We asked a lot of questions and we watched everyone who was working in the studio. And we had an opportunity to sit in on discussions, aesthetic discussions at the pottery, which took place generally over tea breaks in the morning and afternoon. So we learned a lot just from being around there [with Bernard Leach ].— Warren MacKenzie
The most empowering Warren MacKenzie quotes that are life-changing and eye-opening
I took a number of graphic courses, lithography and etching and wood engraving [at Art Institute]. And particularly as I got more and more into ceramics, I thought, life drawing doesn't have anything to do with ceramics.
We'll be potters, we'll be painters, we'll be textile designers, we'll be jewelers, we'll be a little this, a little of that. We were going to be the renaissance people [when we were young].
We thought [with Alix MacKenzie], 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 20th century? And we decided then that our work would center around that sort of utilitarian pottery, and that's what I've done ever since.
Alix [ MacKenzie] had stopped teaching because we had a child and she stayed home to take care of the baby, and I taught.
Chicago is a wonderful area because it's blessed with a tremendous number of museums of various sorts, not only the Art Institute of Chicago but the Field Museum of Natural History, the Oriental Museum on the south side.
[In the Field Museum of Natural History] we could see very simple, primitive, hand-built pottery from Babylonia and ancient Egypt and so forth, Greece. We could see the most sophisticated things that came out of the Orient - Japan, Korea, and China - some few pieces of European porcelain, majolica [tin glazed earthenware], and that sort of thing. But they had a marvelous collection.
Living with [Bernard] Leach, who thought about pottery 24 hours a day, was a fantastic experience, and we really began to get inside his mind and understand what had motivated him to work all his life as a potter.
We got a great benefit from our contact with those people [Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Richard Batram] and met people that we wouldn't have probably met if we had simply worked at the pottery.
I followed [Shoji] Hamada, because I guess Alix [MacKenzie] and I, we both saw the danger that lay in planning things out on paper and then simply executing them. And with Hamada there was a much more direct sense that the piece had happened in the process of making on the wheel, and that was what we wanted to do with our work. We weren't always able to do it, though.
[ Bernard] Leach was the one who taught us that, because he, too, had started out as a painter and an etcher and had only gotten into ceramics by chance when he was in Japan trying to teach the Japanese how to do etching, which, as he said, they were not ready for yet.
We benefited from living with [Bernard] Leach, because suddenly all of his friends became our acquaintances.
[Bernard Leach] talked about painting, but we never talked about ceramics in that evening. But at the end of the evening he said to us, "Well," he said, "I've changed my mind, and if you want, you can come back a year from now and apprentice in the workshop."
In fact, I believe to a certain extent a person today who starts with just clay, with no drawing and no painting and no figure drawing, still-life drawing, various things, they miss a great deal.
I thought, oh, I'm going to be a painter.
And eventually my family had moved near Chicago, and when I graduated from high school, I went to the Chicago Art Institute, and it was there that I thought, well, now I'm going to be a painter.
If [Bernard Leach] didn't like the drawing, he'd X it out and do another one and change the form a little bit. And when he was all done, he would stuff these pieces of paper in his pocket and go off to the pottery, and when he wanted to make pots, he would then take these out and he'd begin to produce the pot that he had designed on paper in front of us.
We both [with Alixandra Kolesky MacKenzie] got into ceramics, you might say, by the back door. Looking back on it, I think this was a very good thing.
[Shoji] Hamada seldom drew an exact drawing of a pot that he was going to make.
And as far as I know about Alix's [MacKenzie] work, I don't believe she ever did any sculptural work at all. It was always pottery.
There were a lot of artists in St. Ives. In fact, since the time of Whistler, St. Ives has been noted as an artist colony.
Eventually we even got to the point where we could disagree with [Bernard Leach]. I mean, when we first went there, gee, I mean, this was a man who had written a book. He was, in a sense, God, and we for the first couple of weeks called him Mr. Leach.
[Sculpturing] didn't stick with me. I never felt I wanted to go on with that.
We moved up here [to St.Paul with my wife] and started to teach, we very quickly found out we were not equipped either to teach or to run our own pottery, and so we decided that we had to have further training.
[My pots ] are not like [Hans] Coper's at all, but the idea came from seeing catalogue of his work, although at the time we knew Hans, his work was nothing like that.
Remember, this is back in the 1940s, and it was sculpture which probably - in my instance probably came out of the European influence, [Alexander] Archipenko and things of that sort, [Jacques] Lipchitz to a certain extent, and I was influenced by those things and attempted to do work that emulated their style.
I got drafted into the army and by pure chance was pushed into a silk-screen shop at this camp where I was, because they could not get training posters fast enough out of a central source in Washington, D.C. So they set up their own shop to print training posters: how to dismantle a machine gun, etc.
If you press-mold a pot or if you slab-build a pot, the work has got to take much, much, much longer than if you work on the wheel. And I to this day have the ideal that I want my work to be not too expensive, so that if people buy it and break it, it's not going to be the end of the world. I'm not interested in having things in museums, although some of our work has ended up there, but that's not what I'm striving for.
When you're young, you think you can do anything, and we thought.
I've been influenced by someone or [English artists] work. I mentioned Hans Coper as an example.
Those two teachers [Kathleen Blackshear and Robert von Neumann] were just fantastic, I thought. They never directed you in a single direction, but they just encouraged you to think for yourself.
In fact, [Bernard Leach] was several generations removed from us.
At that time we were there, I think Alix [MacKenzie] and I were 26 and 28, and Leach was about 63, and we thought he was a very old man. I used to always want to help him up the stairs in the house for fear he'd fall. Actually, he was in excellent condition and lived to be much, much older than we ever expected.
Robert von Neumann taught painting, and when I finally got into a painting class of his, he reacted in much the same way.
So I very quickly stopped almost all decoration.
I was interested in the three-dimensional form of the pots, but my decoration was nonexistent.
Other thing about [Field Museum of Natural History] which inspired was that in a group of pots you wouldn't see a single example of this kind of pot. You would perhaps see a case with 20 different examples. So you realize that these pots could be repeated again and again, and each time there would be minor variations in them.
I started to do silk-screen in the early days of my painting training, due to a woman who taught art history at the institute, Kathleen Blackshear. She was interested in silk screen and taught a class that I took.
We were more fortunate than most, because [Bernard] Leach had been in America on a lecture tour in 1950, and we made arrangements to travel from America back to England with him on the same boat. It was a very slow boat. I think it took us about seven days to cross the Atlantic.
Alix [MacKenzie], on the other hand, found that her painting would translate much more readily into decoration, and she could play with the spacing and the intensity of imagery on the form in a way which I could not. So that when we established our pottery, I was most unhappy with my decoration.
I used to think [Shoji] Hamada never drew, until there was a book by Bernard [Leach] published about his work [Hamada: Potter, Tokyo; New York: Harper & Row, 1975] and at the rear of the book were a number of wonderful little sketches, but they were not drawings like Bernard made.
I went to the Chicago Art Institute, which was the best painting school in the area at that time. And I took painting classes - basic elementary painting classes and drawing classes of all sorts.
I do remember that when we left [Bernard Leach] after two and a half years, we went home on a boat again - this was before air travel became really easy - and Alix [MacKenzie] turned to me and she said, "You know, that was a great two years of training, but that's not the way we're going to run our pottery."
Hilda Reiss was the head of the Everyday Art Gallery.
Hilda Reiss came from Germany, had trained at the original Bauhaus in Germany, and her training inspired her to think of anything that she liked as art.
At that [childhood] time, of course, if you were involved in art, it was going to be drawing and painting, because that's the only thing that was taught in the schools.
Remember, this is back in the '40s, and the idea of a museum being a place where interested people could come in direct contact with works hadn't arrived on the scene yet. That, I think, I first ran into at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., where a man named Marty [Martin] Amt decided that he really felt his job - part of his job, as an assistant [to the] director was to make the collection available to interested people.
Some years ago I was working on some forms which were vase forms with a fairly narrow base, and it was after [Hans] Coper had died that I saw an exhibition of his, a catalogue from an exhibition, and he was showing some forms which were made by cutting and joining a lot of different parts together to create what he called a spade form, which you can imagine looks a little bit like a shovel upside down.
I find it really enriching to make pots which people are using and which they come in contact with, not only visually in their homes but tactilely - when they pick them up, when they wash them after dinner, and so on and so forth.
[I made in army] all sorts of dumb things, but it did teach me a lot about the silk-screen process.
I was a very hard-edged geometric painter, strongly influenced by [Piet] Mondrian and [Theo] van Doesburg and that sort of thing.
We could make our own pots on the weekends and in the evenings, and we used to do that, and these would be fired in the big kiln, along with all the standard ware that we were producing, but this wasn't quite what we had expected when we read The Potters Book.
I thought I was going to be able to use my painting ideas as decoration on pottery, but my painting did not translate into decoration on pottery. I thought it was going to, and in fact I made, while still in school, a plate with one of my paintings on it, and that's exactly what it was, it was a plate with a painting on it. It was not a decorated plate; it was just a painting superimposed over a three-dimensional ceramic form.
Our main inspiration [with Alix MacKenzie], I think, came from the Field Museum of Natural History, because they had pieces which were selected not for art content but for their relationship to the anthropological history of mankind.