Remembering: Nan Bangs McKinnell

Remembering: Nan Bangs McKinnell

Nan McKinnell, handbuilding

Nan McKinnell, handbuilding, 1977, photograph courtesty Susan Schoch

Nan Bangs McKinnell, a ceramist who worked with her husband Jim McKinnell, died August 9 at the age of 99. She and her husband Jim McKinnell are important members of the great generation of ceramics pioneers of the era immediately following World War II.

Wayne Higby, a professor of ceramic art at Alfred University and a former student of Nan's, said: "My memory of Nan McKinnell is informed by the words strong, tireless, clear minded, graceful. Nan embodied a compelling quality of firm gentleness. She was a skilled poet in the studio. Art and craft were non issues, both fused completely in the deeper resolve of her work. The history of American ceramic art is driven to a unique and significant degree by legendary couples: Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Dorothy and Lyle Perkins, Vivika and Otto Heino, Nan and Jim McKinnell. I walk in the light of ceramic art today because once Nan McKinnell took time to help show me the way."

Nan was born on July 1, 1913, in Stanton, Nebraska. She attended Teacher’s College in Wayne, Nebraska, receiving a bachelor’s degree in music and education, and her M.F.A. in ceramics from the University of Washington in 1948. McKinnell met her future husband, Jim McKinnell, at the University of Washington, where he majored in ceramic engineering. They married upon completion of her thesis, a finished tea set, which included a lunch plate, a cup and saucer, a teapot, a water pot, a jam jar, a cream pitcher, and a sugar bowl.

Jim had served in the Navy during World War II, and he and Nan used his GI education money to study in Europe. They studied at art schools in Paris, France; Penzance, England; and Edinburgh, Scotland. While in Paris, they owned a pedal tandem bicycle and toured Europe learning about local potters, potteries and museums. A photograph of this time in their lives is on the cover of the 2003 video Time in Tandem. It depicts the life and work of Jim and Nan, and was produced by the Evergreen Gallery in Evergreen, CO.

Nan and Jim moved to Colorado in 1951, where they both taught pottery classes at the University of Colorado. Shortly after their daughter Kate was born in 1952, they moved to Helena, Montana and the Archie Bray Foundation to learn from Rudio Autio and Peter Voulkos, and teach classes. This was when they began developing their own glazes. Nan’s deep copper red glaze is still in wide use today. The McKinnells were offered the opportunity to teach summer courses for the Fidalgo School of Allied Arts (University of Washington) in 1955 and 1956. This led to Jim’s development of a double-chamber, propane-powered, loose-brick kiln with a flat roof, that revolutionized studio pottery and made it possible to more easily transport kilns. Potters all over the world have used this kiln design.

The couple continued to learn and teach. They also taught at the University of Iowa, Alfred University, the Edinburgh College of Art, Colorado State University, and the Glasgow School of Art, and they studied in Japan. Back to the United States, they eventually settled in Fort Collins, Colorado. The McKinnells also exhibited throughout the world, with their work held in many local and national collections, including the American Museum of Ceramic Art and the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1993, the McKinnells had a retrospective exhibition entitled “Clay and Fire: A Journey” at the Shwayder Art Gallery, University of Denver. In its exhibition catalog, essays speak of their generosity of technical knowledge and their teamwork. Nan and Jim were known as inveterate letter writers, sharing information and contacts, often in the margins of the original letter. Potter James Robinson’s first letter to the McKinnells was returned in ten days, with the margins filled with tiny, precise writing, with references to the work of nine other people and three source books new to Robinson.

Many of their works were joint productions. In a 2002 interview with the Coloradoan newspaper, Nan McKinnell spoke of her collaboration with her husband: “We often worked together like that. He’d make a big punch bowl, and I’d make the punch glasses. He’d decorate, and I’d glaze. His looks more like a man made it. (Mine) are more feminine, I think.” Their work was often signed, simply, “McKinnell.” Her work eventually centered on hand-built vessels, which ranged from delicate small bowls to enormous stoneware bottles.

Together, they were inducted into the American Craft Council College of Fellows in 1988. Other awards received by the couple are a 1977 Citation of Merit and lifetime Honorary Membership from the National Council of Ceramic Arts, and the Colorado Artist Craftsmen first Lifetime Service Award. Nan was a founding member of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts and recipient of the Colorado Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities.

Jim preceded Nan in death on April 13, 2005. Nan’s daughter, Kate McKinnell O’Brien, her husband Steve, and their daughter Yusha plan to hold a memorial service and celebration of Nan McKinnell’s life at Christ Community Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, on October 18th at 1 p.m.

"Tea Time with Nan McKinnell" will be an exhibition of teapots from the McKinnell collection at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins, including a number of Nan's teapots as well as works by other artists she admired. The show will open September 14. We also recommend this oral history interview for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Museum. Coming this fall is “The Clay Connection: Jim and Nan McKinnell,” written by Susan Schoch and published by American Museum of Ceramic Art. For more information on the McKinnels, visit