Remembering: Warren MacKenzie

Remembering: Warren MacKenzie

Warren MacKenzie
ACC Library and Archives

“The first 10,000 pots are difficult and then it gets a little bit easier,” Warren MacKenzie was known to say. He died peacefully at home on December 31 at age 94.

Well into his 90s, he was still at his kick wheel throwing pots and occasionally hosting groups of pottery enthusiasts at his home and studio near Stillwater, Minnesota. He’d chat as he worked, telling spellbound visitors about his years as an apprentice to English potter Bernard Leach from 1949 to 1952, with his first wife and collaborator, Alix. He’d talk about the profound influence of Japanese mingei (folk) pottery on his life and aesthetic, and share what he learned about simplicity and functionality in ceramics from both Leach and Japanese ceramist Shoji Hamada. He’d show off a favorite technique of adding texture to pots by whacking them with patterned wooden paddles that hung on the wall behind his wheel.

In everything, his manner was as straightforward and accessible as his simply glazed stoneware pots, which revolutionized 20th-century ceramics. MacKenzie’s work exemplified the mingei notion that beauty springs from utility, and he insisted that his work was made to be used. He resisted selling his pots at prices that would make them too precious to use, even declining to sign them for several years.

“As a functional potter, I make about 5,000 individual pieces of pottery every year. To think of them as works of art is foolish, but I do hope that they communicate something of what I feel regarding personal expression in pottery,” he said in an artist’s statement for Gallery Gen in New York.

MacKenzie was born in 1924 in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. He began as a painting student at the Art Institute of Chicago, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. After serving in the military in a mapmaking unit in Japan, he returned to the school and received a BFA in ceramics. The discovery of Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940), which advocated for the craft of pottery in an increasingly mechanized and industrial world, led him to the apprenticeship with Leach.

In the early 1950s, MacKenzie and his wife moved to Minnesota and established their studio. He began teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1953, a post he held until 1990, influencing thousands of potters in the Midwest and around the world. Alix MacKenzie, with whom MacKenzie had two daughters, Tamsyn and Shawn, died in 1962. MacKenzie’s second wife, Nancy, was a fiber artist; she died in 2014. In addition to his daughters, he is survived by Nancy’s children, Erica Spitzer Rasmussen and Mark Spitzer.

MacKenzie’s work is in museums and collections around the world. His many honors include being named a University of Minnesota Regent’s Professor, a Fellow of the International Academy of Ceramics, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minnesota Crafts Council, the McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Award, honorary doctorates from Carleton College and Macalester College, and the James Renwick Alliance's Masters of the Medium award. He served as president of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) and as a panelist for policy and planning for the National Endowment for the Arts. He was the first recipient of the Minnesota Governor’s Award in Crafts in 1986, and hewas given the Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship by the American Craft Council in 1998. A tribute to Warren MacKenzie’s life and work will be presented at the NCECA conference in Minneapolis in March.

Learn more about his life in remembrances by the Minneapolis StarTribune and Minnesota Public Radio. You'll find an extensive interview with MacKenzie in our digital collections. We also interviewed MacKenzie back in 2011. Here's a short clip of him talking about pots, beginnings, and Bernard Leach.