5 clues to the enduring appeal of Warren MacKenzie

Warren MacKenzie: Group of 12 medium studio pottery tea bowls. Warren MacKenzie: Group of 12 medium studio pottery tea bowls. Sold for $700 via Revere Auctions (November 2019).

Warren MacKenzie (1924 – 2018) was an artist of the people, for the people. As one of the pillars of contemporary American pottery, he was prolific in his production and committed to creating functional pottery with a loose and lively aesthetic appeal. His work was filled with the charisma of its thrower. But despite his critical and commercial success, he refused to charge astronomical prices; he believed people should be able to use and enjoy his pieces in an everyday setting, leaving an affordable legacy of his work to snap up at auction.

Renowned for his simple, wheel-thrown functional pottery influenced by the likes of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, Warren MacKenzie ploughed his own furrow. He challenged the idea that art can’t be an everyday object.

Drawing on Japanese and Korean folk pottery traditions for more than 70 years, having learnt his trade at the pedal wheel of renowned British potter Bernard Leach, MacKenzie produced thousands of pots a year from his home studio and continued working until his death at the age of 94. 

A prolific thrower, hell-bent on defying artistic expectation by producing his work in great quantity for everyday use, MacKenzie threw pots with irregular forms and uneven glazes, but it was the communication between artist and user that fired his passion. As, while he always endeavored to ensure his work had an aesthetic appeal, it was intended that his pottery should also be used over and over again. It could be said that to use a Warren MacKenzie pot is to understand it. 

Accidental potter 

Warren MacKenzie wasn’t always a potter. In fact, he came to pottery by chance. He started his creative career as a painter, but after three years as a GI in WWII, he returned to find the painting course he planned to undertake over-subscribed. A few places remained on the ceramics course, though, and so began his accidental life dedicated to clay.

It was his introduction to Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book from 1940 that kindled an appreciation for the craft that MacKenzie would embody for the rest of his career. “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,” explained MacKenzie. Enchanted by Leach’s approach, he and his first wife, Alix MacKenzie visited Leach at his studio in St Ives, Cornwall, where they convinced him through the weight of their passion to take them on a two year apprenticeship in the quiet English seaside town.

Inimitable approach 

MacKenzie’s productivity is legendary. His love of mud and the potter’s wheel has given him an enduring legacy, as he produced a huge body of work in the image of his guru, Bernard Leach. Leach had stated in A Potter’s Book that any person should be able to make 50 pots easily per day. However, these weren’t pots that were rushed out on a production line. In fact, the complete opposite could be said, as MacKenzie fiercely championed the difference of his pots that emerged from the kiln with variations, which ensured his pottery embodied the ethos he’d absorbed from Leach and Hamada. And, while each piece wasn’t quite unique, it was most certainly individual and unmistakably MacKenzie.

“Some potters throw very slowly, and make a completely different kind of pot than I make. I make a rather casual pot,” said MacKenzie. “The Koreans have an off-hand approach to art which I admire a great deal. I try to emulate that attitude.”

Folk influence

The south west corner of rural England doesn’t seem like the most obvious place to become absorbed by a Japanese philosophical principal. But, it was during their time in St Ives that the MacKenzies discovered the work of Shoji Hamada and his commitment to the Mingei art movement, of which Leach was one of the founding members.

The Mingei movement championed the ‘people’s art’ of folk craft, and an espousal of the virtues of simple, anonymously produced, functional, utilitarian objects. MacKenzie was a fan and would carry this ethos with him throughout his career, but it was the Japanese artist’s approach that would have the biggest impact: “Alix and I, we both saw the danger that lay in planning things out on paper and then simply executing them,” said MacKenzie. “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.”

Bargain distinction

“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,” said MacKenzie.

From the wonderfully individual undulations, sweeping lines, and enchanting curves, MacKenzie’s pottery has an ease and naturalness that’s as hard to replicate as his inventive spirit. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his extraordinary drop rim bowls that are created by literally building a high bowl and ‘dropping’ the rim so it folds to the outside. Unlike other artists though, these wonders of the potter’s wheel were never intended as expensive prestige pieces.

Home spun

Warren Mackenzie in his studio, February 2017

Warren Mackenzie in his studio, February 2017 (Wikimedia Commons).

“When my pots go into a museum, I’m not very happy, because they’ll only be looked at, then… 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.”

As part of MacKenzie’s approach to pottery, he believed that pots need to be used to be completed. And, while he was honored with notable exhibitions in his lifetime, he much preferred to see his work in a home setting, rather than in a glass display cabinet.