If I knew how to make wonderful pots, I would never again make a bad one. My favorite pots are those that have allowed me to discover their surprises and hidden beauty only after many years of daily use.
-Warren MacKenzie, excerpt from Regis Masters Series lecture, courtesy of Northern Clay Center, St. Paul, 1997
Perhaps no name is more highly and respectfully associated with the American studio pottery movement and its inspirational resonance with the values of the Mingei movement than Warren MacKenzie’s. He did not seek this recognition or leadership; rather, he became it through his passion, dedication, and daily studio practice. Warren’s commitment to the creation of the “honest” pot inspired his students and makers across the region, throughout the United States, and extended to international communities.
Click below to listen to an interview with Ben Carter of Tales of a Red Clay Rambler, in 2015, in which Warren discusses receiving recognition for his work:
The St. Croix River Valley, the area of Eastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin bordering the lower St. Croix River, became and continues to be a ceramic-rich region, attracting makers, educators, collectors, and enthusiasts, in large part due to Warren’s long-time residence and established pottery in Stillwater, Minnesota.
Warren’s journey in clay began in 1946, after he returned from serving in the army during World War II. Like many other soldiers, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After an unsuccessful attempt to register for a painting class– he was turned away as the enrollment was full— he made a fateful choice between costume design and ceramics, the two classes that had space available. His passion for clay and, specifically, pottery, was born, and he later started a pottery in the basement of the family home of his first wife, Alix [Alixandria Kolesky], whom he married in 1947.
In looking at these pots at the Field Museum, Alix and I both came to a conclusion individually but also collectively that the pots that really interested us were the pots that people had used in their everyday life, and we began to think – I mean, whether it was ancient Greece or Africa or Europe or wherever, the pots that people had used in their homes were the ones that excited us. And so we thought, if those are the kinds of pots from every culture that interest us, why would we think that it should be any different in mid-North America 20th century? And we decided then that our work would center around that sort of utilitarian pottery, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.
– Warren MacKenzie, excerpt from oral history interview by Robert Silberman for the Smithsonian Archive of American Art, 29 October 2002
A celebrated storyteller, Warren often relied on anecdotes to reveal critical insights like this one about his early ceramics training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “About halfway through the year, one of the students discovered a book by Bernard Leach called A Potters Book [London: Faber & Faber, 1940] and came into the class very excited. And we all rushed out and bought this book, because Leach talked about establishing his pottery in England, his training in Japan, and the way a pottery can be run. He said such things as, ‘Any person should be able to make 50 pots easily in a day’s time,’ and, ‘Any person should be able to throw a 15-inch-tall cylinder.’ Well, we couldn’t do any of those things.” Not long after this memorable encounter, in 1950, Warren and Alix journeyed to Cornwall, England where they worked for two years as apprentices in the Leach Pottery. In 1953, he returned to Minnesota, where he established a pottery in Stillwater. For $10,000, Warren and Alix purchased a farm house, barn, chicken coup, machine shed, and acres of land. This idyllic setting has since housed this legendary maker’s studio and the production of thousands of pots and years and years of studio sales.
Alix and Warren collaborated in the making process, with Alix decorating wares, and the couple later taught at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art. In 1962, Alix died of cancer at the age of 40. Together they had two daughters, Tamsyn and Shawn, both of whom he is survived by.
Beginning in 1953, Warren taught ceramics in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota, where he is now recognized as a Regents’ Professor Emeritus, and in 2015 was awarded the Honorary Degree: Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Liberal Arts. During his tenure, he influenced thousands of University students and young makers, many of whom have continued on to accomplished careers in ceramics, both as full-time makers and educators. Wayne Branum, Dick Cooter, Guillermo Cuellar, Nancy d’Estang, Barbara Diduk, Ron Gallas, Marlene Jack, Shirley Johnson, Randy Johnston, Maren Kloppmann, Jan McKeachie-Johnston, Mike Norman, Jeff Oestreich, Mark Pharis, Michael Simon, and Sandy Simon, to name a few, all went on to inspire and influence new generations of makers who aligned their studio practice with Warren’s and helped to create a culture of pottery and reverence for the handmade object.
As MacKenzie’s student in the Mingei-sota group, I felt strongly, and still do, that pots should be of use while still embodying a strong sense of aestheticism. Warren’s pots have never pandered to novelty They have never been outspoken, as he often is, and they are certainly not stylish. The are, however, comfortable and necessary additions to the homes and kitchens of us all. They are spiritual, often transcendental…. Warren is fun, laughs easily, loves gestures, and is totally obsessed with making pots—constantly. His message to us way back then was that if you want to make pots, ‘Just go do it.’ It sounded so direct, so simple. It wasn’t.
-Randy Johnston, former student, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, excerpt from the McKnight Foundation’s 1999 Distinguished Artist Award catalogue
In 1984, Warren married Nancy [Nancy Stevens/Spitzer], a textile artist who notably worked with found materials. They remained married for 30 years until her passing from cancer in 2014. They are also survived by Nancy’s children, Mark Spitzer and Erica Spitzer Rasmussen [Kraig Rasmussen], from her first marriage, and grandson River Rasmussen.
I want to reinforce the sense of traditional values in people. The sense that in our brief tenure on this earth, in spite of the great problems we face there are larger themes, maybe even timeless themes which transcend us. At the same time, I want my pots to express those themes with immediacy and emotional spontaneity.
-Warren MacKenzie as quoted in unpublished notes of Randy Johnston, former student
In 1997 Warren was honored as a Regis Master by Northern Clay Center for his influence on 20th century ceramics. His legacy and impact continues via Northern Clay Center through the Warren MacKenzie Advanced Award, which ensures opportunities for students and emerging artists to continue their ceramic research and education, expanding their professional development. He was named a Fellow (1982) and received the Excellence in Teaching Award (2002) from of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts; received the Council’s Gold Medal from American Craft Council (1998), and the Distinguished Artist Award from the McKnight Foundation (1999).
Warren MacKenzie is widely regarded as one of the most important potters of our time. Not only is he the best in his field, but he has conducted himself with honesty and integrity. His adherence to those high standards has brought him admirers from around the world… Wherever I go, people say, ‘You’re from Minnesota; you must know Warren MacKenzie.
-The late Joan Mondale, excerpt from the McKnight Foundation’s 1999 Distinguished Artist Award catalogue
Most recently, in 2011, Warren co-curated Ceramics from the Weisman Art Museum Collection | A Personal View with Weisman Art Museum director, Lyndel King, which aligned with the reopening of the Museum after a major building expansion, and marked the first time an entire Weisman gallery was devoted to the ceramics collection. The two collaborated and built an exhibition from the museum’s collection of ceramic works that were inspiring to them.
MacKenzie’s pots, like Warren himself, function by attraction, not advertisement, Warren’s handmade pottery, functional and beautiful, is in the collection of art museums all over the world, including mine. It is also used every day at the MacKenzie house and at houses all over the world, including mine.
-Lyndel King, Director, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, excerpt from the McKnight Foundation’s 1999 Distinguished Artist Award catalogue
With his wholehearted approach to connecting with clay and evidence of the maker’s hand, Warren MacKenzie demonstrated a pathway for an inspired life as a maker. The culture of clay is forever strengthened by the works, words, and actions/practice of this great man.
While Warren sat at his treadle wheel, he would talk pots and tell a lifetime of stories about Hamada, Leach, Lucie Rie, a specific glaze he never perfected… Witnessing Warren’s love for clay and his passion for pottery’s ability to enrich the lives of those who use pots was motivating to the point I wouldn’t want to do anything but make pots for days. After these visits, I felt energized, intoxicated and passionate for clay and for pots. I laugh now, because Warren was just doing what he loved; when he opened his home and studio door his goal wasn’t to inspire, but inspiration was inescapable for me and for countless others.
-Joe Singewald, potter
In any culture, the needs of the people control the direction of their self-expression. In earlier times, people were directed by their need to find food and to survive. Later they developed belief systems, turning to religion or magic, concerned with gods and goddesses, myths, political power. Artistic expression became a way to support those beliefs, to oppose enemies, to strengthen the culture. I do not believe it is any different in our times.
-Warren MacKenzie, Regis Master lecture, 1997
-Rhonda Willers and Sarah Millfelt, two of his pottery grandchildren, written on behalf of NCECA