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Warren MacKenzie: a profoundly influential Minnesota potter

ALSO:  “Time for Ilhan” at St. Anthony Main; “Somalis + Minnesota” at the Minnesota History Center; “Star Wars: A New Hope” Complete Film with Live Orchestra; and more.

Warren MacKenzie
Warren MacKenzie at the 2014 Yunomi Invitational at the Raymond Avenue Gallery.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

Welcome back and Happy New Year! We hope you observed the turn of the year in a good place, whether out with friends, in a crowd of revelers, or safe from the bone-chilling winds at home. We were at the Black Dog, where trumpeter Steve Kenny and his Central Standard Time quintet played (among other things) John Coltrane’s fiery “Resolution.” It’s a tune that makes you want to change the world or go down trying.

We begin the New Year on the sad note of Warren MacKenzie’s passing. A profoundly influential studio potter, known and respected around the world, MacKenzie died Monday morning at his home in Stillwater. He was 94.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1924, MacKenzie grew up in Illinois and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He apprenticed at the Leach Pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall, moved to Stillwater, taught at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art (an early incarnation of the Minnesota Museum of American Art) and the University of Minnesota, and threw pots nearly every day of his life.

Today MacKenzie’s pots are in many museums and private collections. More to the point, countless thousands are in daily use in homes around the world.

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In a 2002 interview with Robert Silberman for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, MacKenzie said,

There is something about living in Minnesota, or living in the Midwest, I think I’d say. My pots are really most at home in the Midwest, and I think there’s a number of potters who have gravitated to this area because they find it sympathetic to hand pottery. And it doesn’t have to be fancy hand pottery, such as you’re likely to find in the big galleries in New York or San Francisco and so on, the latest thing. They want pots they can use in their home.

Coffee cups on desks, plates and bowls stacked in kitchen cabinets, vases holding flowers, platters serving food and exquisite lidded vessels for whatever are what MacKenzie left us. Useful everyday objects that make our lives a bit easier and more beautiful. Those are his legacy, as is the robust, ever-evolving community of potters in Minnesota and Wisconsin who are making their livings in clay.

Of all the artists who have been influenced and inspired by MacKenzie, Venezuelan American potter Guillermo Cuellar may be his most faithful exponent. Cuellar first met Mackenzie when the latter went to Venezuela to give workshops; today he lives in Shafer and is one of the Minnesota Potters of the Upper St. Croix River, whose annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour draws thousands of collectors and casual buyers. Like MacKenzie was for much of his lifetime, Cuellar is wildly prolific, and if you bring one of his practical, affordable pots into your home, it will settle in as if it has always been there.

In 1999, MacKenzie received the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, Minnesota’s biggest arts prize. The award was still in its infancy; MacKenzie was only the second winner, after Dominic Argento and before Robert Bly. In the handsome chapbook McKnight published for the occasion, Silberman wrote,

MacKenzie holds a democratic view of pots. I suspect that, after the right to vote, MacKenzie would next uphold the right of all citizens to have good, affordable, handmade pots, with their most important civic duty being to use them.

Read Alicia Eler’s obituary for the Star Tribune here. As it happens, the 53rd annual conference for the National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts will be held in Minneapolis this spring (March 27–30). Expect NCECA to shine a warm, bright light on MacKenzie and his work.

The picks

Now at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “Time for Ilhan.” In November, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota (by way of Somalia and a refugee camp in Kenya) became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Norah Shapiro’s film chronicles the first part of Omar’s political career, her journey to the Minnesota House of Representatives. It follows her from March 2016 to her surprise victory in November of that year over long-time incumbent Phyllis Kahn and Somali-American candidate Mohamud Noor. Even though you know going in that Omar wins, the tension builds as she and her team engage in a grassroots smartphones and shoe-leather campaign for votes. This film played for a week in September at the Walker. If you missed it then, see it now, during Omar’s first days in Congress. She’ll be sworn in tomorrow (Thursday, Jan. 3). FMI including times, tickets and trailer. Through Jan. 10.

Norah Shapiro’s film chronicles the first part of Ilhan Omar’s political career, her journey to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Film Society
Norah Shapiro’s film chronicles the first part of Ilhan Omar’s political career, her journey to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Now at the Minnesota History Center: “Somalis + Minnesota.” The film “Time for Ilhan” tells us that our new member of Congress is “one of more than 70,000 Somali Americans in Minnesota.” Developed in collaboration with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, this immersive exhibit looks at Somali history, customs, traditions and the many ways Somali culture has been interwoven into the larger fabric of our society. FMI and tickets ($12/10/6).

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Tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 2) at Crooners: Jon Weber’s History of the Piano. Weber is a piano polymath (says the Wall Street Journal), a history savant, a storyteller and a genial human being, making him the perfect person to teach a survey of jazz piano – from the piano, liberally illustrated with examples and wit. We’ve seen this show and give it a huge thumbs up. It’s a merry ride from Joplin to Jarrett, with stops along the way at Jelly Roll Morton, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and many more. In the Dunsmore Room. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($17).

“Vivacious I” by Patrick Pryor
Courtesy of Kolman and Pryor Gallery
“Vivacious I” by Patrick Pryor
Starts Thursday at Kolman & Pryor Gallery: “The Color Series: Part 2, Red.” What is the artist’s relationship to color? What is it like for the viewer when several artists explore the same color? Kolman & Pryor launched its Color Series in January 2017 with white. This time it’s red – hot, dangerous, passionate red. Just walking in the door should be invigorating. Curated by Patrick Pryor, the show will include work by Pryor, Betsy Ruth Byers, Kate Casanova, Jil Evans, Jodi Reeb and Cameron Zebrun. Thursday is First Thursday in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, the monthly open studio and gallery tour event. So you can explore other places, too. 5–9 p.m. Free. An artists’ reception will take place Saturday, Jan. 26, from 7 to 9 p.m.

Thursday through Sunday at Orchestra Hall: “Star Wars: A New Hope” Complete Film with Live Orchestra. You know you want to watch the crawl as the Minnesota Orchestra plays John Williams’ iconic theme. This is the original “Star Wars,” pre-prequels, and if the special effects aren’t the very best, they’re still amazing. Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall and likely the world’s reigning expert in the art of leading an orchestra in this kind of live performance, will have the baton. Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Limited availability; best bet Saturday at 2 p.m. FMI and tickets ($51-125).