When Warren MacKenzie died Dec. 31 at the age of 94, he had an enormous circle of friends devoted to simple pots made by hand. That circle includes potters and collectors, but mostly just people who use his pots.
Most of the obituaries will outline his life as a potter, and his teaching. As an art student, he studied painting at the Art Institute in Chicago during the 1940s. Instead of painting, he developed a passion for pottery, fed by his partner, Alix. They both left to apprentice with Bernard Leach in 1950. Leach was a famous English potter with many connections to potteries in Japan. From that experience, they came back to Minnesota to establish a pottery studio, just as Warren began teaching ceramics at the University of Minnesota.
Now, so many years later, it seems hard to believe, but his first exhibit of pottery was at the Walker Art Center in 1954. From there, he became a central figure in the world of ceramics and pottery by exhibiting and conducting workshops internationally. He received more awards than most professors ever dream of – least of all teacher-potters.
During that time, he lost Alix to cancer. He later remarried, this time to a fiber artist, Nancy. Many people have made the pilgrimage to their home outside of St. Paul to walk down a slight hill to the studio and gallery. The gallery was little more than a shed, but it was filled with Warren’s pots and Nancy’s scarves. Famously, you could pick out a pot or scarf and leave money in a pot by the door. Sometimes you would run into them as you made your way to the gallery-shed, sometimes not.
Always busy, always moving
I remember their house because the first time I visited, I had no idea where the studio and gallery were. I knocked on the door and was welcomed inside before being pointed in the right direction. On return trips, I watched Warren work in the studio and bought more pots. Just by coincidence, I ran into him as he dropped off pots at Northern Clay in Minneapolis and a gallery in Stillwater. He was always busy, always moving.
In 2018, the chances of a potter advocating MacKenzie’s values having an exhibit at the Walker Art Center is almost inconceivable. Being hired to teach pottery at a major university is not impossible, but it is rare. Ceramic sculpture is preferred. Still, there seem to be more potters than ever.
MacKenzie’s primary legacy lies in two accomplishments. First, the cluster of studio-potters located in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin – most of them fairly close to his home. This cluster radiates from that center into the studios of potters across the planet. Canada, Australia, and places beyond. I purchase their pots when I can.
His second accomplishment is even closer to his heart than the first. It is the idea he hatched with Alix and pursued with Nancy at his side when cancer took Alix. He made thousands of pots and got them into the homes of as many people as he possibly could. Because he made those pots affordable, he found amazing success. He did not charge people for his fame and renown, and he did not charge people based on his awards and recognition. They were, in relative terms, cheap.
For years, I made part of my living by teaching about visual culture. That involves leading people from ancient images of obscure cave paintings in France and Spain to images of contemporary architecture and postmodern art. Great work when you can get it.
Warren MacKenzie animated every word I spoke in the classroom. There are many ways to teach about the history of what we called art way back when Warren and Alix first met. The diversity of teaching methods is now wrapped up in how we see history — and now, many of us call it visual culture, not art.
But some people still teach about art as an exclusive accomplishment made by solitary geniuses. For them, the world is a rigid hierarchy: painting and sculpture at the top and the lesser arts – like pottery – well below them. This perspective places MacKenzie squarely at the bottom of the hierarchy. But some of us teach the same courses while focusing on how visual culture works in modern society, how it shapes consciousness, how it separates or divides us. But also how it can create meaning and provoke new connections and relationships to issues well beyond the arts. Warren made people feel bound together, an important part of teaching in the humanities that is too often ignored. In my teaching, MacKenzie was always a touchstone. The world was his classroom.
The Bernie Sanders of ceramics
Warren MacKenzie was the Bernie Sanders of ceramics. He was a populist. He was honest and opinionated. He wanted the fruit of his labor to be everywhere, accessible and affordable. He encouraged his students, and he inspired many people outside of his field. But he also inspired people by getting up every morning and doing work that was meaningful to him. And he was lucky to share his life with two partners who shared the same dream. Meaningful work is an increasingly rare commodity in the 21st century. Effectively teaching people how to find that path is rare. Rarer still is to have so many students who learned the lesson.
There is a bigger issue here. Warren and Alex apprenticed to Bernard Leach, and, with him, played a pivotal role in bringing the world of Eastern pottery into the West. In the end, I think MacKenzie was more successful than Leach. In an era of political neophytes demanding walls, MacKenzie built bridges and taught others that they could easily do the same thing. There is nothing better than a metaphorical bridge that also serves as a coffee mug.
Years ago, we got a letter from Warren. He mailed us a check we’d written and left in his studio two years before. He’d just found the check and his bank wouldn’t cash it. He asked if we’d write another. We did.
Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.
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