to breath, just work
After she graduated high school, Pratuch joined the Army and became a combat medic. Half of her unit was shipped off to Desert Storm. She and the rest were stationed in Germany. During her off time, she would explore, travel and immerse herself in the historical sites of Nuremberg, Barstow and Belgium.
When her service ended, she returned to civilian life in Portland and had to consider her future.
“Nobody would hire me because I didn’t have a strong enough education. So I went back to school,” Pratuch said. “I went to Concorde Career Institute in Portland to become a medical assistant.”
Pratuch buckled down, received her certifications and became a medical assistant. She worked for surgeons, urgent care and private practices in Gresham. She particularly enjoyed working for private practices because it gave her a chance to become acquainted with some families.
For several years, Pratuch consistently worked in the high-paced, high-stress medical world. On top of that, she became a mother.
Routinely, she would get up, work and take care of her family. Every day — get up, work, and take care of her family.
Until one day she went to work, had a panic attack and went home to take care of her family. Then she had another panic attack. Finally, she said, she mentally crashed into a wall, lost her job and everything had stopped.
She said she couldn’t leave the house without bursting into tears. She struggled to get up, had other panic attacks and tried to take care of her family.
“I had panic attacks at work and my production went down,” Pratuch said. “I got mentally sick. I couldn’t work anymore. After I spoke to a friend of mine, who is a veteran, he made it clear to me that I may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of my past.”
A buried past and mental health
In less than a year into her service while being stationed in Germany, Pratuch said, a United States soldier sexually assaulted her. She reported the attack to her commanding officers.
“I had no female representative,” she recalled. “I had my male company commander and my male battalion commander, taking down the report. I had no medical personnel or anything like that. And then when they wouldn’t give me help, my self-esteem was shot. I felt that I was undervalued.”
Pratuch said she felt alone and scared.
“I asked for counseling, and they wouldn’t give me counseling,” she said. “Because they said, if I needed counseling, I was unfit for duty, and I’d be discharged from the military. So it’s the ‘shut up and get back to work’ thing.'”
Within a week, her attacker assaulted another female soldier. The military decided to give him a dishonorable discharge. No jail sentence. No probation. No sexual predator list. He was sent home to the states only to return to civilian life.
Pratuch said she was shocked and mortified. She marched down to the Judge’s Advocate General Corps office and spoke against their decision.
“How could you let him go after that and do nothing?” Pratuch recalled asking. “And they told me, ‘Soldier, you better watch your tone, you’re gonna get written up for insubordination.’ So that led to learning how to stuff my emotions.”
During the rest of her service, Pratuch said she resorted to drinking in an attempt to self-medicate and block out the assault. On one of her nights out she met someone and wound up pregnant. The military sent her home early.
“I started finding my value in the wrong places,” Pratuch said. “Started getting my attention in the wrong places, and I ended up pregnant.”
When she arrived home she decided to get her life together for her child. She went to school, received her degree, worked, and blocked the incident until the weight of the memories piled on top of her. She had trouble sleeping and would consistently endure nightmares.
Pratuch said she decided to do something about it and drove to Veterans Affairs to seek help, get treatment and break down the wall of her PTSD.
Finding the right balance of medication to handle PTSD is an arduous path to stability.
She said she wrestled with attempting a functional social life while preventing a dark slip into agoraphobia. Pratuch felt it was time for a change. New scenery. A quiet and quaint area to raise her kids.
“We came out to Hermiston to visit a friend and go to the county fair,” Pratuch recalled. “I sat on our friend’s porch and all I could hear was the wind. I felt a calmness come over. Just being able to take a breath, release it, not be in fear and not worry about who’s behind me and what’s over my shoulder. I want to live out here. So I started researching.”
She and her husband Tony Pratuch decided to move to Pendleton.
When Pratuch settled in Pendleton she signed up at Blue Mountain Community College. As part of her elective choices, she registered for art classes -— painting, sculpture, drawing and ceramics.
She was immersed in creativity and found herself breathing and focusing better. Between her medication, counseling sessions and art classes, Pratuch said she found herself on the road to restoring balance.
In 2015, she began teaching at the Pendleton Center for the Arts, joining a community of artists who welcomed her.
“I found my tribe,” Pratuch said. “I have a supportive community around me. It’s like the fog has been lifted.”
Pottery and prints
Her ceramic bowls, trays, cups and plates have an earthy rustic appeal. She stamps symbolic scenes of nature — animals, plants, moons and sea animals. Accompanied by a wonderful composition of minimalist colors in the background.
She designed an ocean collection theme inspired by the style of Japanese black prints, which symbolize the calm of waves in the new chapter of her life.
“The big open space, the ability to see distances the sounds and the smell of saltwater,” Pratuch said, “reminds me of being a kid when I would go out on the bay and go crabbing with my family.”
Pratuch is at the beginning stages of an altruistic project. She is working on the process of finding grants to help fund and develop an art workshop for veterans to promote healing.
“Art is another way for people to express themselves. It’s an outlet for emotion. It’s an outlet for joy, anger and sadness,” Pratuch said. “It’s emotionally releasing. It’s very cathartic. Whenever I’m feeling anxious, whenever I’m feeling sad, whenever I’m feeling just out of sorts, I know that I can come here.”