Warren MacKenzie was always most comfortable at the wheel. ‘The making of the pots is the part I like best. Michael Cardew has said, “There are people who are glaze people, there are people who are fire people, and there are people who are mud people,” and I guess I’m a mud person, because it’s the making of the pots, manipulating the clay in a variety of ways, which I enjoy the most.’ Inseparable from his studio, at 94 he is still to be found at his foot-powered treadle wheel throwing the loose, lively pots that once made him one of America’s most famous potters.
Warren MacKenzie at the treadle wheel in his Minnesota studio
For over thirty years he was the amiable professor of ceramics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis whose teaching had a transformative impact on the growth of crafts in the Mid-West, and who would be responsible for the ensuing pilgrimage of young potters to what is now known, charmingly, as ‘Mingei-sota’. He also remains one of the last living links with Bernard Leach, the British potter and writer who precipitated a revolution of his own in the early 1940s and fathered a new generation of ‘studio potters’. For a little over two years MacKenzie and his first wife, Alix, fresh from their college programme, plied their new craft at Leach’s pottery in St Ives, and it was to him that they owed their first true education in clay.
Like Leach, both had begun their creative lives as painters before arriving, by circuitous route, at ceramics – ‘by the back door, you might say.’ They met at the Chicago Art Institute, where MacKenzie had enrolled in 1942 on a fine arts course. A year later, he was drafted; after three years in the army, where his graphic skills were put to use designing training posters for safe gun assembly, he returned to Chicago, only to find the painting course over-subscribed with returning G.I.s. Ceramics was one of few courses with spare places to fill; and so began, quite by accident, a life dedicated to clay.
The course at that time was woefully inadequate: what little teaching they received was meagre, from a tutor incapable of throwing on the wheel. But in 1940, Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book had been published. From the fresh embers of war it swiftly kindled an appreciation for craft: at a time of murderous industrialisation, Leach declared not just the artistry, but the necessary humanity of traditional, handmade pottery. A national success, it soon made its way to America and, by good fortune, to a fellow student in MacKenzie’s class.
With eloquent philosophical and technical instruction, Leach’s book was a revelation: ‘We all rushed out and bought this book, because Leach talked about establishing his pottery in England, his training in Japan, and the way a pottery can be run. He said such things as, “Any person should be able to make 50 pots easily in a day’s time,” and, “Any person should be able to throw a 15-inch-tall cylinder.” Well, we couldn’t do any of those things. And so on alternate days, when the instructor was not there, we would sneak into the ceramics studio and try to do what Leach said we should do. Needless to say, we didn’t succeed very well, and in addition we angered the instructor, because there were hundreds of very bad pots sitting around the studio.’
Jointly graduating in 1948, MacKenzie and his wife were faced with the prospect of establishing their own pottery. For guidance, they looked to the one potter from whom they’d learnt everything they knew: ‘We had decided we needed further training, and certainly Leach was the one we turned to. So we went to England this summer and we took examples of our work along with us and showed them to Bernard Leach and told him what we were trying to do. And of course, he took one look at our work and said – very quickly – “I’m sorry, we’re full up,” and this was his way of politely saying, you just don’t make the cut.’
Exhibition posters in Warren’s studio space
Their rooms in St Ives were booked for two weeks; unwilling to return emptyhanded, MacKenzie requested that they spend the remainder of their stay around the pottery, watching the day-to-day running of the workshop and learning what they could from observation. Leach gladly acquiesced, and at the end of their visit invited them to join him for an overnight kiln watch. Meeting him after midnight, they talked for hours; by morning, Leach had changed his mind, inviting them to return a year later for fulltime apprenticeships.
Their time in St Ives was to be formative. Under the watchful eye of Bill Marshall, they gained a technical proficiency that was still lacking, but throwing pots according to the pottery’s prescribed catalogue was creative drudgery. Forms were thrown in batches, according to daily or weekly ‘making lists’ (a practice MacKenzie still uses to this day): cups, plates, casserole dishes, all made to an exact size, weight, and proportion. Of the first 600 mugs MacKenzie threw, only the last 50 were accepted by Marshall, an infamously dextrous thrower, as ‘the lowest possible standard’: ‘We learned to control clay, to put it where you want it and not just wherever it wanted to go, and that was valuable.’
Dried pots awaiting future firings in Warren’s studio
Perhaps more importantly, living with Leach provided an insight into his motivations, and the friendship with the renowned Japanese potter Shoji Hamada that had so shaped his thought: ‘He had a fantastic collection of early English and Japanese and Chinese and Korean pots and German pots, contemporary English work as well. And we had access to this collection. And it was there that we really first came in contact with the work of Hamada.’
Warren carries a board of freshly thrown pots to be left to dry
Through their relationship with the philosopher critic Soetsu Yanagi, Hamada and Leach had been two early proponents of Yanagi’s ‘Mingei’ movement: a championing of the ‘people’s art’ of folkcraft, and an espousal of the virtues of simple, anonymously produced, functional, utilitarian objects. By the time MacKenzie met Leach, both he and Hamada had outgrown Mingei and become celebrity craftsmen in their own right. Though ostensibly they lived Yanagi’s creed – Leach through the functional wares produced in his pottery, Hamada through his anonymous ‘unsigned’ pots – as artists both sensed the limits of what Sebastian Blackie has since termed Mingei’s ‘creative cul-de-sac’.
Through observing their work, MacKenzie also soon became aware of the differences between the two potters themselves. Leach, the draughtsman, theoretician, author and articulator; Hamada, the infinitely more gifted thrower who rarely drew and seldom explained. Though it was the philosophy and tutelage of Leach that had set them on their path, it was in Hamada that they saw the future of their own pots: ‘Alix and I, we both saw the danger that lay in planning things out on paper and then simply executing them. With Hamada there was a much more direct sense that the piece had happened in the process of making on the wheel; that was what we wanted to do with our work.’
Warren’s Minnesota studio amidst the snow and the surrounding trees
Leaving England to return to America and set up their own studio, they took the Mingei style and philosophy with them; arguably with greater dedication than either Leach or Hamada to its recommendation that the work be affordable for the many. Organising Hamada’s first ever transatlantic exhibition on their return, MacKenzie was tasked with pricing Hamada’s pots: ‘He would describe the work to me, and I would think about it and I’d say, “Well, if I made this, it would cost so much,” but then, this is a famous potter from Japan and therefore I’d multiply that by five or seven and I’d say, “Well, does $11 sound all right to you?”’ (to Hamada’s credit, he never winced).
Like Hamada, the work took its influence from folk pottery: ‘We both came to a conclusion individually, but also collectively, that the pots that really interested us were the pots that people had used in their everyday life: whether it was ancient Greece or Africa or Europe or wherever, the pots that people had used in their homes were the ones that excited us.’
At its core, and what has sustained MacKenzie’s pottery in the more than fifty years he has been making pots, was the idea that the work be economical, and for everyday use. To this end, he achieved a rhythm of working that was extraordinarily productive: 600 pots or so per firing, with 12 firings a year. All the work was made on the wheel for speed; slab building and press moulding were too inefficient: ‘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 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.’
Undoubtedly, MacKenzie was underselling his talents. These were not pots that were rushed or ‘churned’ out on a production line: quite the opposite, in fact. Though MacKenzie threw to predetermined lists – ten yunomi; five platters – every form emerged with subtle variations, deviation and distraction deriving from the repetition of the act. If the mood ever took him, the list was abandoned altogether; there was little of the strict ordering of his Leach days, nor the intensely focussed practices of more self-conscious potters: ‘Some potters throw very slowly, and make a completely different kind of pot than I make. I make a rather casual pot…The Koreans have an off-hand approach to art which I admire a great deal. I try to emulate that attitude.’
Inevitably, this ‘casualness’ has revealed itself in the making. MacKenzie’s work has a wonderful lilt to it: lop-sidedness, undulation in its lines, swooping cadences and delicious curves. In a number of forms – tall lidded jars, carved and faceted boxes – there is a naturalness counterbalanced by an inventive, and even cheeky wit: his characteristic drop-lip bowls, for example, the heart-stop, theatrical throwing of which has to be seen to be believed.
Though he came to clay through paint, brushwork was rarely present in the work – only broad, sweeping, or spattering, if at all –and decoration was kept to a minimum. He remained at heart a thrower: the few decorative techniques he employed often relied on the wheel, from paddled patterns, or rouletted, chattered rims that reinforced the centrifugal rhythm that moves through all of MacKenzie’s pots.
In The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi’s seminal folk art thesis, domestic, handmade crafts were to his philosophy (as Leach later paraphrased) as wild flowers to horticulture: the wild, untameable, and enviably vital bloom that lives in unconscious harmony with the natural world. In the stifling hothouse that is much of today’s ceramics, Warren MacKenzie is just such a wild flower. He shares with those anonymous masters of the past an ‘ordinariness’: not drabness or dullness, neither predictable nor merely pleasing, but a truthful and sustaining beauty that reveals itself only to the ‘seeing eye’ and passes, unnoticed, the inattentive majority.
Though it graces major museum collections, his is pottery that has been made explicitly for constant contact, the use-wash-use cycle of the everyday. They are, truly, pots for life.
We are indebted to Robert Silberman and his extraordinary oral history interview conducted with Warren in 2002, which provided much of the material included in this article. A full transcript of the interview can be found here.