Art & Design

Potter Warren MacKenzie's Enduring Craft

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Warren MacKenzie at work in his studio.

Warren MacKenzie at work in his studio near Stillwater, Minn. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
Warren MacKenzie

At 81, MacKenzie continues to make pots, despite suffering from silicosis, or impaired lung function. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
MacKenzie attaches a handle to a teapot.

His pots are described as warm and inviting to use, as simple, casual, and dignified. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

When you sip tea, slurp noodles or sample hors d'oeuvres from a piece of hand-thrown pottery, keep American potter Warren MacKenzie in mind.

For nearly 60 years, MacKenzie has made what he calls "everyday pots." They're functional ceramics, drawing on Japanese and Korean folk pottery traditions. They're warm and inviting to use... simple, casual and dignified. And he's passed that aesthetic on to students in half a century of teaching. Students such as Randy Johnston, Jeff Oestrich and Michael Simon have passed the craft along to others. And so on.

MacKenzie began studying ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1946, and later spent two years as an apprentice to the British potter Bernard Leach. It was at the Leach studio that MacKenzie and his first wife Alix came to know many other functional potters of the day, notably the Japanese master Shoji Hamada, who was Leach's best friend.

The MacKenzies later established their own pottery studio on a defunct farm outside Stillwater, Minn. In 1953, MacKenzie began teaching ceramics at the University of Minnesota.

At 81, Warren MacKenzie continues to make pots, despite suffering from lung problems. "When I was young, I was very stupid, and I didn't wear a mask when I mixed clay, and eventually that takes its toll," he says. He lacks the energy to work a full day in the studio. Eventually you wear out," he says. "But I hate to think of it."

For now, MacKenzie's work continues. His kiln, which he fires every five weeks or so, holds over 600 pieces, from large platters and vases to small teapots and bowls. Asked what makes a good pot, he quotes Hamada: "The good pots are the ones I like... for me."



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