Warren MacKenzie: A Tribute

Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

With sadness, we began to hear the news of Warren’s death at the very start of this year receiving messages from potters and his devotees, and seeing obituaries in respected publications alongside boundless expressions of loss on social media. One thing’s for sure: Warren is missed.

This post looks at Warren’s relationship with the Leach Pottery, both historical and recent, and provides a list of online resources that further tell his story.

Warren has a long association with the Leach Pottery, coming to St Ives (1949-52) to train with his first wife Alix and returning for a Residency and Exhibition in 2013 with his second wife Nancy. Our Lead Potter, Roelof Uys, then visited Warren in his Stillwater studio, Minnesota, in Spring 2017.

Chance Encounter: A Potter’s Book

Warren MacKenzie Preparing Clay at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Preparing Clay at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

A chance encounter with Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, led Warren to the Leach Pottery looking for a training that considered aesthetics as well as the technical aspects of handmade pottery.

His time at the Pottery, honing his skills by learning to make Standard Ware, helped Warren to see into the heart of what makes a ‘good’ pot, and to explore and question ideas around technical prowess:

An instance happened while we were there which taught me a great deal. Bernard worked in a part of the shop that was away from the rest of us. He had a separate studio upstairs, and so we didn’t actually see him making pots so much. But when he wanted to decorate his ware, it had to come down to the glazing room, where the pigments and slips and so forth were for decorating. And one day he brought down about three boards full of pots, 20 pots, let’s say, and then he got called away to the phone, and we, of course, all went into the glazing room to see what he had brought down, and we were able to pick up and handle his work.

And there was a man who worked in the pottery, Bill Marshall, and Bill was technically the best thrower in the pottery. He could work with more clay; he could shape it quickly and easily and throw very well. And Bill looked at all these pots and picked them up and handled them and so on. And he finally said something which shocked us, but I guess I would have to have agreed with it. He said, ‘Bernard can’t throw worth a damn.’ And we all thought, oh, well. And then Bill finished his statement; he said, ‘But he makes better pots than any of us.’

And that’s, I think, a truth also, that his pots had a life to them which had something way beyond the technical making, and that’s the kind of thing which – well, it woke me up. And Hamada has said similar things. Hamada said once, ‘I’m not a good thrower. There are many better throwers than I in Japan.’ But, of course, he was selected as a national treasure, his work was collected and sought after, and he was certainly one of the best-known potters in Japan and around the world when he was alive.
Oral History Interview, 2002

Life in St Ives

It is interesting to imagine what Warren and Alix’s life in St Ives was like – not only training and working at the Leach Pottery but also living with Bernard Leach for two and a half years. This experience was repeated by Warren more than two decades later towards the end of Bernard’s life:

Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

Leach was a great writer. He thought in complete units. I visited Bernard just before he died – I mean, not a month before he died. He was practically blind. He couldn’t hear very well. And I lived with him in his apartment for two weeks. He dismissed his housekeeper and secretary and we just lived there together.

And in that time he had a request for an article about something… He had a tape recorder, so he thought about this for a while and he sat down and turned on the tape

Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

recorder and he spoke this article, which ended up to be about a page and a half long in printed form. And when he was done, I took the tape and took it to the woman who had worked for him as a secretary, and she transcribed it and put it in typescript, and I read it back to Bernard when it was typed, and he only had to change about one word in that entire thing. There were no ‘uhs’ or badly constructed sentences or ideas that did not follow in the correct order for the article. It was a fantastic experience…
Oral History Interview, 2002

Returning to the States

Warren returned to the States with an aesthetic informed by Leach, Shoji Hamada and Oriental pottery, being credited with bringing a Japanese Mingei genre of pottery to Minnesota. Like Hamada and Leach, location was intrinsically important to Warren’s pots and making:

There is something about living in Minnesota, or living in the Midwest, I think I’d say. My pots are really most at home in the Midwest, and I think there’s a number of potters who have gravitated to this area because they find it sympathetic to hand pottery. And it doesn’t have to be fancy hand pottery, such as you’re likely to find in the big galleries in New York or San Francisco and so on, the latest thing. They want pots they can use in their home.
Oral History Interview, 2002

Warren MacKenzie Moves Another Board of Pots at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

Warren MacKenzie Moves Another Board of Pots at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

For Warren didn’t return to the States to make ‘Leach’ pots, to make English pots, but to make the pots in his way, his ‘place’, and his style of utility:

Even though I disagreed with much of the kind of pottery we were making [at the Leach Pottery] – it was too formal; it came out of an English lifestyle – but still, the way one’s hands fit on the handle of a mug was constantly being studied and talked about and all, and we tried different kinds of handles and so on. And it was just always uppermost in our mind, was how people related to these things tactically and visually, even though, as I say, it was very much a British expression and not something that I warmed up to much.
Oral History Interview, 2002

Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Throwing at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

Warren’s pots evolved from being direct interpretations of the Leach tradition, yet he and Alix adopted several aspects from the Leach Pottery production model. For example, Warren had assisted in re-building the Leach climbing kiln, an experience that informed the two-chamber kiln he built in the States alongside other Leach-inspired approaches:

A lot of things we did in that pottery were patterned after the Leach Pottery. We built a clay storage cupboard which had concrete shelves where we could pug out this clay in long columns and then stack it on these shelves, and you could store it for two or three months and it wouldn’t dry out.

Warren MacKenzie Talking to John & Lizzie Leach at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Talking to John & Lizzie Leach at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

We had potter’s wheels, which we had brought back from England with us, because those were the wheels we had worked on at the Leach Pottery and we were used to them and we liked them. And I still work on that kind of a wheel, although not the original ones, because in 1968 I managed to burn down the pottery and we lost those wheels, but that happened later.
Oral History Interview, 2002

Back to the Leach Pottery

Warren MacKenzie Focussed at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Focussed at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

In 2013, Warren returned to the Leach Pottery with his second wife Nancy. One of the most striking first impressions was that of an 89 year old man who began working almost upon his arrival – his strong work ethic was paramount throughout his stay.

Our Lead Potter, Roelof Uys, continues the story:

I first saw Warren working at the wheel during his Leach Pottery residency in September 2013; he’d set himself up in the Old Pottery and was throwing on one of the old kick-wheels. Without ceremony he casually tore a lump of clay from one of the pugs we’d prepared and in seconds a small cup appeared, as if by magic, then another and another. Rather than being ‘made’ or ‘crafted’ these objects seem to just appear like they’d always been there, hidden in those lumps of clay, and he was simply setting them free.

Warren MacKenzie Talking to Roelof Uys at the Leach Pottery, 2013.
Warren MacKenzie Talking to Roelof Uys at the Leach Pottery, 2013.

Over the next 10 days or so Warren continued working in the Old Pottery making at least 150 pieces: cups, bowls, plates, teapots and his famous fold-over bowls. During this time he entertained dozens of visitors, old friends, and admirers. He told spellbinding stories of his experiences as one of Bernard’s students and about Leach and Hamada’s visit to America.

I spent a lot of time in the Studio watching him glaze and decorate his pots. During lunch we’d sit on a bench behind the Studio, next to the River Stennack, talking about politics, religion, and the beauty of nature. He also talked about his first wife Alix – perhaps his return to St Ives had rekindled old memories.

Warren MacKenzie & Studio Volunteer & Student Examine his Soda Firing, at the Leach Pottery 2013.
Warren MacKenzie & Studio Volunteer / Student Examine his Soda Firing, at the Leach Pottery 2013.

Warren’s time at the Leach Pottery had a profound impact on me and I’ll always be grateful for the short time I had with a teacher like him. There was no ego in him or his work, he didn’t make pots for collectors, critics, galleries or museums, he made them for us to use and enjoy. His visit rekindled Bernard Leach’s legacy and it is up to all of us who live and work in the ethos of Hand, Heart and Mind, to continue this tradition.

Warren’s life was his art and with his hands he showed us the elemental essence of beauty.

Farewell Sensei.

Warren MacKenzie: February 16 1924 to December 31 2018.

Selected Articles

Selected Video & Audio

Youtube

Other Video

Audio

Transcripts

Dr Matthew Tyas, January 18 2019.

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