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World-renowned Minnesota potter wanted his wares to be used, not shown

In June 2009, Warren MacKenzie pauses to think about how he wants to glaze a pot in his studio. The acclaimed Minnesota potter, who lived in Grant, died Monday, Dec. 31, 2018. He was 94. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

GRANT, Minn. - Warren MacKenzie could have charged astronomical prices for his pottery, but he believed people should be able to use and enjoy his pieces every day.

“He said, ‘Nobody uses the $600 tea pot,’” said potter Karen Brong. “But if the pot is $75, then they use it, and that’s what it’s for. It’s not just to sit on a shelf and gather dust. He felt very strongly about that — right until the end.”

MacKenzie died Monday of natural causes at his house in Grant, just west of Stillwater. He was 94.

MacKenzie created functional ceramics, drawing on Japanese and Korean folk pottery traditions, for more than 70 years. He made thousands of pots a year in his home studio, and continued working until just a few months ago.

His pots can be found in museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; the National Folk Art Museum in Tokyo; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

But he loved knowing that people used his bowls to eat their morning cereal or serve a salad.

“When my pots go into a museum, I’m not very happy, because they’ll only be looked at, then,” MacKenzie said in 2009. “They’ll never be touched. They’ll never be handled and washed and eaten from or anything like that — they’ll just be looked at in a case — and that’s not what pots are for, in my estimation.”

MacKenzie believed that “pots need to be used to be completed,” said Dick Cooter, a potter from Two Harbors, who was a student of MacKenzie’s at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s.

“A functional pot is incomplete until it’s used, so the person who uses it is a contributor to the piece in that way,” Cooter said. “Part of Warren’s spirit of generosity was to make many pots for people to use, because he felt that it would enrich their lives to have beautiful pieces.”

MacKenzie grew up in Wilmette, Ill., and graduated from Winnetka High School. He enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but was forced to leave when he was drafted to serve in the Army during World War II. When the war ended, he returned to school and tried to sign up for a painting class.

“The painting classes were full,” his daughter Tamsyn MacKenzie said. “He was given a choice: costume design or pottery. He took pottery, and he fell in love with it.”

MacKenzie met his first wife, Alixandria Kolesky, in one of his ceramics classes. The couple wed in June 1947; MacKenzie graduated the following year. The couple taught ceramics, sculpture and design at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art and then spent 2K years studying in England with Bernard Leach, one of the world’s foremost studio potters.

When the couple finished their apprenticeship with Leach, they moved back to the Twin Cities and bought a 50-acre property in Grant and converted an old barn into their studio.

They had two daughters, Tamsyn MacKenzie, who lives in Grant, and Shawn MacKenzie, who lives in North Burlington, Vt.; Alix MacKenzie died of cancer in 1962. In 1984, MacKenzie married textile artist Nancy Stevens; she died in 2014.

MacKenzie, who taught ceramics at the University of Minnesota from 1953 until 1990, had a profound influence on his students, said Randy Johnston, a potter who lives in River Falls, Wis., and was a student of MacKenzie’s from 1969 to 1972.

“His presence here led many of us to settle in the Twin Cities area,” Johnston said. “Warren had pioneered a group of collectors and people who were interested in functional pots, and I think we all bought into that.”

Johnston, who teaches ceramics at the University of Wisconsin — River Falls, said MacKenzie believed pots should have “good bones.”

“A pot might have a pretty surface — it might have a shiny blue glaze on it, for instance — but if it didn’t have the substance of structure and the architecture of what he considered to be a good pot, he was very non-accepting of it,” Johnston said. And MacKenzie wasn’t shy about scolding students who “began to stray too far from the field,” he said.

“The standard he taught all of us was: ‘Never be satisfied with the status quo. Always look for the next idea, the next thing that would improve it,’” Johnston said.

MacKenzie loved teaching and taught workshops around the world, Tamsyn MacKenzie said.

“He would be booked up years in advance,” she said. “He would go to places in the order that they requested him. He said, ‘I am not God. I will never know at which school there is the next great potter or the next great artist, so I’m just going to go where I’m asked to go and not presume to know which place is better.’”

She said her father, who would have been 95 in February, had a wonderful life.

“I was talking to a friend of his, and she said that Warren was the only person she knew who truly lived his life as he believed. He lived the life that he wanted to live and that he believed in — and the world beat a path to his door.”

In addition to his two daughters, MacKenzie is survived by stepdaughter Erica Rasmussen of White Bear Lake; stepson Mark Spitzer of Mayflower, Ark.; and a grandson.

Services are pending.

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