The Hand of the Potter
World-renowned ceramicist and potter Warren MacKenzie shaped both clay and students during a 40-year career at the U.
When Warren MacKenzie was hired to teach ceramic arts at the University of Minnesota in 1953, the job came with a warning from Professor Harvey Arnason, chair of the art department: “If at any time there is a problem with a drop in enrollment or budget problems,” MacKenzie was told, “ceramics is going to be closed down.”
It was perhaps not quite the warmest of greetings for a new hire, but as it happened, things worked out very well for both MacKenzie and ceramics at the U of M art department.
MacKenzie, who died on December 31 at age 94, would go on to teach at the U for the next 37 years, eventually becoming head of the art department. He is the only professor in its history to be named a Regents Professor, the highest honor the U of M bestows on a faculty member.
Over more than seven decades of artistic and aesthetic mastery, MacKenzie not only left behind a legacy of beautifully shaped and humbly made pottery, but he likewise molded the careers of generations of students who went on to spin and shape pots with their own clayspackled hands.
Today MacKenzie’s work can be found in museum and gallery collections around the world, including in a special exhibit at the Weisman Art Center, with which MacKenzie had a long and fruitful association. What would prove even more important to MacKenzie is that his pottery continues to be used and appreciated in regular homes at thousands of tables around the country.
ARRIVING AT THE U OF M after an early career that began with studies at the Art Institute in Chicago, MacKenzie had initially been interested in becoming a painter, but along with his soon-to-be wife (and fellow student), Alixandra Kolesky (Alix), MacKenzie made the switch to pottery. He was deeply influenced by the work of a British potter named Bernard Leach, who himself was influenced by the pottery of a Japanese master named Shoji Hamada, who practiced a type of art that the Japanese called mingei, or art of the people.
Leach had published A Potter’s Book in 1940, describing his work and methods, and the volume was passed among a handful of MacKenzie’s fellow students in Chicago like a sacred text. After a stint in the army during WWII, marriage, graduation from art school, and a first job at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art, MacKenzie and Alix decided to head to England in 1949 to apprentice with Leach.
Both Leach and the Mingei style emphasized a sort of holistic approach to pottery making. The beauty and art in the craft was to be found in the process of creating everyday, utilitarian objects. The artist’s role was to sit at the potter’s wheel day after day making bowls, vases, yunomis (a form of teacup), and teapots from lumps of clay. The idea was to perfect the craft through the work, feeling the earth in the artist’s hands, and shaping it into functional beauty for daily use by ordinary people.
It was this sensibility that MacKenzie brought back with him to Minnesota, and his teaching position at the University. He and Alix also soon established a pottery studio outside of Stillwater and began raising a family as they created their pottery and Warren taught. The Stillwater-based pottery would eventually become a kind of mecca for Minnesota ceramic artists practicing a style of the craft nicknamed Mingei-sota in honor of the tradition in which MacKenzie worked.
After a few years, tragedy struck in the early 1960s when Alix developed cancer. When she died, MacKenzie was left a widower with a studio, two young girls to raise, and a steady stream of students trouping to Stillwater to learn the ways and means of the potter’s life.
“He was a single guy raising two kids when I first met him,” says Mark Pharis, who began studies with MacKenzie in the late 1960s and who would later both teach at and serve as chair of the art department at the U of M before his retirement. “But I think even with all the inherent difficulties of his circumstances, he fit them into the world he created around his work. Pottery-making, as he practiced it, was a domestic craft. His ethic, his studio work, and his life were all seamlessly intertwined.”
Pharis, along with a slew of other aspiring ceramics artists in this period, including former U students and now well-known potters Randy Johnston (B.F.A. ’72), Karl Borgeson (M.S. ’70) Wayne Branum (B.F.A ’71), Sandy Simon (B.F.A. ’70), and many others, would take up the wheel and ultimately form the core of a next generation of Minnesota artists working in clay. Like Pharis, who ultimately became a colleague of MacKenzie’s at the U, many of these early students not only established their own pottery studios, but filled ceramic department faculties in colleges and universities around the region.
Mark Pharis recalls that when he first started to take art classes from MacKenzie, another art department faculty member told him that he and his fellow students didn’t know how lucky they were to be studying with someone like MacKenzie. “Of course it was all Greek to me,” Pharis says. “I was just a kid from small-town Minnesota. I didn’t know anything about the traditions that were informing his work. Didn’t know about Leach or Hamada. Or the fact that Warren was world-renowned. Or that he was a unique figure in the world of pottery and that we were, in fact, extremely lucky to have him. Darned if it didn’t all turn out to be true.”
After Alix’s death, MacKenzie would eventually remarry—to an accomplished textile artist, Nancy (Spitzer) MacKenzie—and they settled into MacKenzie’s home and studio in Stillwater to live out their lives. After 30 years with Warren, Nancy died in October 2014.
At Warren MacKenzie’s March 2019 memorial, many of his former students and admirers gathered to salute him, including Pharis.
MacKenzie’s pottery can be seen both in the permanent collection at the Weisman Art Museum and in a special exhibit The Persistence of Mingei, currently on display at the museum through March 2021.