For Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie, each new work was imbued with a special message for its eventual user.
“It is only when the user feels the presence of the hand of the potter that communication truly exists,” he said in the 2013 documentary “Warren MacKenzie: An American Potter.”
That desire for connection — for people to really live with and use his pottery — is a key element that distinguishes MacKenzie’s work. His utilitarian pots are featured in museum collections worldwide, from North America to Europe to Asia. And it’s because of MacKenzie that Stillwater (and the St. Croix Valley more generally) is known as a haven for potters.
MacKenzie died peacefully at home in Stillwater Monday morning. He was 94.
“That is why Minnesota is so important in the ceramics world today, because of the Warren MacKenzie lifestyle,” said Lyndel King, director of the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. That lifestyle “meant you found a place inexpensive to live in the country, you set up a kiln, and you make a living making functional ceramics,” King continued. “It was not just an aesthetic.”
Born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1924, MacKenzie grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. His interest in pottery was borne of a fluke. In 1946, he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was 22 and had just returned from World War II. He tried signing up for painting classes but they were all full. He took ceramics instead but found himself frustrated by the focus on technicality over aesthetics.
Everything changed when a classmate gave him a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book”, first published in 1940. As MacKenzie has written, “Leach defined the potter’s life in philosophical terms in which life and work were inextricably intertwined, and the goal was to make objects of utility and simple beauty.”
MacKenzie apprenticed with Leach in St. Ives, England, from 1949 to 1952 with his first wife, Alix. From there they moved to Stillwater, converting an inexpensive barn into a ceramics studio. The couple threw between 50 and 200 pots per day, constant collaborators until Alix’s death from cancer in 1962. They had two daughters, Tamsyn and Shawn.
MacKenzie remarried in 1984 to textile artist Nancy Spitzer. She passed away in October 2014.
In 1981, Ceramics Monthly named MacKenzie one of the 12 greatest potters in the world. He also won the 1999 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, perhaps Minnesota’s highest honor for artists. His influence has been felt the world over, through workshops in South America, Scandinavia and Japan. His work is featured in museums collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Tokyo’s Japan Folk Crafts Museum. He is especially beloved in Japan, possibly because his work was so strongly influenced by the Mingei Japanese folk pottery tradition.
For the next generation
“The ceramics world has many different directions and styles but within the realm of pots that are made with a historical grounding for functional use in the home ... Warren is probably the most significant representative of that current,” said Venezuelan-American potter Guillermo Cuellar, a mentee and friend who lived with MacKenzie for a month each summer for 25 years.
Cuellar first met MacKenzie in the early 1980s when the latter flew to Venezuela to conduct master workshops and Cuellar served as his assistant. For Cuellar, as for many others, MacKenzie’s influence was transformational. He recalled that in 1984, MacKenzie, known for his generous spirit, invited him and other potters to work in his studio, a life-changing experience.
“I had studied pottery in college but I had never met a professional potter, a master, before,” he said. “I saw how a studio worked. We had a firing, then a pottery sale together. That started me with the sense that it might be possible to have a life as a potter and, essentially, I have followed that model for my life.”
MacKenzie was also a ceramics professor at the University of Minnesota from 1953 to 1990. He enjoyed taking his classes to the Weisman Art Museum, inviting students to touch, feel and handle the ceramic collection. Today, the Weisman’s Leo and Doris Hodroff Gallery features some 4,000 ceramic pieces, largely due to MacKenzie’s influence.
“He wasn’t interested in producing [student] clones — he was trying to imbue his students with a kind of aesthetic integrity, and a devotion to material,” said Emily Galusha, former director of the Northern Clay Center and a longtime friend of MacKenzie’s.
As his career expanded, so did the prices of MacKenzie’s work. Yet he wanted his works to be affordable and used by many people. He used to sell pots out of a farm stand near his Stillwater home, collecting payment via the old-fashioned honor system.
“You put money in the basket. There were little pots for kids, too, that were like 10 cents each,” Galusha remembered. “You were only supposed to take a couple, but he found that people were violating the rules.”
MacKenzie stopped signing his pots for a while. For him, you shouldn’t buy a work because of the name, but because “you like the pot,” Galusha continued. He eventually started selling pots directly through the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis and Driscoll Babcock Galleries in New York, among others.
In addition to his daughters, survivors include the children of his second wife: Erica Spitzer Rasmussen and Mark Spitzer.
Memorial services are pending.
Theater critic Rohan Preston contributed to this report.