Warren MacKenzie, 1924-2018

I was reminded by ceramic artist, Sally Michener who provided the featured image of MacKenzie, that he lived to be 94!   That is a staggering accomplishment.  Sally also mentions often that it takes bravery to live a long life.  Very true.  Sally was a student of MacKenzie’s when she was working as a social worker in Minneapolis, a time before she went to study for her MFA.  In fact, he fostered her love of clay.  Sally hoped to visit him this year.  Instead, I imagine, that she is so grateful for those times that she was able to spend with him.  MacKenzie was a role model to so many lives.  His teaching was inspirational, and it was a testament to his patience and generosity that he shared his knowledge freely with anyone that had queries.  He did not hide it away.

MacKenzie produced functional ware, and he did not apologise for it!  The tableware that he threw on his Leach style kick wheel – the jugs, mugs, salad bowls, soup bowls, plates, and teapots were purchased by generations of enthusiastic clients.    Those pieces enriched the daily lives of all who used them in the way that Bernard Leach and Soetsu Yanagi imagined – the marriage of beauty and functionality giving joy to the user. It is said that a little corner of Minnesota was renamed ‘Mingei-sota’ in recognition of MacKenzie’s debt to the Mingei movement promoted by Leach, Yanagi, and Hamada.  MacKenzie desired is to create the best functional work that he could by repeating shapes over and over again.  For him, like so many others, throwing was meditative, something that he learned from Hamada.  His work is, as many say, the antithesis of that of a throwaway society.  He never succumbed to calling himself an ‘artist’, setting himself apart from those that created work to be useful.  Indeed, he fought to curb the rising price of his work.  His profound belief that people should be able to enjoy his pots just as much as collectors led him to attempt to control the price of his work and the amount that individuals could purchase. He did this so that profiteers would not accumulate stock and sell it on one of the online auction sites marked up ten or twenty times the purchase price.

MacKenzie was very humble.  As a young student at the Art Institute of Chicago, he acquired a copy of Leach’s A Potter’s Book.  He believed that it was possible to join artistic expression and good design with functionality; in fact, this served him well for the more than sixty years he worked as a potter out of his studio in Stillwater, Minnesota. Warren MacKenzie lived to an incredible age leaving beautiful, functional work for all of us to enjoy along with all of the students who themselves have become teachers and mentors.  He left the world a better place.

Author: maryannsteggles

My creative life has many facets. I am a Professor of Ceramics and Art History at the School of Art, University of Manitoba. I write for a number of ceramic journals including Studio Potter, Art and Perception, Ceramics Technical, New Ceramics, and Ceramics Monthly. My research focuses on historical and contemporary Canadian woodfiring and, in particular, the marginalization of women. This year I have presented papers on the topic of the marginalization of women within the field of ceramics at the Third European Wood Fire Conference in La Borne, France, and the Creative Women Conference at the University of Guelph. I own Wheel and Throw. Contemporary Ceramic Design where I produce limited edition ceramic bottles. In the spring of 2019, I will be one of the resident artists at Hospitalfield in Abroath, Scotland. Can't wait! I can be reached at maryannsteggles@icloud.com

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