Textile artist Nancy MacKenzie often found materials for her sculptures and wearable art in the woods and fields around her rural Stillwater home. She turned dogwood and willow twigs, barbed wire, baling twine, plastic netting, onion bags and other improbable stuff into imaginative concoctions that have been featured at galleries and museums throughout the Midwest and as far as Japan, Chile and New Zealand.
“Her work was unique and innovative,” said Tim Harding, a Twin Cities textile artist and friend. “When you saw it, you always knew it was Nancy’s.”
MacKenzie died Oct. 1 of cancer that had recurred after decades in remission. She was 80.
Tall, elegant and poised, MacKenzie was an urban sophisticate at ease in the sometimes snooty milieu of art galleries and museums. But she was most comfortable at the rustic home and studio she shared with her husband, Warren MacKenzie, an internationally known potter and regents professor at the University of Minnesota. He survives her.
Each had their own work space — hers a loft in the house, his an adjacent kiln complex and showroom. Their 30-year partnership became a role model for dozens of artists, and especially potters, who emulated them by rehabbing old farms and setting up studios in the St. Croix River Valley and western Wisconsin.
“It was a romanticized lifestyle in a way, the exemplar of a certain way of being,” said Lyndel King, director of the Weisman Art Museum at the U. “They ... were warm, welcoming, gracious, smart, but they never belonged to the glitterati set. They just aren’t that kind of artist or people.”
Born in Naches, Wash., Nancy Stevens grew up on an apple farm. There she mastered the down-home culinary skills that later made MacKenzie dinner parties so popular.
“She won these cherry-pie baking contests as a teenager and was crowned the Cherry Pie Queen of Yakima County a couple times,” said her son, Mark Spitzer, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas.
She majored in art education at Central Washington State University in Ellensburg, graduating in 1956. After teaching high school art for five years, she earned a master’s degree in communication from the University of Washington in Seattle.
The following year she married sociology professor Stephan Spitzer. His career brought them to the Midwest, first to the University of Iowa in Iowa City and then, in 1968, to the University of Minnesota. Their daughter, Erica Spitzer Rasmussen, born in 1968, is a textile artist and associate professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
“She became very active in Democratic politics, especially at the neighborhood level, and was president of the PTA when we were growing up,” said her son. “At the same time she was always making art, mostly paintings but sometime sculpture, clothing or costumes.”
MacKenzie worked as an administrative assistant in the studio arts department at the U from 1977-80 and then as assistant to the dean of the College of Liberal Arts from 1980-93. Her first marriage ended in divorce. She and Warren MacKenzie married in 1984.
After retiring from the university, MacKenzie focused on her own art, winning awards in national competitions, and teaching textile seminars in Hawaii, Chile and Venezuela. A founding supporter of the Textile Center in Minneapolis, she helped raise money for its programs and participated in annual art-to-wear shows. Her work is in the collections of the Goldstein Museum, St. Catherine University and the Issey Miyake Studio Collection in Tokyo, Japan.
“I produce one-of-a-kind pieces that are designed to engage the eye over many years of intimate observation,” she once wrote.
Besides her husband and children, survivors include her sister Joan Klammer, son-in-law Kraig Rasmussen and grandson River Rasmussen.
Memorial service details will be announced later.