A master potter and a born teacher
Warren MacKenzie once said that he became a potter "by the back door." Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, and in Chicago, MacKenzie was always interested in art. His post-high school training at the Art Institute of Chicago, however, was interrupted in 1943 by his service in the U.S. Army. Returning to school on the GI Bill, he found that the painting classes he wanted to take were full and so turned to a course in ceramics instead.
MacKenzie's career shift turned out to be a fortuitous one. Today he is one of Minnesota's best-known and most prolific potters and teachers. The beauty in MacKenzie's work lies, above all else, in its functionality. While studying in Chicago, he was inspired by pottery exhibited at the Field Museum of Natural History. "The pots that really interested us," he said in a 2002 interview, "were the pots that people had used in their everyday life, and we began to think--I mean, 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. And so we thought, if those are the kinds of pots from every culture that interest us, why would we think that it should be any different in mid-North America twentieth century?"
After an apprenticeship with British potter Bernard Leach, who was known for his spare, Asian-inspired designs, MacKenzie settled into a studio in Stillwater, Minnesota. In 1953, he began his long teaching career at the University of Minnesota, where he was named a Regents Professor in 1984. He is now professor emeritus. Over the years, MacKenzie has inspired hundreds of students at the university and at summer programs throughout the country.
One of the great pleasures of life in Minnesota used to be an excursion to Warren MacKenzie's studio, outside Stillwater. It's such a peaceful place, and to be surrounded by such an abundance of his work... It was also lovely to feel trusted. The door was open. MacKenzie was likely not there, but you were invited to come in, look around, touch. And if you wanted to buy, well, there was a cash box right there.
I've heard that Warren stopped stamping his pots for a while because people were reselling them on E-bay for a lot of money. That goes against his philosophy, for sure. But the plan backfired: stamped pots were suddenly worth a LOT of money, so he's gone back to stamping them.
And, sadly, I don't think the studio is open to the public anymore.
If you're fortunate enough to own any pieces by Warren MacKenzie, treasure them. But use them, by all means. A pot not used is a pot wasted. MacKenzie has influenced and taught a thriving community of utilitarian stoneware potters in the St. Croix Valley, so there's no reason to be using pots that you don't love, or that aren't both beautiful and useful!