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To Warren Mackenzie, the best pot was one people used

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Bowls made by Warren MacKenzie.
Bowls by Warren MacKenzie. Minnesota's prized ceramics artist, MacKenzie, who died at New Year's, believed in the beauty of functionality.
John Nicholson | MPR 2007

A large crowd is expected at the University of Minnesota Monday night to celebrate the life and legacy of potter Warren Mackenzie. The man often described as America's most significant ceramic artist died on New Year's Eve at age 94.

Mackenzie made everyday objects for everyday use. He made pots and platters. Teacups, teapots, saucers and bowls. Working in his studio near Stillwater, he made many, many pieces. And in doing so, Weisman Art Museum director Lyndal King says, he created so much more.

"Generations of young artists, generations of young collectors, have been inspired by Warren, particularly in this region," King said. "I think that's one thing that makes this region really a mecca for pottery makers and for pottery buyers and users — [it] is Warren's influence."

In his studio near River Falls, Wis., potter and professor Randy Johnston lovingly held a piece of Mackenzie's to show a visitor. "This is a vase, it's about 14 inches tall," he said. The color splashed across its surface makes the piece unusual, he explained.

"It's very festive," he said. "For me, it captures the joy and sort of the abandonment and explosiveness that he would sometimes have when he was decorating."

Johnston said Mackenzie changed his life. "I was in pre-med and I took a class from Warren Mackenzie at the University of Minnesota and fell in love with the idea of being an artist and being a potter," he said.

Warren MacKenzie
Warren MacKenzie in May 2007.
John Nicholson | MPR 2007

It was hard, but Johnston became that artist. Eventually he taught ceramics at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Mackenzie was a constant presence and always demanded the best. 

"It was never easy with him," Johnston said. "I always say he encouraged you, but he would also scold you freely."

Mackenzie would also always come to help feed wood into the all-night firings of Johnston's kiln.

Warren Mackenzie did not set out to be a potter. After serving in the Army during World War II, he went to the University of Chicago to become an abstract painter like Piet Mondrian. But all the painting classes were full. So, he took ceramics and became fascinated with the possibilities.

In a 2007 interview with MPR, Mackenzie said he and his new wife, Alix, a fellow painter-turned potter, made a point of viewing ceramics at Chicago museums. 

"The pots in the museum that interested us the most — and I emphasize that they were not the best pots, but the pots that interested us — were all pots that had been used in people's lives and in their homes," he said.

Around this time, Mackenzie came across a book by Bernard Leach. The British potter's work impressed Warren and Alix so much, they traveled to England to try to get an apprenticeship. It took an all-night discussion to persuade Leach, but in the end the Mackenzies worked there for two years. Mackenzie said that every day they got a list of objects they had to make. It was tedious, but Mackenzie said it taught them technique. Through his career, he continued to set himself a daily list. 

"And I have retained the principles of making many pots, selling them as inexpensively as possible, in order to get rid of them so you can make more, you know," he told MPR. "As an individual working alone I can change the things I make from day to day, and I can change it from second to second, if I see something happening under my hands which is more exciting than what I had planned."    

Vase
A vase made by Warren MacKenzie.
John Nicholson | MPR 2007

As he made piece after piece, some turned out really well. Those pieces attracted collectors. Mackenzie's work is in museums around the world.

Mackenzie began teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1952 and stayed until 1990. It's there, at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, that family and friends will gather at 6:30 p.m. Monday for Mackenzie's memorial.

After returning from England, Mackenzie began studying the Mingei style of Japanese pottery. He became so highly regarded in Japan that when Gov. Jesse Ventura led a trade visit there in 1999, he took Mackenzie along.

Richard Bresnahan, who teaches ceramics at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., said that what Mackenzie taught at the University of Minnesota was more than simple clay work — "that there was a beauty in functionalism, a deep beauty in functionalism, and it was connected with daily life."

For years, Mackenzie sold pots at his Stillwater studio, usually for just a few dollars. He used the honor system: Visitors read the price on the label and left payment in the basket nearby.

It always irritated Warren Mackenzie when he saw his work resold for much more than he'd originally asked. For a while, he stopped signing his work. In 2007, he told MPR he couldn't understand why people would pay the higher prices.

"Maybe they were buying my name," he said. "Which, of course, is sad. Because my name means nothing. It will disappear. The pots will always be there."

Mackenzie's work may be in museums and galleries. But much more of it is being used in regular people's kitchens and dining rooms — which is just as he wanted it.