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.

A second chance to look a little closer at the work of some very talented young women in the Beginning Wheel Throwing class

It is really easy to write about the work of a very creative group of young women.  In my last blog I talked about their final assignment for their beginning wheel throwing class.  In that blog there was mention of each of them and their work.  Tonight I want to focus on a tea set by Haley Bean.

Haley Bean had never worked with clay prior to registering for this beginning class in her final year at the School of Art.  She said, sadly, that she wished she had discovered the medium earlier.  I wondered what she would have accomplished if this was her last Honour’s critique.  One can only imagine.  Notice the clean lines and use of angles. Haley has a great sense of design, proportion, and balance.  She also learned from the glaze testing she did and that of the others in the class and created a very quiet palette for her set.

Haley represents the future of ceramics, at least to me and several of my colleagues.  In fact, my friend Markus Boehm, said that the future of wood firing is actually women at his presentation for the Third European Wood firing conference in La Borne.  ‘Back in the day’ all of us had a copy of Bernard Leach’s The Potter’s Book.  At a time when there was limited information on kilns, glazes, and wheels, it became the constant companion for the potters of Europe, the United States, and Canada.  Leach toured North America first in 1952 promoting his book and his beliefs.  His influence was widespread.  The view of the rural idyll complete with pottery studio and high fire reduction kiln was common place.  Men ran the ceramics departments, were featured in the books and magazines as well as in exhibitions and they completely monopolized the prizes and grants categories.  But things are changing.

At the School of Art, there are two full time faculty teaching ceramics – me and my colleague, Grace Nickel.  Of the two sessionals this academic year, one is a very talented woman, Grace Han, one of the School’s recent MFA graduates.  My beginning wheel throwing class was all women.  And, yes, the future of ceramics is women – urban, forward thinking, highly creative and independent women like Haley Bean.