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Warren MacKenzie’s commitment to craft

14 January 2019

‘Making pots without the ego of the artist is to me an ideal.’ So spoke one of America’s best-known potters, Warren MacKenzie, who died on 31 December 2018 at the age of 94. His was a life devoted to the craft of hand-making pottery. This sense of craft – not art – was of paramount importance to MacKenzie, who, from the opening of his pottery in Minnesota in 1953 produced some 5,000 pots each year. He described his work as ‘non-repetitious domestic ware’: that is, solidly functional pottery made in large quantities yet with a creativity and looseness that allowed for personal expression.

MacKenzie’s are pots for the table, not the plinth – at least, that was the theory. In practice, his work was bought by museums and collections around the world, and today commands prices in the thousands at auctions and galleries. The showroom on his property, an old farm surrounded by woodland in Stillwater, Minnesota, operated on an honour system for many years: visitors placed money in a basket, making change for themselves when needed. Due to abuses of trust motivated by an increasingly lucrative resale market, this system ended in 2006. Nevertheless, MacKenzie remained committed to making humble pots, intended to be sold at humble prices.

Group of pots by Warren MacKenzie

Group of pots by Warren MacKenzie. Photo: JSP Studios; courtesy Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York

MacKenzie’s pottery is distinctive for its lively simplicity; as he put it, ‘I make a rather casual pot.’ There are teapots and cups, plates, bowls, platters and more, all thrown on a foot-powered treadlewheel and fired to stoneware temperatures (1200°C+) to render them hard-wearing. There is little brushwork – when it appears, it is in sweeping strokes – as slip-trailing and splashing proved quicker methods. Marks were made using improvised instruments such as bottle caps, barbed wire and cardboard packaging, and textures applied swiftly with patterned wooden paddles or chatter tools. All were decorated fast. MacKenzie stated: ‘I wanted my pots to be as inexpensive as possible so people can buy them in quantity. Clay is not expensive. Glaze materials are not expensive, when you figure out how little goes on a pot. Your only real expense is your time – and so if you can control your time, you can sell a pot for not too much money.’

In his commitment to making cheap pots for use, MacKenzie was truer to the ideas of Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the mingei folk art movement, than his mentor, the British potter Bernard Leach, who helped to popularise mingei in the West. The movement valorised inexpensive, functional objects made in quantity by unnamed artisans, bearing a quiet beauty that would enrich everyday life. It was during an uninspiring stint on the ceramics course at Art Institute of Chicago, after a break in his studies due to military service, that MacKenzie discovered Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940). The book combines technical instruction with philosophical ideas: at a time of ever-increasing industrialisation, Leach declared the importance of the humanity inherent in handmade pots. It led to a shift for MacKenzie, which in 1949 led him and his first wife, Alix, to two and a half years of full-time study at the Leach Pottery in Cornwall, England. MacKenzie summarised the learning process with characteristic amiability: ‘The first 10,000 pots are difficult and then it gets a little bit easier.’

On his return to the United States in 1953, MacKenzie brought mingei’s values to the American Midwest, introducing what was dubbed the ‘Mingei-sota style’. That MacKenzie’s approach became widespread enough to gain such a moniker indicates how influential he has proved: an influence that stemmed from both his production as a potter and his generosity as a tutor. MacKenzie began teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1953 and continued until 1990 – during which time he fostered the talents of many who went on to be well known, including Randy Johnston, Jeff Oestreich, and Mark Pharis. Making his mark in what has been called ‘the century of the self’, MacKenzie’s legacy is, above all, one of creative generosity.