January 18, 2019

The Persistence of Mingei: Influence through Four Generations of Ceramic Artists

Warren MacKenzie, no title, 1989, glazed stoneware. Gift of Nancy and Warren MacKenzie.

In March 2019, we expect an invasion—an invasion of a beautiful sort. The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) will hold its annual conference, Claytopia, in Minneapolis from March 27 through 30. Several thousand ceramic artists will descend on us during that time, and at WAM we will be ready.

Ceramic artist Randy Johnston came to WAM with an idea for a way to welcome NCECA conference attendees: a new ceramics exhibit in our Leo and Doris Hodroff Gallery. The exhibition Randy curated takes advantage of the enduring ceramic tradition in Minnesota and of the strength of WAM’s collection, with additional pieces lent by collectors and artists. The Persistence of Mingei: Influence through Four Generations of Ceramic Artists also pays homage to University of Minnesota Regents Professor Warren MacKenzie and to his predecessors, students, and colleagues. We are publishing a fully illustrated catalog with the exhibit.

The word mingei, meaning art of the people, was coined by a Japanese philosopher in the early 1920s. His ideas started a movement in Japan that challenged society’s narrow definition of art by focusing on everyday objects created by average people. It can be seen as a response to Japan’s rapid industrialization as it elevated objects made by the hands of individual craftspeople, rather than produced in a factory.

Shōji Hamada, no title, 1952, glazed earthenware. Gift of the Harlan Boss Foundation for the Arts.

A similar process of industrialization led to the Arts and Crafts movement in England, which was meant to preserve the traditions of handmade functional objects. Bernard Leach, an English ceramic artist, brought the Mingei movement to England at his pottery in rural St. Ives, England, which he established with Japanese potter Shōji Hamada in 1920.

The Mingei movement came to Minnesota through Warren MacKenzie. He and his wife Alixandra were Leach’s first American apprentices. The MacKenzies came to the University of Minnesota in 1953, fresh from their apprenticeships at St. Ives. Warren influenced thousands of students through his thirty-seven years teaching at the University and at workshops internationally.

Warren’s influence was not only in the kinds of pots he made but also in his lifestyle and values. He established a pottery in rural Minnesota with Alix and, after her death, lived there with his second wife, Nancy, a fiber artist, who died in 2014. Warren’s presence here has made Minnesota one of the hubs of ceramics in the United States.

Bernard Leach, no title, 1956, glazed porcelain. Gift of Nancy and Warren MacKenzie.

Pottery has long been an emphasis in the collection of the Weisman Art Museum. Ruth Lawrence, the second director (when we were the University Art Gallery), was interested in clay, and one of the first pieces to enter the collection was a ceramic bowl, purchased in 1936, two years after the museum was founded. Our collection now numbers nearly 4,000 ceramics. Many collectors, including Warren and Nancy, generously donated ceramics, and in 1987 Warren and Nancy established a fund for the acquisition of ceramics from the twentieth century or later.

I am honored to count Warren as a personal mentor. I met him when I was a young, inexperienced museum director in the early 1980s and he welcomed me immediately. He taught me the value of having an art collection on the campus of a university. He brought his students to handle—and fondle—pots made by the masters who will be in this exhibit. His use of our collection inspired the Louise and Malcolm McCannel Art Study Room at WAM, a place set aside for students to examine our collection.

Warren MacKenzie, no title, 1989, glazed stoneware. Gift of Nancy and Warren MacKenzie.

Warren also taught me the value of art in daily life, and I am pleased to say that I use handmade pots at home every day. He made me a better director at the University because he showed me how important it is for students to look at real art in their daily lives, at a place on campus that is accessible, alive, and smart.

We hope you will delight in and learn from the new installation in the Hodro Gallery. It has been great fun for us to see our ceramics through Warren’s eyes and we are grateful for his sharing his expertise and passion with us—and you!






Lyndel King, director and chief curator

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