Warren Mackenzie’s first exposure to Japan was when he was station there after WWII, during the American occupation. Mackenzie was in a unit responsible for maps and printing. Because the Japanese print shop did most of the actual printing for them, their commander told them to paint images of Japan to keep them busy. Below is a water color of a Shinto Shrine Mackenzie painted.
His first experience of Mingei was when he purchased a Shiko Munakata woodblock print while stationed in Japan. He had no idea he would later be immersed in Mingei’s creative philosophy as a potter in St. Ives, England.
When Mackenzie returned to America and registered at the Chicago Art Institute, where he studied before getting drafted into the Army, all the painting classes were filled and the only class that was open was a pottery class. That is where he met his first wife Alix. Their instructor turned out not to know anything about pottery, but they found Bernard Leach’s book, A Potter’s Book and took up self instruction. They quickly realized they needed serious instruction and decided to go to England to ask Bernard Leach to take them as apprentices.
Warren and the late Alix Mackenzie traveled to St. Ives and apprenticed with him for over 2 years. Not only that, they lived with him in his house and found the discussions about pottery and mingei to be the most rewarding aspect of their stay in St. Ives.
At the end of their apprenticeship in 1952, before they left for America there was the International Potters and Weavers Conference at Dartington hall. Leach invited Shoji Hamada and Yanagi to attend and that is where the Mackenzies met Hamada and Yanagi. It was Hamada’s first trip back to England since 1935.
Mackenzie has always said, though he apprenticed with Leach, Shoji Hamada has always been his main creative inspiration.
Leach decided to go back with Hamada and Yanagi, but instead of going East, back the way they came by ship, they would fly across the atlantic and then travel by ground across the USA.
Alix Mackenzie approached them and said, “Look, if you’re going to travel through America, why not do a series of workshops while you’re crossing America?” So Hamada thought for a while, said, “All right.” He said, “If you will arrange it, we’ll do it.” It was arranged to stop at St. Paul where the Mackenzies taught. And also Black Mountain College in North Carolina where Marguerite Wildenhain was and the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana with Rudi Autio, and Peter Voulkos, and in California at the Chouinard Institute, where Susan Peterson was teaching.
Alix Mackenzie also arranged a show for Hamada. Shinsaku Hamada sent the pots from Mashiko. It also included 20 pots by Kanjiro Kawaii. Hamada and Kawaii first showed at a major museum in America in St. Paul.
During Hamada’s visit to St. Ives Pottery, Mackenzie was able to walk behind Leach and Hamada and Hamada surveyed what was currently being made at the pottery. He did this quietly, with Leach beside him. Finally, Leach asked Hamada what he thought. At the time, the pottery was making catalog ware. Stoneware that was made identical to a catalog that was used to market them. Not the Lead glazed slipware that both Yanagi and Hamada like the most of what Leach made. Finally, Hamada said to Leach, “The best thing that could happen to this pottery is if it would burn down.”
An amusing thing happened after Yanagi, Leach and Hamada visited Black Mountain College. After the workshop there, Marguerite Wildenhain told her students, “I want you to forget everything you just saw.” She was train in Bauhaus in Europe and did not see merit in the Mingei Philosophy the trio shared. Maybe because it went in the opposite direction of her modernist perspective she worked at next to Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.
While Mackenzie laid the foundation for mingei inspiration in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the tour he and Alix arranged in the ‘50s across the United States also influenced important people like Wildenhain, Voulkos and Peterson.
Mackenzie is 93 years old and continues to work in his studio,
making functional pots every day. He is one of the most influential functional potters alive in the United States today. His friendship with the late Tatsuzo Shimaoka facilitated many Midwestern students coming to Mashiko to study at Shimaoka’s pottery. Mackenzie cultivated an appreciation for Mashiko ceramics in the West, through his work, teaching and the work and teaching of his students.