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Warren MacKENZIE… (1924-2018)


On New Year’s Eve, 2018, my father died.

He was an artist. A master with clay and wheel, glaze and fire. He was a teacher, a mentor, and, though he’d likely shrug it off, an inspiration to generations of potters. His pots are in homes and museums around the world, his life and lessons frozen in time on film and in print. Perhaps some of you are even reading this with a MacKenzie vase full of hopeful spring blooms on your table or a yunomi full of Earl Grey in your hands.

So it is that private loss becomes public, shared with all those who loved him and his work.

For weeks, I have been trying to put pen to paper, to find the right words to talk about him, to cut through the swirl of emotions, and I always seem to come up short. How can I possibly put him into words? Then, with my mind’s eye, I see him throw up his hands. “Get out of your head, Shawnee,” he says. “Memories, reflections. Just keep it simple.” Then he laughs.

Good advice, as always. 

There are some individuals so comfortable in their own skin, the rest of us feel like pod people by comparison, struggling to fit in. My father was one of those people. I always marveled at how at ease he seemed, regardless of the situation. Whether in clay-covered T-shirt and jeans or the occasional suit – I even have a picture of him in a tuxedo! – it didn’t matter (though I’m sure he preferred the former). Whether showing a class of eager students how to center a ball of clay or dining with ambassadors and kings, he was always himself: passionate, generous, and curious about everything.

He was a natural teacher who thrived on the exchange of ideas, the opening of minds. Decades past, when – weather permitting – the yard would be covered with pot-laden tables for one of many quarterly sales, I remember how he held court under our maple tree, wrapping chosen treasures in old newspapers recycled from the neighbors. Perched in the branches overhead, I’d hear his laugh filtering up as he talked with old friends and new acquaintances, about form and function, or how a bowl fits in the hand and why texture is for the eye as well as the fingertips. Whether at the University, doing workshops, or sitting under the maple tree, what he taught was as much philosophy as technique, and, like his pots, it endures.

Leach Pottery, St. Ives. 2013

Growing up, he urged us to say YES to life whenever we could. To try new foods – no matter how strange – at least once. To read voraciously and listen to music, familiar and foreign. To embrace the aesthetic of the world wherever we found it, be it in the smile of a cat, the simplicity of a Han bowl, or the kitsch of pink flamingoes standing in the Minnesota snow. To look at everything with a sense of wonder and trust the world – even at its darkest – as much as we could.  And to always vote Blue. 

Though I could never convince him to get connected to the Internet, he always had a certain fondness for gadgets, especially tape recorders. I remember many an evening, after long-ago dinners with friends, when he’d bring out the reel-to-reel, and set it up on the table, recording conversations about pots and politics, love and literature, well into the night. I don’t know if he ever listened to the tapes after that, but, at the time, it was the recording that mattered.

He remembered well and told stories with flair, something I like to think I learned from him.

And he loved – and was loved in return by – two remarkable women: my mother, Alix,

Warren & Alix

and my step-mom, Nancy.

Warren & Nancy

Before Joseph Campbell made it popular, he followed his bliss. Of all the things he wanted for us kids, I think that was top of the list: to find our own paths – even if by happenstance, as he did – and follow them with as much joy and passion as we can muster. To be true and happy in ourselves, and move through life with kindness, loyalty, and love. 

A friend of mine remarked how strange it is to be an orphan in one’s 60s. And she’s right. After being independent for years, suddenly we want nothing so much as to be little kids again, to feel safe in arms no longer here, in an infectious laugh now silent.

Tolkien wrote: “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”

My father was a bold, creative, long-lived Dragon. The most remarkable Dragon I have ever known.

It’s his birthday, today. He would have been 95.

I miss his laugh.