Tag Archives: Bernard Leach

Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Michael Simon, Part 2

Note: Because of the length of this interview, it has been broken into parts.

Oral history interview with Michael Simon, 2005 Sept. 27-28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Simon, Michael, b. 1947

Simon discusses studying at University of Minnesota with Warren MacKenzie; the counterculture and chaotic atmosphere at the university in the late 1960s; moving to Athens, Ga., after college to open a studio on Jerry Chappelle’s farm; his first pottery sales; obtaining conscientious objector status and working at a hospital in Athens; the influence of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada on his work; developing shapes and expanding his repertoire; being inspired by Korean folk potters and by other Asian pottery; teaching at the Penland School of Arts and Crafts and being influenced by fellow potters there; art fairs in Atlanta, Florida, and elsewhere; using various materials for his pots, including Georgia kaolin and grolleg; applying for a fellowship at the University of Georgia, where he completed his Masters of Fine Arts; seeing Mark Phariss pots in the summer of 1980, which compelled him to build his own salt kiln, which changed subsequent work dramatically;
his marriage to Susan Roberts in 1992; experimenting with images on his pots, including fish and bamboo; getting a large commission for dinner plates from the Nakato Restaurant in Atlanta, Ga., one of the citys oldest sushi restaurants; visiting the Freer Sackler Galleries and being inspired by Chinese Yangshao pottery from the Neolithic period; the influence of Persian jars on his work; the success of his pottery sales with Ron Myers; going to Cortona, Italy, to teach pottery for the University of Georgia;
teaching at a school in Santiago, Chile, exploring the countryside, and learning Chilean pottery techniques; the writing of Michael Cardew and its influence on his work and career; what constitutes a typical work day and what motivates him; and the community of American potters and the support he has received over the years. Simon also recalls Angel Lillo, Laurie Samuelson, Gib Krohn, Mark Pharis, Wayne Branum, Sandra Simon (née Lindstrom), Earl McCutcheon, Shoji Hamada, Cynthia Bringle, Ron Myers, Andy Nasisse, Robert Briscoe, Michael Cardew, and others.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.

MR. SHAPIRO: I remember you at one point mentioning that she did this trigger handle that you thought was just fabulous.
MR. SIMON: [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: Making handles also must have been part of this whole discovering how to make these-it seems like the handles that you and she were making were much more inflected than what was coming out of Minnesota at that time.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, maybe so. I don’t know. We worked on handles a lot, I remember. It was exciting. In the studio it was really good. It was 10 years from the start-the work changed a lot, really developed, I think. It probably took six or seven years to feel like I was making pots that were, kind of, made. I remember always having the question, well, is this a good pot?
And I was always trying to find the answer-someone who could write about it or someone who could tell me, what is this pot-what is it that makes it good? I was attracted to things, but I couldn’t explain to myself why I was attracted to them. And I was always looking for clues. But there was some time in there-some time after six or seven years-that I started feeling like I could make those decisions. I could say for myself what I needed to do, or what I liked about a pot, or something like that. I started to develop a pottery value system that I could work from, and that was important.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that was not the result of seeing any particular object or this book that comes later, this book that opened up these Persian jars for you?
MR. SIMON: No, no, no. No, it was what was happening in the studio and inside myself, personally. Well, all of the time, the enthusiasm didn’t wane. I would find things out, and it would just lead to a better understanding. It would make it more fun to see pots and look at new pots. The development just continued to happen, even though there were many things that were difficult, and the business was always difficult. There would be bright spots, but we really lived on very little money.
MR. SHAPIRO: And no workshop teaching at that time.
MR. SIMON: Well, the first thing that happened, actually-we did our first workshop in 1975, and I-when I think about it now, I can’t imagine what we had, because I didn’t even throw very well in 1975. But apparently-I mean, who knows what was going on for real? My perception isn’t always very clear. Cynthia Bringle was very nice to us. She was really encouraging every time we would see her.
It turned out that in 1975 at Penland [School of Crafts, Penland, NC], Bill Sax was scheduled to teach the last session in the summer, and he had been given a new job. A new program was opened in Boston College. And so he was forced to cancel his teaching at Penland, and so they called us because of Cynthia [Bringle]. Or maybe Cynthia, even, was the one that called us on the phone and asked us if we would teach. And, you know, it’s flabbergasting to be asked to teach at Penland, because Penland was a mecca at the time. Well, it was very good. It was flattering and exciting as can be. We loved the idea of it.
So we got to teach, and we got to teach right after Warren. Warren was teaching the session before us. So we went up a few days early, I remember, to see him. And he had had a great session, where people were just like-[laughs]-it was really moving and people were baring their souls. [Laughs.] It was really good. And we were sitting alone with Warren in his cabin, and I told him that I was pretty nervous; I had no idea what was going to happen Monday and that was a matter of class. He said, well, it’s just an exchange of ideas. [Laughs.] You know, that was really helpful.
So we taught our first class there at Penland, and it was a great deal of fun. It was totally, I think, unsuccessful, but, man, we just had so much fun, and it was so exciting. And it was really difficult to come home, I remember, for the two us to be home.
MR. SHAPIRO: What was exciting about it?
MR. SIMON: Well, we were able to tell people what we thought from kind of an authority position-[laughs]-which we had never had before. And it turned out we knew quite a bit. Actually, we had learned quite a lot in those five years that we didn’t know, because we didn’t have so many people to talk to. The people that we lived around weren’t as deeply into the kind of pots that we wanted to make as we were. There wasn’t that much understanding. So it was nice to go up there and talk. And it was-we met [other potters] also.
Well, of course, Cynthia was there. Jon Ellenbogen and Becky [Rebecca] Plummer were there. They were assistants in the class, actually, I think. Jon Ellenbogen was cooking for the school at the time. They were terrific people. And Craig Bryson was there. He was the monitor for the class. I don’t know; it was really an exciting culture. We had all of the different kilns to fire and, I don’t know, 16 hours of pottery-making-[laughs]-with a huge group of people. It was a riot. It was really good.
So, and then-but that didn’t happen very often. But we did go to art fairs; in order to sell our work, Sandra and I went to art fairs. We went to a lot of good and bad-
MR. SHAPIRO: Local, or did you go-
MR. SIMON: Local, and we started to do a little wider range. We went to Florida and we went to the Midwest, and we went to Atlanta, when there was one there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ann Arbor?
MR. SIMON: We never did do Ann Arbor. Sandra started to develop some great work in porcelain, I thought, in about 1977, ’78, ’79; got far along, making a lot of work, and we were getting it out of the kilns. Sometimes amazing things would happen. Like, she would just put a little copper slip on a small fish on a big base, and it would turn bright red-would make a base that just seemed incredibly powerful and valuable. She was making great porcelain work.
This was at a time when we were working with-I remember she had been working on grolleg [English china clay] for a few years from Warren’s grolleg body. Warren’s porcelain had always been a grolleg body. And someone from Georgia Kaolin had come in contact-oh, it was through Tom Turner, who was at the time working over at Clemson. And he was working with a Georgia kaolin body-a porcelain body made out of Georgia kaolin.
So we got in touch with Georgia Kaolin, and they started to work with Sandra. And we developed a porcelain body that was pretty nice-looking-translucent but fairly workable. Actually, we sold it for a while. I remember we bought a Walker pug mill and mixed clay to help our cash flow problems, and it helped us for a couple of years, although we had to mix the clay, so it was just more labor, but Georgia Kaolin was giving us the material. So we did actually make a little bit of money-bought a Walker pug mill.
MR. SHAPIRO: The same one you still-
MR. SIMON: We still have it, yeah. It still works.
But then things were-Sandra and I were having trouble with our personal relationship, and so we ended up splitting up. This was the late ’70s. And I found myself for the first time-maybe 1980, I can’t remember; it was right around in there-found myself for the first time alone in the studio and not particularly liking my pots and not particularly liking my business. And it wasn’t a great time. I thought that I needed to make a change.
I expressed my dis-ease [sic] with Ron, my friend Ron Myers, who is now teaching at the University of Georgia, and Andy Nasisse also. Ron had come to the University of Georgia in 1973, and gradually we had become good friends, and Andy had come in 1976, I believe. So they were now teaching at the University of Georgia, and it was really a completely different department than it had been before-much more with the times; I thought it was a real solid department.
So they had four foundation fellowships there, and Andy and Ron both recommended-they said, well, why don’t you just come into graduate school-make some big change? And so I did. I had the idea that I would do it, and it would give me an option of teaching if I wanted to. And I applied for these four fellowships and I was given one, so it made it quite easy to go to school. And so that is what I did.
And it was encouraging to go in there, in a way. I realized that I really knew quite a bit. I had learned quite a lot in the 10 years that I had been working.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you stayed on the farm that you were renting?
MR. SIMON: Stayed at the same farm. It was really simple to go to graduate school-stayed at the same farm, drove into school-it’s 15 miles. And I was a better-actually, I was quite a good student. I took a lot of art history, and it was very interesting to me, and the graduate seminars were exciting, and I was-it was really nice to talk to people. I felt kind of renewed, and it was exciting to make pottery in an academic situation and get away from doing business with the work. I liked that a lot.
I just felt kind of empowered, I guess. I could see that I knew how to do things and had a real value system that I could use, and it felt quite good. And I taught a class in there-started to develop some work. I remember one summer I went back to Minnesota to visit my family, and I made a point of going back and visiting some of the people that I had gone to school-Mark Pharis especially-Wayne Branum, Randy Johnston-had all set up in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
MR. SHAPIRO: You never mentioned Jeff Oestreich in those.
MR. SIMON: I didn’t have much [interaction with] Jeff, although I did go there that summer also. Jeff was later.
MR. SHAPIRO: He was in a different time?
MR. SIMON: Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: And Linda Christianson?
MR. SIMON: Linda also. I didn’t know them before I left Minnesota, and I didn’t meet them when they were young either, because when I would go up there, I had my whole family to visit, and then I would always see Warren, and there wasn’t a great deal of time. I didn’t have a great deal of time, and I wouldn’t see everyone.
I always was jealous of the pottery culture in Minnesota. It was hard for Sandra and I to move to Georgia, because we would always assume that those people would see each other, and they would be talking about their pots, and it would be like it had been when we were in school. It turns out that, in fact, they didn’t really see each other very much, and it really wasn’t the case. The whole pottery culture there did certainly develop, though, into a really strong culture, I mean, so potters and a lot of pottery support.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was [Robert] Briscoe-
MR. SIMON: Briscoe wasn’t there, and I don’t know when Briscoe came. What a great bunch of work that is. Will Swanson is there. I don’t know who he is, and then Matthew Metz-when Linda [Sikora] moved in there, you know.
Warren continues to work and Warren continues to work, and my goodness gracious, what a body of work that is now. Just flabbergasting. And he continues to be really good. He laments being down to six hours a day or something like that. I don’t know; I was there last summer and he had made-I think he had three boards of teapots. I think I counted 19 teapots that he was working on all at one time. He had thrown them, and then he put them together, two different sessions. And I’ve made teapots all my life; I made teapots two at a time, and it was a big deal to make two. He had 19. He is 80-something, you know, and he had 19 and was regretting the slowness of his output.
MR. SHAPIRO: Michael, when I was up at Warren’s, he mentioned a time when you and Ron and maybe a few other people were up there. Was that about that time, or was that after graduate school?
MR. SIMON: In 1986. I remember it. Yeah, it was well after. Well, okay, so I’ll just step back and go in the sequence. The thing that happened there that summer-my trip up to Minnesota was-being really moved by Mark Pharis’s pots. He was working on a little farm, a farm that he owned, at Houston; they call it Houston, I think, in Minnesota.
MR. SHAPIRO: Where Matt [Metz] and Linda [Sikora]-
MR. SIMON: Yeah, exactly, that same farm. And he had set up a kiln that was a wood-burning, oil-fired, salt kiln and was making-using a really sandy body and using an odd Missouri fire-like a Wellsville, I think. And it had kind of like an orangey, sandy clay body, you know, really beautiful, and he had just a big bunch of the best-looking pottery that I had ever seen there. And it was really straightforward-probably different from the pots he’s making now.
MR. SHAPIRO: So he wasn’t squaring things off or-
MR. SIMON: No, and they were thrown, all thrown. He had actually made quite a few press molds and press-molded parts-places where you could press small parts of pots like spouts and-oh, I’m not sure about lids. He was starting to think in a sheet-metal mode that led him into the work he’s doing today, I think.
I never have understood it. It just developed. I have never talked to him or heard him speak of the development of his processes. I’ve always admired Mark, though, even from undergraduate school. He was really inventive, and just right from the beginning. And he was brave and played with pots. I was much more reverent. And he played with them. He played with ideas, and he was facile in his mind. I say brilliant, but he had a nice sense of humor, and I still think he is one of my favorite potters. I always have to see his work. I really feel close to it.
But it was the surface on his pots that I saw in 1980-the summer, let’s call it-which made me think I just had to have a salt kiln. And I came back to Georgia and then built a salt kiln pretty much immediately, as I remember it. There was also a salt kiln at school, and I fired it in graduate school, and I did have a couple of firings that were remarkably good. And that probably also would have encouraged me.
But the thing about it was the salt kiln was getting away from-I had ended up with about 22 buckets of different glazes, and it was just becoming nearly impossible to do a glaze day at my studio. I had so much glaze preparation to do that I would never get around to glazing. And there were too many decisions to make, and they would never look good together in the same kilnload. I’d fire the kiln with the idea of one thing, and it would contradict all the other ones, or some of the other ones. And so it just wasn’t quite working out. And I wanted to simplify things.
I was in the studio for first time alone. And doing the bisque kilns, there were just too many steps involved, and there were too many steps that weren’t the part that make your pots better. I wasn’t getting any more experience in throwing and making shapes and developing pot ideas. I was spending too much time maintaining the process. And I could kind of see if I did salt and did greenware, green firing, and just simplified-work with one or two slips and let the salt-the beauty of the salt, of course, is that it made a constantly varying surface, and I would just try to find a clay body that looked good. I was attracted to the kind of orangey light browns, and so that is what I tried to do.
That was the next step, and then I finished graduate school, and I had my salt kiln built at home, and I just went back in there with some new vigor and enthusiasm.
MR. SHAPIRO: Michael, before you go forward, Ron described your graduate thesis show as the smokers that were all hand-built; they were totally not thrown.
MR. SIMON: That’s right; they were. They were all hand-done.
MR. SHAPIRO: That must have been quite a departure for you.
MR. SIMON: How did I even make them? Oh, I made them on a slab. I made them a slab. Well, this was a very eccentric process.
MR. SHAPIRO: And very architectural, you said.
MR. SIMON: I was trying to make-although we haven’t spoken much about function, but function was involved in all of this pottery thinking. And part of the idea was to bring function into the work in grad school, but change the scale. I thought, if I’m going to be a teacher and teach at a school, I need to have some experience in earthenware and other firing processes, because I’d always only fired stoneware reduction, even in undergraduate school. The only clay that we used-no, that’s not true. But everybody was using stoneware clay. We all used stoneware clay in undergraduate school. And I continued to do so all through the ’70s. I just thought consciously I was going to make some changes, try to change things and get experience when I was at school so I would know-just so I would have a little bit wider repertoire. And so I made up an earthenware body.
There were some precedents for stoves that I ran across in literature. I can’t remember where-stove and smokers. And it turned out they were mostly smokers; smoking for food is what I mean. And actually, I was smoking a lot of food at home at the time in various kinds of contraptions. Smoking venison-I knew deer hunters from living out in the countryside-and smoking fish. And then smoking all kinds of things, and it became-I could smoke things. I knew how to do it.
And then, so I started making these big pot shapes, basically, that were smokers. They had some kind of little device about them for burning coal, and then they had a rack at the top and a lid for putting in food, where you would put the food in.
MR. SHAPIRO: What scale were these?
MR. SIMON: Well, let me see, the tallest one was, maybe, my shoulder height and 18 inches, maybe, in diameter. And so very round ones, and then there were some that were marked, actually slab-built things. And they were made out of a real soft-in order to do the fire, I reasoned that I just needed to make a real porous body. And I didn’t want to do some kind of a nonshrinking-I didn’t want to get into the technology. It was real low-tech. I just made it with a lot of vermiculite. I put a lot of vermiculite in the body and made slabs. I actually had a great big mold. I remember having a stacking unit that was somewhat on the order of Randy Johnston’s stacking boxes, but I made a plaster press mold so that I could make three or four sections high, however I wanted to.
And the function was how much heat you had in the firebox. You want to smoke the food and not bake it, so you had to have a size of a firebox that would let you put enough fuel in it to smoke the food but not get so much heat that you were baking it or roasting it.
So they really did work, and I developed surfaces-terra sig [terra sigilatta, type of slip made of extremely fine clay particles] a lot, as I did work on some other earthenware bodies, a white one and a red one, to make some earthenware pottery shapes-develop some earthenware glazes. I was a pretty good student really; I worked as a student, and it was a good time in every way for me there.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was there a lot of back forth with Ron and Andy?
MR. SIMON: Ron and Andy-had a good talk with them, although I can’t say that my relationship with them changed, because I had already had a good relationship with the both of them. They were both always encouraging. I don’t think they felt like they could act as my teacher.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ron said that, with you, he felt he just had to get out of the way.
MR. SIMON: [Laughs] Well, yeah. But Ron was always helpful. He’ll never admit that he is, but he helps everyone. He is a big teacher. He has a huge group of people that he has taught. He taught there for, since-well, he had students before that, but he taught there since ’73, to ’93, I think, so a lot of students, and a lot of students trying to, carrying on his work, too. He has a big influence.
But anyway, they were very good to me. They supported everything I did and helped me do the hoops that I had to do to do it. It was really no problem.
I remember I did apply for a job right after that. There was a job that came up at the University of Florida, and I thought, well, this is kind of what you said you would do, you know, and I applied for it only half-heartedly. Well, I did have good letters. I made a pretty good application, really, but I didn’t get the job.
But then I worked in the studio; for some reason it felt different-the salt kiln was really encouraging. From the first firing it was exciting again to unload the kiln. I got to the point where the kiln of those reductions glazeware was-taking down the door of the kiln was becoming one of the most dreadful things. I thought, this was not the right situation. There were so many things that were giving me a clue.
Now, I felt foolish; I was making pottery-what I had dreamed I wanted to do-and I had everything set up, and I wasn’t really feeling very good about it when I was doing the glazeware because, you know, one glaze would look right and then other glazes wouldn’t look right. And I just felt like I had an amazing amount of self-criticism; I just hardly liked any of my pots. It was frustrating.
And somehow the salt glaze-the surface was so interesting to me. It’s so integrated with the pots. It wasn’t any kind of questioning. I felt more like I was kind of a conduit and that the clay was-the clay had all of this character, and if I could just kind of leave it alone and let the kiln work on it; it was-
[Audio break.]
I have a pottery career. [Laughs.] Really, that was what-I remember thinking that it took about 12 years to become a potter, because in the ’80s I felt a lot more like a potter, with my salt kiln behind me, and I started to like my pots more; they started to develop; I don’t know. And a lot of it is just, I think, a matter of time and experience doing the work. And I was pretty stable. I had a studio. Even though the business was not easy, it became a little bit more consistent, to where I was actually-had the necessity to go into the studio and work consistently. I think that helped the pots.
And I was getting-the salt kiln was making surfaces that I really liked. I didn’t feel like they were mine, and they didn’t feel like they were a mistake; they were-I liked them. I could just appreciate them without-they seemed like they were part of the big world. It changed my attitude about the pots somehow. I don’t know what it was.
And then I started to get more encouragement. It’s hard to tell what happened first, in the order that it happened, but then I had done a few workshops, then people started to ask me to come work a lot, and then stuff got published.
I remember Andy Nasisse wrote an article that was published in Ceramics Monthly in 1983 [reprinted in Art Papers as “Imperfection as Beauty: One Small Bowl.” March-April, 1983, p. 10], and they asked me to write a little article about myself. The magazine wanted something to accompany the article about the cup. Andy’s article wasn’t really about me, but he used a cup of mine as, well, I don’t know, not exactly as a metaphor, but he used the cup to explain a lot of feelings about art, and it was quite a good article, actually, I thought.
I remember it was a painful article I wrote, and I had somebody help me edit it, and they published it. And they published a nice portfolio of my pots from that time-1983-I remember five or six photos. It was quite extensive. And I was-it was a surprise. I didn’t know when it was coming out, and somebody drove up in the yard and they said, did you see this? So that was pretty exciting.
There was kind of a consistent development all the way through that-working with one kiln. No; I had the second salt kiln also during the ’80s. The first one only lasted a couple of years actually. Ate itself up, but the second one was a kiln that was a, kind of, pretty dynamic kiln-a real tall catenary, tall and deep and slim, which I fired with diesel fuel-and it made a real dramatic hot side and cool side, and also I could really oxidize.
I realized later, after I had tried to oxidize with gas, I could really oxidize my diesel fuel, surprisingly enough, in this kiln, and I made some real light-bodied salted ware, and that was attractive to me at the time. This kiln I worked with for about six years, I think, before I left that particular studio. And I tore it down. It still had some life in it, but it was a great kiln. It would hold about three weeks of work.
I would fire green, and that was-what else happened in the ’80s? Well, I don’t know; it’s just continuing development of the pot shapes. I started to make a Persian jar. I had been making a square jar ever since about 1975 or so. Warren had made a square jar, and I had gotten one of them from one of his daughters. Tam had a beautiful celadon jar that was squared, and it was squared by cutting with a knife. It was square by squeezing and then cutting with a knife. And I mean, it was basically-it was a thrown pot, I should say, a thrown pot that was thrown thickly, squeezed into a square cross section, and then cut with a knife so that it had corners.
And I liked those pots. When I started to paint on pots, I found that it was really difficult to paint on the round pot. I always tried to make faces; even with round pots I would make faces-you know, one side, and then I would paint one side, and then I would paint the opposing side. I never could deal with painting around the pot, except for just in the most rudimentary ways, like making stripes or something like that.
So I really wanted, when I became more involved in painting on the surfaces, to stop that circle from happening. And you do it, and pottery throughout time is done in a lot of different ways, by putting handles on the side, so you break off and make two faces between the handles or some such thing. But one of my tactics was to start to square and rectanglize pot shapes so that I could have that-basically made a flat plane that would hold a pattern of some kind or another and could stop at the edge of that plane. The pattern could stop at the edge of the plane.
And that became-I was kind of motivated to develop a square jar shape. I was really interested in making lids that fit, and somehow making the lid-throwing the jar and squaring it and then throwing a lid and squaring it and making it fit together was fun-just a fun trick to do. And there was some kind of dynamic to the way that it looked that I appreciated, and then it gave me those panels that I could pattern, and it made it easier to pattern the pots for me.
And then another thing that happened, I can’t really say it was a goal, but the pots became-they started to suggest architecture much more strongly than the thrown round pots had. So I guess I started to use all of those things. I remember developing a triangular vase early in the ’80s, and I was trying to square everything. I tried to square bowls and tried to square cups. And sometimes I would just squeeze them into a soft square, and sometimes I would paddle them into really hard corners. I learned how to paddle things.
And I became more aware of how much water was in the clay wall, how the different degrees of leather hard, how the clay would bend when it was a certain wetness and not bend anymore when it wasn’t as wet, and how it would react to a paddle. And that gave me a wider repertoire of shape and helped create, I think, more from the outside. I got more and more encouragement. So that continued to develop.
In about 1992, I met Susan Roberts, and we were married, and we bought an old farmhouse near Athens, about 30 miles from where I had lived previously, and built a new kiln.
[Audio break.]
MR. SHAPIRO: You built a new kiln.
MR. SIMON: Built a new kiln-just got reestablished. Well, Susan and I, getting together, we both had houses, but neither of us had a house that would accommodate both of us. So we found an old house, a beautiful old house, a house that it was obvious at the time it was going to take more attention that we really intended to give a house, but at the same time we were charmed by its architecture, by the scale of the rooms, and the proportion of the rooms, and the way it sat on the landscape. The house is a long, skinny, tall house from 1888. It was in not very good condition.
But it sat on the landscape high-it was built on kind of a ridge so that it looks out across a lot of big pastureland-the views are large and long, and we were just generally charmed by the possibilities. There was a beautiful studio building, two-story brick building for me to work in, and so we bought it and moved here-1995-built the kiln the first summer. It was a small salt kiln-or virtually the same kiln I had been working with-three weeks of work, I thought at the time. Actually, that three weeks was-as I started to paint more and more pots, I started to wax resist sometime in the ’90s.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that the Forbes wax that you-
MR. SIMON: I don’t remember what the Forbes wax is.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that a particular wax that you found that worked particularly well?
MR. SIMON: It’s a particular wax, but I only know it is really the wax from Highwater Clay [Highwater Clays, Asheville, NC], and I don’t know the name of it.
MR. SHAPIRO: Forbes, they call it.
MR. SIMON: It’s Forbes? That may be true. Anyway, I started to use a wax resist in my painting. It was obvious from the beginning I was attracted to pots that were painted on, that had painting on them. I would like to look at Hamada’s pots, where he had just made two or three movements with a brush and made a pattern of-you know, the bamboo pattern and the grass pattern. And I just loved it; I wanted to do that. I wanted to do it, really badly. I just thought it really took me to the pot. I thought it had a lot of power.
Even as far back as 1976, I remember a Sunday-one day a man drove up-he owned a sushi restaurant in Atlanta-the Nakato Restaurant-it’s a really nice sushi restaurant, one of the first ones in Atlanta. He was in a Ford station wagon with his mother, a middle-aged Japanese man. He ran up to our pottery barn, and he was holding this plate that he had found at a shop in Atlanta; it was a plate that I had painted with a grass pattern, kind of copying Hamada’s grass pattern.
And he said, you make? [Laughs.] He was very excited. And it was a dreary day and we’re in the studio and not much was going on, and it was really exciting to have this man come. And he wanted us to make pottery for the restaurant. So he said, come over and have dinner at the restaurant, and we can see what we can arrange. But anyway, I remember painting that grass pattern. We made about 50 plates, or something like that-worked out a deal. And it was fun to paint them.
I developed a small repertoire. I had a fish. I could do a fish a couple of different ways and painted them with-just painted them with iron slip under-on bisqueware? I can’t remember how at first. It must have been on bisqueware, maybe on greenware. I can’t remember exactly. I’m sure I did it both ways, tried it both ways, and I probably did over a glaze sometimes. But just tried to make the brush, tried to learn how to make the brush, make a shape, and then-or try to make a brush make a tense outline-one or the other-
MR. SHAPIRO: With the wax-
MR. SIMON: Grass patterns and fish and different kinds of tree patterns-things that I could make without much drawing skill. And I did it all the way through the late ’70s. I remember always trying some. It took longer and I ruined pots. Because it was so direct, I just ruined pots, and couldn’t waste that many pots. So I wouldn’t do very many, and I would just say, you get what you get.
But basically, you get better at how thick the pigment should be and how your brush worked and what you could expect. And could I make this-you know, you just make a direct circle-try to make a direct circle or try to make a direct-maybe a spiral, and when they were good, they could be really good; and when they weren’t, they would ruin the pot. [Laughs.] So I would always try to learn, and you could kind of get to where you could set yourself up so you wouldn’t lose anything-make a smaller mark or make it a pattern of marks, so that if you had made one bad mark, it could attach itself to all the other bad marks and you have a pattern. It would work out; the pot would still be whole –

(Part 3 will run April 6th.)


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Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Michael Simon, Part 1

Note: Because of the length of this interview, it has been broken into parts.

Oral history interview with Michael Simon, 2005 Sept. 27-28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Simon, Michael, b. 1947

Simon discusses studying at University of Minnesota with Warren MacKenzie; the counterculture and chaotic atmosphere at the university in the late 1960s; moving to Athens, Ga., after college to open a studio on Jerry Chappelle’s farm; his first pottery sales; obtaining conscientious objector status and working at a hospital in Athens; the influence of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada on his work; developing shapes and expanding his repertoire; being inspired by Korean folk potters and by other Asian pottery; teaching at the Penland School of Arts and Crafts and being influenced by fellow potters there; art fairs in Atlanta, Florida, and elsewhere; using various materials for his pots, including Georgia kaolin and grolleg; applying for a fellowship at the University of Georgia, where he completed his Masters of Fine Arts; seeing Mark Phariss pots in the summer of 1980, which compelled him to build his own salt kiln, which changed subsequent work dramatically;
his marriage to Susan Roberts in 1992; experimenting with images on his pots, including fish and bamboo; getting a large commission for dinner plates from the Nakato Restaurant in Atlanta, Ga., one of the citys oldest sushi restaurants; visiting the Freer Sackler Galleries and being inspired by Chinese Yangshao pottery from the Neolithic period; the influence of Persian jars on his work; the success of his pottery sales with Ron Myers; going to Cortona, Italy, to teach pottery for the University of Georgia;
teaching at a school in Santiago, Chile, exploring the countryside, and learning Chilean pottery techniques; the writing of Michael Cardew and its influence on his work and career; what constitutes a typical work day and what motivates him; and the community of American potters and the support he has received over the years. Simon also recalls Angel Lillo, Laurie Samuelson, Gib Krohn, Mark Pharis, Wayne Branum, Sandra Simon (née Lindstrom), Earl McCutcheon, Shoji Hamada, Cynthia Bringle, Ron Myers, Andy Nasisse, Robert Briscoe, Michael Cardew, and others.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.


MARK SHAPIRO: This is Mark Shapiro interviewing Michael Simon at the artist’s home and studio on September 27, 2005, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
So Michael, where were you born, and when was that?
MICHAEL SIMON: I was born in Minnesota, born and raised in Minnesota. I was born in 1947 out on the plains, western Minnesota, a little town called Springfield.
MR. SHAPIRO: And where is Springfield, exactly?
MR. SIMON: Springfield is really across the state, near South Dakota. I don’t think that I went to Minneapolis until I was a senior in high school. Or maybe-no, in high school. It was a farming community where I lived. No big metropolitan areas. There weren’t any metropolitan [laughs]-it worked out. My father was a farmer, and I grew up on a farm. So I spent a lot of solitary time as a child, out on the plains.
MR. SHAPIRO: Were you expected to help on the farm?
MR. SIMON: Well, as a child, I wasn’t really expected to help. I did little things, like feeding the chickens. But I was really was not old enough to drive a tractor or operate any equipment. I fed the animals. We kept pigs and cows and chickens, and I helped a little bit with the milking. But actually, we’d moved from the farm by the time I was old enough to do real work.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was there art in school-was there any sense of art as a thing you might do?
MR. SIMON: I can’t remember that there was any art in school until much later. As a high school student, I took art the last two years. We actually had a great art teacher, named Angel Lillo, who came from Spain. I was lucky enough to have him the first year he was in Minnesota. He’d just come over from Spain. He’s a sculptor. A real artist. And he came to teach us in Faribault, Minnesota. It was such a good break for us. You know, children who didn’t really know anything about art, to have a passionate sculptor come teach us what art was. It was a singular situation. Very lucky.
MR. SHAPIRO: You worked with all kinds of three-dimensional materials with him?
MR. SIMON: Well, [we worked with] what was available in the high school, which included plaster and clay. And we did make sculpture. And even though he didn’t know how to work on a potter’s wheel-in fact, they had a treadle wheel; I cannot explain why the treadle wheel was there, but they had a treadle wheel.
And he liked me. We got along very well, and he told me one day that if I wanted to work on the potter’s wheel, that he would help me, and he gave me some books that would tell me what to do. He said he didn’t know how to do it himself. But he let me work on it. And I did that. I did it-I’m surprised now that I did it. But I did it. I just kind of taught myself how to throw, from reading.
MR. SHAPIRO: You were able figure it out?
MR. SIMON: I learned how to center, apparently, because I actually made some pots. My mother still has one of them. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s very thick. But it’s centered. I’m always amazed when I see it, because I made it with so little knowledge.
MR. SHAPIRO: What books did he give you, do you know?
MR. SIMON: I do not remember. There wasn’t much available. But they probably were some basic beginning throwing books. But I can’t remember what they were.
MR. SHAPIRO: Glenn Nelson [Ceramics: A Potter’s Handbook. New York: Rinehart & Wilson, 1966]?
MR. SIMON: Glenn Nelson doesn’t talk about how to throw, does he? I tell you, I can’t remember. But that’s one thing that happened.
And the other thing that was important, I thought, was that he took us to the museums, which was the first time that I had ever been, first time I thought I wanted to go, because my family-well, there was just no connection to, I don’t know what you’d want to call it, a sophisticated art world, or a-especially to a contemporary, cultured art world; there was really no connection.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did they have objects in the house that they considered aesthetic?
MR. SHAPIRO: That you also would call-
MR. SIMON: I would just call them decorative. [Laughs.] It was just very, you know, modest. Let me see. What would have been important? There were some pretty nice pieces of furniture that I think had been passed down within the families. But no paintings. Photographs, mostly, and mostly photographs of family members, were what decorated the house. Some small religious symbols, Catholic. That was the extent of the art.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did he encourage you to go further? Or did you go to the university to study art?
MR. SIMON: So why would I go to the university to study art? Who knows at the time? I was really interested in it, though. I liked making things. There was just the mystery of getting feeling out of an object. Somehow, I had been moved by it. And it made it interesting. So I paid attention to art. When I went to school at the University of Minnesota [Minneapolis], the whole art scene in Minneapolis was available, including the Walker Art Center-and the Art Institute had a great collection of all kinds of things.
MR. SHAPIRO: You entered as general liberal arts?
MR. SIMON: I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had some little thoughts of doing architecture. I had actually been taking some architectural drafting when I was in high school. It was a kind of dream, I guess. Not a very specific dream. But then, as time went by, the first year I wasn’t very good student. Actually, I wouldn’t say I was a great student anyway, all through undergraduate school, but I started to take art classes about the second year that I was there, and then it may have been late in the second year before I took a ceramics class again. Again, I just say as a continuation of high school. And it was very good to go into the ceramics studio. There were a lot of good students who spent a lot of time there-the studio was open 24 hours a day. It was casual, but there was a lot of enthusiasm, and it was immediately attractive to me.
Within a short time, it just felt kind of serious. I felt like I could make things look kind of like I wanted them to look. I could affect the way they looked, and I seemed to have more of an understanding for it than I had for painting or drawing or printmaking, which was the way I had mainly been working.
[Audio break.]
MR. SHAPIRO: This is September 28, 2005. I am Mark Shapiro, here with Michael Simon in rural Athens [Georgia]-is that what we said it was?-in his studio.
So, Michael, you were talking about what it was like to be at the university at that time.
MR. SIMON: Yes, the University of Minnesota. When I think back about the way things developed in my life, it was so important. I can’t say enough about how my life changed in those years I was in school there.
The situation in the ceramics studio at the University of Minnesota was very open. I think that it was coincidental. I just think this all kind of happened-just coincidentally happened at one time. There were a lot of students who were, somehow or another, really engaged by ceramics and pottery-making. And it was an exciting place to be. The studio was open all the time and-well, let me tell a little bit about the teachers that were there.
The main teacher-and the person who set up the ceramics program there at the University of Minnesota-was Warren MacKenzie. And he had been teaching at that time. I came-I think I took the first classes in about 1967 or ’68. So he had been teaching there for 17 or 18 years at the time. And he really didn’t have to spend a lot of time with the students anymore. I mean, he had spoken enough; he was always anxious to get out to his own studio to work.
That was something that was always remarkable about him. And he became my-he was a father figure and my mentor, and continues to be. I still hear him in my brain, and I still think about him whenever I have to make decisions. He is one of my-he is my touchstone; he is the place where-he just is the figure that I think through. He was very important to me. I didn’t know at the time, really, I wasn’t conscious at the time of Warren’s value. We weren’t really physically close when I was there at school, but the contact was crucial.
And Warren opened the door; he led all of us there, I think-believe that pottery could be really an expressive form, a place to work where you could have the reward of being able to put forth your feeling. And so it let us take it really seriously. I mean, that was really the beauty of Warren’s teaching, I think, was that, if for nothing else, then the feeling of his dedication and how much he saw in the pots. He had ultimate confidence that the pots could carry his total self, and that was what we saw.
So that was a great thing to have contact with. It was an unbelievable thing for a Minnesota farm boy to have this kind of contact. It was revealing, and it opened up a huge world that I don’t know how I would ever have come in contact with without having been there.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was it completely a different feeling than at any other studio in that department?
MR. SIMON: Well, yeah, for me it was. I suppose some of that was just the response to being able to do the work in the clay. Somehow the clay was right and making the shapes was right. It went deeper than something that I wanted to-that I should say that I merely wanted to do, because I just felt involved with it. It moved me. Yeah, that was why it was different.
Well, Warren was different because he was so driven. He was a good teacher, and he took responsibility to expose us to the process of making things. But he also was deeply involved in his own work, and he really-he didn’t hang around school. He had his class time, he would do his work, and he would go home and work in a studio. He was dying to work in the studio.
Now, most of the people at school, that taught school, hung out at school. They did a little work, but they didn’t seem to have the same motivation.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was his own studio life accessible to you as a student?
MR. SIMON: Not immediately, but I think I said that he had been teaching for 18 years. Later I remember him saying that he had never had a class, he had never had anybody before go out and try to make pottery, in 18 years of teaching. And for some reason in the group-the few years that I was there-I think there were eight or nine people who went out and have continued to make pottery their whole life.
MR. SHAPIRO: And that is Wayne-
MR. SIMON: Well, Wayne [Branum], Mark [Pharis], Randy [Johnston], Sandy [Lindstrom, now Simon, Michael Simon’s former wife], me. There is a woman named Laurie Westby Schmidt; I don’t know what has happened to her, but I’m pretty sure she still makes pottery. There were a couple of other people-and a woman named Laurie Samuelson.
There was a man named George Beers, who was probably the best potter of all-he was definitely the best pottery student of all of us. He was a really talented shape-maker. And he got a Ph.D. in art education and then ended up not making pottery. Well, I’m not sure that he doesn’t make some pottery. He hasn’t made much-as much.
And part of what was so good about being there also, I think, was having all of these students-oh, there is a man named Gib Krohn, who was there who still makes things. It was a very active studio.
MR. SHAPIRO: Was there a division between undergraduate and graduate students there?
MR. SIMON: Not much. But the graduate students were-well, let’s see; well, Karl Borgeson was there, actually. There wasn’t much of a division. There became one later. In the middle of being there, the university got control of another industrial building, and they moved glassblowing and graduate ceramics into that building. And so the graduate students were no longer in the studio.
It was a pretty compressed situation. They have moved it into an industrial building-one big, open room that had all of the working-I remember the clay mixing was in the same room. They would be mixing clay in the middle of the day, with the classes going on. There was just a-you know, it was very odd, and Warren had set up a big wet box, a big walk-in wet box for everybody to keep their working-state ware in, a big heavy door with steam in the room-my God, it was ridiculous-then a big doorway into the kiln area, and the kiln is on, and they have a salt kiln right inside the studio. I mean, you know, this was the late ’60s. There just were not very many rules.
There also wasn’t-I think there wasn’t a demand. I think that right around that time the amount of enrollment they had in ceramics and sculpture-both were adjoining in the same building-jumped up tremendously in the late ’60s and ’70s. So they ended up moving-
MR. SHAPIRO: After you left.
MR. SIMON: After I left.
MR. SHAPIRO: And there is also the background of the war.
MR. SIMON: Oh, it was such an exciting time. I was in Minneapolis. You know, it was very active there, the counterculture-the war gave the whole counterculture a lot of strength. I mean, everything became questionable, and there was somebody to answer every question. Every side of the story was being told, and it was just a-well, it was better than chaos; it was like you were getting a chance to see all different sides of things.
You couldn’t help but look. You know, if you were alive, you were just looking around and you could-everything was being exposed. It was really exciting. I just felt as though the culture was going to change radically. And I was so excited about making stuff with clay, making pottery, and I thought, good grief, everyone is going to start to do it [laughs]. I was just sure that if I didn’t get started, it was going to be, like-it was going to be too late. [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: I remember you saying at one point that you refer to that time as the time you thought that a pot could change the world.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, that is really true.
MR. SHAPIRO: Do you think Warren thought that?
MR. SIMON: Well, he thought that pots were important. He knew that pots could change people. He knew that pots had changed him. It’s the power of art-of the arts; you could just say of the arts in general. I mean, good music, good books. Anything that can bring you to that kind of poignancy, that kind of deep meaning, is valuable, and you have to do it.
We have to have it. It is crucial. Since I have been sick now, I think it’s made pottery seem much more important. I like my pots a lot more since I have been sick. I mean, I like pots in general. I should not only say I like my pots, but I am feeling a lot of power from pots that I didn’t really have access to.
I mean, it hasn’t been that long since I have not worked, but when I was working, there was kind of a restraint that was built in, because of the physical effort of making pottery, and the demands were always somewhat-it wasn’t really compromising, but they would make me feel a little bit halted in my enthusiasm. Or I would say, I have to get this done, or I would like to make this look better. You were kind of working on them, so I couldn’t sit back and look at them very much.
But I have had that chance now to see how-and I feel like I see them more clearly. And they are really important. I want to say that I think-all potters-it is a crucial thing; it’s crucial. Their pots are important, and they move people. And so we have to go on. [Laughs.]
Let’s go back to school again. There were some other things-the people that were there: Mark Pharis, Wayne Branum-it was just-it was too good. They were my peers, but they seemed brilliant. I thought they were making beautiful things right from the start. And it was so moving and kind of felt compelling to feel the development. And then while I was there, I married Sandra, Sandra Lindstrom.
And there was a loose plan formed. Jerry Chappelle was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. And he was finishing graduate school. Jerry had a family. He was a little bit older than I was, and he came-there was a job opening at the University of Georgia in Athens, 1970, 1969, maybe, the fall. And Jerry came down to Athens, was interviewed-in one weekend, Jerry came to Athens, was interviewed, was given the job. He bought a farm outside of Athens, and when he came back to Minneapolis the next Monday and came to school, he invited us to come down and make pottery at his farm. [Laughs.] It was just like that.
And so everyone was leaving school. It was-it must have been the spring of 1970, because I remember the Vietnam War was being highly protested at the University of Minnesota, and they actually ended up just calling off classes. They gave everyone, if they were passing at the time, a passing grade; they gave them credit for the course they were taking and closed the school. It was only mid-quarter, something like that.
So we had ordered our wheels from England. We had ordered Leach treadle wheels, which were the only wheels that were in the studio at the University of Minnesota, because Warren MacKenzie had set up the studio there. So ordered them from this place that-the only place in the world that made them that we knew of. They were beautiful wheels and they were very inexpensive. I remember that they cost $147 at the time, 1969, somewhere in there. Anyway, seven of us ordered them. Seven of us were finishing school and were going to go out and make pottery.
MR. SHAPIRO: And was there a sense of a losing that community, or everybody was ready for that?
MR. SIMON: No, not really. And so Jerry Chappelle had invited everyone. He didn’t make any bounds-I mean, it wasn’t personal, particularly. He just wanted to carry some of the energy with him. And so we kind of made a loose plan that we would go, but we didn’t see him during the-they moved to Athens early in the summer. We were still in Minneapolis, and our wheels didn’t end up coming until, I think, October or November. And a couple-and about five other people were kind of loosely involved in the plan to come to Jerry’s and set up a pottery.
Various situations happened, and Sandra and I ended up being the only ones that actually went. And we actually moved into one of Jerry’s outbuildings, with some help from friends that we met here, and with some encouragement-there was a man named Jerry Horning also, who taught here at the University of Georgia.
MR. SHAPIRO: I have met him.
MR. SIMON: And Jerry Horning, it turned out, had been-coincidentally had been a student of Warren’s from back in Minneapolis, and Jerry was very supportive of our pottery-making and our connection with Warren. And so he helped us do things-I think we snuck into the school and fired on a couple of weekends-and helped us kind of get started. He let us use his kiln once or twice, and eventually we got a kiln built out at Jerry’s farm. I mean, all of this happened, and we were only there for a couple of years. So I can’t really tell you how-I can’t remember the developments, but I remember, we kind of scrambled material. We had just very little money. But we were very romantic about it and we were dedicated.
MR. SHAPIRO: How were you selling your products there, in the beginning?
MR. SIMON: I remember. The first thing we had was-Kathy Chappelle had met the Episcopal minister at the college. And we had a sale on the front lawn of the Episcopal Center about two months after we were in Georgia; I mean, it was amazing. I can’t remember the sequence of how we got the pots together. But I think we sold about three or four pots. [Laughs.] Oh, gosh, it was a long shot. I will tell you, it was really a long shot.
But somehow after about a year of that, we had a stoneware kiln and shelves operating out of Jerry Chappelle’s farm. And I had gotten a CO [conscientious objector status] from the draft board during the-it was actually during the college thing. It was when the lottery came out, I think. My number was low and I had-I just applied to my draft board for a CO and I was given the classification, but you had to do two years-you were supposed to be doing two years of alternative service. Well, I was given a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shortly after we moved to Georgia, I got a letter from the draft board.
And I went into Athens and I got a job at the hospital, working at the hospital, and had that job approved by the draft board so we could stay in Athens. And so Sandra actually started-pretty much started working by herself except for when I-at night I would work and then weekends. I don’t know when I had time to work.
MR. SHAPIRO: So you were working 40 hours.
MR. SIMON: I worked 40 hours at the hospital for about a year and a half. And-
MR. SHAPIRO: What was that experience like?
MR. SIMON: Oh, it was depressing. I was very excited to get started working and I just-my first meeting up with the southern culture-you know, that was good, although it was an education that I wasn’t looking to get, but I did get it, and that was very good. Actually, it happened inadvertently, but that was very good. It was important; it was crucial because working at a hospital, I was just put right in the middle of the culture. It was different than it would have been coming to Georgia as a hippie potter, which was essentially what my role was outside of working at the hospital. We were pretty unusual to move into an outbuilding on a farm out on the countryside-you know, the neighbors and some parts of the town-I mean, it was a college town, it was a more liberal place, and a lot of Georgia wasn’t at the time.
MR. SHAPIRO: Ron [Myers] wasn’t at the university.
MR. SIMON: Not yet, no-not yet at the university here, at Georgia [University of Georgia, Athens]. At the time it was Jerry Chappelle and Jerry Horning, and then also the longtime teacher, Earl McCutcheon, who had been here since the early ’40s. He was a great man and was really interested by slump glass. He was a kind of innovator in slump glass. He had graduated from Ohio State [University, Columbus] way back in the late ’30s.
So there was a little bit of community. And after a couple of years at Chappelle’s-Jerry and Kathy’s farm-Sandra and I rented a farm nearby, and there was a farm pottery studio-old barn for a studio and old farmhouse, and we rented it for $30 a month. I mean, it was rudimentary, but we built a kiln. And we built a kiln at the time-a hard-brick-just because we could scrounge these materials, a hard-brick kiln, and we would fire it with diesel fuel, because the year that we set up-1973-there was the first energy crisis, and the propane companies weren’t putting out any tanks, any new tanks. They were afraid they weren’t going to be able to supply their customers.
So we got a fuel-oil tank-a 300-gallon-set up on a platform. And we found some fuel-oil burners that had been in a brick factory south of here. And we tried to fire with diesel fuel. I mean, we did fire with diesel fuel; we fired for about-well, gosh, we fired for, like, seven years, I think-the rest of the time that we were together-with diesel fuel and a hard-brick kiln. Man, these burners would just get-they just had so much power. I have never since made a firebox that looked like that. [Laughs.] They were just really powerful.
We made pottery there. So Sandra and I made pottery there till about 1979 or ’80-’79, I would say.
MR. SHAPIRO: And she was working in porcelain and you in stoneware?
MR. SIMON: It developed that way. First we were both working in stoneware, and then she started gradually working in some porcelain and working only in porcelain, probably for the last five years-by about 1975, I guess, she was working primarily in porcelain.
MR. SHAPIRO: And were your pots undecorated glazed pots at that time?
MR. SIMON: Well, not strictly, but they were definitely glazeware with celadon, temoku, ash glaze-a lot of ash glaze, with a white slip behind it, with-
MR. SHAPIRO: Hakeme?
MR. SIMON: Hakeme, textured brush. And you use the white slip to contrast the stoneware clay, and did that with all glaze, celadon glaze and ash glaze. And then I don’t think we even had shino. Shino didn’t really become-we just started looking at shino.
[Audio break.]
MR. SHAPIRO: So we were talking about the early days and Sandy.
MR. SIMON: Oh, yeah, the glazes in the studio. Yeah, we were firing in stoneware reduction, and so we were actually sharing the glazes. Sandra was putting celadon and ash glaze, and we had a couple of clears. As time went on, we ended up with buckets and buckets of different glazes-I think 22 buckets once-at one point we counted the glazes that we were trying to keep active. It was absurd. But sometimes they would look really good, but there was a lot of-Byron Temple’s white glaze we used a lot.
And some of the pots were painted. The first problem is that we didn’t have any repertoire. Well, at first, we just didn’t know very much. Good grief, we were trying to make pottery-I was lucky when I sat down to throw if I could make a shape. I wasn’t really conscious of having the pot in mind that I was going to make. So I would just, kind of, be throwing and see what would come out. Essentially, that was the beginning of my pottery work.
And as things developed, I became a little bit more specific about what I wanted from the pots, and I started to see the surface of the pot I was making. I started to see the shapes and have some idea of the scale, that you are going to end up with a particular ball of clay-all of those kind of basic things that you learn-I mean, that’s the first thing that a potter has to learn. How long did it take? I don’t know.
MR. SHAPIRO: Were you becoming more-you know, I always thought there was a big contrast between the way Warren approached things, where he just kind of-the pots just flow forward-and the way you make things, which is so trying to get it a certain way and get it right.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, I think that-
MR. SHAPIRO: Was that starting to happen then?
MR. SIMON: I think in the first few years, there wasn’t much consciousness-Warren was a pretty mysterious figure. I didn’t know why he had the power that he had. I began to understand it, but it just took a little while. But then when I did-Warren’s aesthetic was based on the, kind of, mingei value of making things straightforward, that the economy of touch was important, and you demonstrated your trust in the material with this economy of touch.
Warren would say, you know, “overworked.” That was the biggest thing I remember, really, from undergrad school. I remember “overworked.” He really wanted to encourage you to let the clay stand for itself, let it look the way that it looked, not try to cover it up or to make it pretty, to really try to use its character-to find its character and use it. And, you know, these things were just too abstract-I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t know what it meant. So it took some time to understand, I think, what Warren was doing.
And it did take time. I didn’t know. When I moved to Georgia and started making pottery, I did not understand the [Bernard] Leach-[Shoji] Hamada tradition. I didn’t really know what Warren was after or what he was suggesting, what it had to do with the work that I was doing. I came to understand it. It took looking around at a lot of different things and seeing a lot of pottery. We looked at a lot of pottery those first few years, all of the books we could get our hands on, every time I could see a pot show-anytime I could look at anybody’s pots, we would look at them.
MR. SHAPIRO: You looked at a lot of pots with Warren, as an undergraduate.
MR. SIMON: Warren had a lot of pots. Warren had a collection of pots he would bring. As an undergraduate student, he has pots of Hamada’s in the showcase, right in the studio there at the University of Minnesota. I mean, I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t know who Hamada was, and I didn’t know anything about these pots.
These pots were not easy to understand. They were not obvious, beautiful tent shape, or-they were great. I mean, I know the pots now. Warren still has them in his house and I see them and they are beautiful pots, but I didn’t have access to them. I didn’t know-I didn’t understand the language. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand them.
So as things developed-so the skill developed-just the technique of throwing developed, and then the repertoire spread out to where I had shapes to make. I started having a variety of shapes. At first, I remember the most frustrating thing was going to the studio-having a studio setup and having clay, and having the clay wedged, and then going to the wheel and not really being very sure of what I was going to make. That was the idea.
I remember those moments, and I was really uncomfortable. I thought this was silly. And then started to make myself prepare to go into work. I would start drawing just simple sketches of shapes I was going to make, so that when I got in the studio, I had enough-
[Audio break.]
MR. SIMON: Where did I get to?
MR. SHAPIRO: We are talking about-
MR. SIMON: -shapes, trying to develop shapes in the early days.
MR. SHAPIRO: You often used the word “menu.” I have heard you use the word to talk about the group of pots that you were making at any given time.
MR. SIMON: Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Did that idea start to form at that time?
MR. SIMON: Well, I think we did start-Sandra and I worked on the kilnloads together, and that kiln was bigger than my kiln here. I can’t remember. Maybe it was 50 cubic feet-it was not a huge kiln, but it was enough probably for three weeks or so-maybe two weeks, both of us working hard. And so I suppose this was somewhat market-driven, but we would try to make all varieties. I say we were pretending to be real potters, and part of that was that we wanted to make plates and cups and bowls, the things that we thought of as traditional functional pottery formats: teapots, jars, pitchers.
So we would try to make a variety of those things and put them in every kiln. And I suppose some of that was kind of market-driven; I am not really sure. I mean, we were learning about all of these shapes, and there was no other way to do it but just in trying to make them.
There was a point where I started to understand what Warren was doing. And consequently that opened up somewhat of an understanding about Leach and Hamada and what they had handed over, and then also how it related back to the real old potters whose work they were looking at, when they made some of the decisions that they made back in about 1920. The real-
MR. SHAPIRO: The old Asian?
MR. SIMON: Yeah.
MR. SHAPIRO: Or medieval.
MR. SIMON: Yeah, the Korean folk potters that-I mean, it was Asian-Chinese, Korean-but they were also looking, I think, at Middle Ages Japan. They were looking at real indigenous work. I think that was what they found moving and valuable.
And I came to understand the economy of working and gave it more credit in my work, but I just wasn’t a very-I don’t know what to say. I didn’t have enough technique, I don’t think. I think when I look back, I didn’t have enough technique. It didn’t look good. If I tried to throw a bowl in the manner of Warren’s-the way that he would just open up a bowl, and they would seem to kind of unfold, and he would be at the proportion he wanted.
And he wouldn’t touch the clay much, because everything was set up. He had the wall-the clay wall would come out, and it would be the wall that he needed. And at this early stage of my working, I would not be there. The clay wall would be too thin at the low down; and it wouldn’t support the shape or it wouldn’t-the proportion would be too high for as wide as it was. Or I didn’t have the patience to-a lot of this would ordinarily be overcome-this is kind of like apprenticeship work, where you would learn just to do this.
You know, I had never really worked like that; I had never made multiples of the same pot and learned how to make the proportion of the pot and make the clay wall and how integrated they were. It is just something that you have to learn, and I think that I didn’t have it. I didn’t have access to it at the time.
Sandra was developing a clay wall, and she had made many more pots because of having worked more in the first couple of years that we were here. But she started making bowls and plates that had beautiful shape and had a really nice clay wall, nice proportions, and I was just slower. I just didn’t have access to it yet.
It was crucial that I like the pots that I was making, it seemed to me. And so I just had to step back and make them, even though they didn’t fit into the way that I thought I should work, which was with a potter’s economy.
MR. SHAPIRO: Like Warren?
MR. SIMON: Yeah, more like Warren and what I imagine was the way Korean folk potters had worked: straightforward, you throw the wall, and the pot is-the pot is a traditional pot form that you are making. Your experience and your confidence and your directness make the surface and the shape dynamic, and you have the pot right there. It’s kind of built in, joined together. It’s beautiful.
So I just said-I said, well, I have to like the pots; it was crucial. I was getting pots out of the kiln that were trying to be something that I didn’t have access to yet, and I just determined that I needed to like the pots, and I was going to make them look the way I wanted them to look before they went in the kiln.
MR. SHAPIRO: Before they went in the kiln.
MR. SIMON: Well, you know, the firing was another thing. [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to fire things that I didn’t believe in. I just had to have a bottom line, someplace that I could work toward. I had to make that a real thing for myself. This is difficult to explain. Do you understand?
MR. SHAPIRO: Yes. Did that mean that you winnowed out certain shapes that weren’t working or that you-
MR. SIMON: Well, it just meant that I spent more time on the pots. The thing that I thought was dogma-not that I thought it was dogma-the thing that had become kind of dogma with me was to be direct, and to be direct with the clay was not giving me the pots that I wanted to get. So I just started to-you know, I just changed.
I just said, I have to make them the way that I can make them; I have to make them look the way I want them to look, so I have to make them the way that it will get there. It was pretty simple. It was pretty simple-it was a hard decision to make, because I was really deciding for myself how I was going to work. In a way it was a breakthrough. Now that I think about it, it was a breakthrough. [Laughs.]
MR. SHAPIRO: Did your pots become more complicated or just-
MR. SIMON: Well, yeah, I suppose they did-they became more complicated. I just let myself then kind of take control of all of the parts of the pot. I gave into time. I said, well, you know, I will work eight hours instead of working four, or I will do this-but I want to like the pots that end up with. I want to like the shapes, I want to like the surface, and I want to make them look the way I want them to look, and that got to be my bottom line. I can’t be guessing on the basis of someone else’s aesthetic and skill what I can do.
MR. SHAPIRO: When you said before that you were making this range of pots that was probably market-driven, did you mean people coming to buy your pots? What was that market?
MR. SIMON: What was that market, yeah. I just mean market-driven in that we imagined that somebody might want a teapot; somebody may want a pitcher. They are coming to me for a pot. I want to be ready with my pot shapes; I don’t want to say I don’t have any plates; I didn’t put any plates in my kiln. The other thing-I realize now when I said that, that other things were important, too.
We were trying to develop all of these shapes, and I remember thinking, you know, that I needed-I would try to keep all of these things going: make sure that I had some pitchers, and make sure I would work on jars, and make sure I would work on some wide-low shapes, and make sure I would-and try to make some tall cylinders that were pretty simple, and just try to expand the repertoire.
I was conscious of wanting to work for years. You know, at the time, I remember, being at 23 or 24, 25, that I thought, gosh, you know, if I keep doing this until I’m 40, I’m going to be able to do it. [Laughs.] And I thought 40 was tremendously-really old, but I thought that would be a lifetime of pottery-working, and there would be development. The development was constantly going on. Every kilnload would come out, and you would learn something, or have a good day’s throwing. There was always development. We started from such a basic level, and we had that first bit of time.
And Sandra and I developed a really good working relationship. It was hard. We had to develop ways of criticizing each other, or we felt like we did, and we got through it; we got to the point where we could talk to each other about the work. And every day-did so every day practically.

[Audio break, tape change.]

(Part 2 will run April 6th.)

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Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Warren MacKenzie

Vase by Warren MacKenzie. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oral history interview with Warren MacKenzie, b. 1924 
 Stillwater, Minn.

An interview of Warren MacKenzie conducted 2002 Oct. 29, by Robert Silberman for the Archives of American Art’s Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, in Stillwater, Minn.

MacKenzie speaks of his early childhood and eagerness to become a painter; being drafted in 1943; returning from active duty in the Army to find all the painting classes full and registering for a ceramic class; the significance of Bernard Leach’s A Potters Book to his early ceramic education, and fellow classmates; his studies at the Chicago Art Institute; museums in Chicago; his first wife, potter, Alix MacKenzie; traveling to England to receive further training from Leach, first being rejected and then returning a year later to work 2 years at Leach Pottery at St. Ives; contacts such as Shoji Hamada, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, and others; his lack of interest in sculptural ceramics; the good remnants of Leach pottery pots in his pottery today; Korean and Japanese influences; the International Potters and Weavers Conference in 1952 and returning to the U.S.; Alix’s role in arranging Hamada’s tour of the U.S. and exhibition in St. Paul; building their first pottery; exhibitions at the Walker Arts Center; purchasing the best Hamada pot at the St. Paul exhibit;

teaching at the University of Minnesota; his experiences at craft schools; his involvement with NCECA [National Council on Education in Ceramic Art] and the Minnesota Craft Council; his travels; the self-service showroom on his property; changes in the field of ceramics; the 1968 fire that destroyed his barn studio; his working process; his experience with a salt kiln; experimenting in each firing; and his monthly work schedule. MacKenzie also recalls Kathleen Blackshear, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Soetsu Yanagi, Jerry Liebling, Allen Downs, Walter Quirt, Phil Morton, Curt Heuer, Karen Karnes, David Weinrib, Josef Albers, Kenneth Ferguson, Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, David Lewis, Michael Cardew, and others.


Warren, why don’t we begin at the beginning? Could you describe your childhood and your family background?

WARREN MACKENZIE: Childhood. Well, I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and I do know from what my parents tell me that I was always interested in art, although not very good at it. At that 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. So 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. And the Chicago Art Institute did have the best –
[Audio break.]

MR. MACKENZIE: So 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.
In the middle of my second year at school, in 1943, I got drafted into the army, was gone for three years, and when I came back, I tried to get into the painting classes which I wanted, but because of all the returned GIs [the GI Bill], everyone was in school and the classes were all full. So I looked at the catalogue and found that there was a ceramic class offered and that there was space in that. I registered for a ceramic class and some drawing classes, et cetera, et cetera.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the ceramic class was not really a very good class. This was many years ago and should not reflect on the conditions at the Art Institute of Chicago to this day, but we didn’t know anything and we started to learn about how to work with clay.
About halfway through the year, one of the students discovered a book by Bernard Leach called A Potters Book [London: Faber & Faber, 1940] and came into the class very excited. And 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. He said such things as, “Any person should be able to make 50 pots easily in a day’s time,” and, “Any person should be able to throw a 15-inch-tall cylinder.” Well, we couldn’t do any of those things.

And so on alternate days, when the instructor was not there, we would sneak into the ceramics studio and try to do what Leach said we should do. Needless to say, we didn’t succeed very well, and in addition we angered the instructor, because instead of having just a few pots around the studio with the classes that she had, there were hundreds of very bad pots sitting around the studio, and she, needless to say, didn’t appreciate that very much.

We did manage to finish our training at the Chicago Art Institute. When I say “we,” I’m speaking of my first wife, Alix [Alixandra Kolesky MacKenzie], who also had been a painter and switched to ceramics because she was working with a Mexican settlement house on the west side of Chicago and felt that the young Mexicans would react better to working with clay than they did to working with a paintbrush and paper.

So we both got into ceramics, you might say, by the back door. Looking back on it, I think this was a very good thing. 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. First of all, because in working on a drawing or a painting, one can rework and rework and rework and change ideas until you get it the way you think is right at that time. With clay that’s not possible. You either succeed the first time, or you should wad it up and start over again, because you can’t mess around with the clay and still have it fresh.

So that was our training. And when we finished that, we came to St. Paul, because St. Paul was the first place where we got a job offer and we needed some sort of a job to earn some money in order to set up our own studio. It’s rather ironic that this job offer came originally through the Walker Art Center [Minneapolis, Minnesota], because at that time the Walker Art Center published a magazine called the Everyday Art Quarterly, and it was the baby of Hilda Reiss, a woman from Germany who had trained in the original Bauhaus.
[Break for phone call.]

MR. MACKENZIE: 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. The Walker Art Center at that time had a permanent exhibition on ceramics – all sorts of ceramics — explaining to people who knew nothing about it what ceramics could be, from ancient prehistoric things up to modern mass-produced work.

Anyway, we had written to Hilda and told her what we wanted to do, that we wanted to start a pottery similar to the – the Leach pottery, which we had read about. And she asked us to come and talk with her. We spent two days up here in Minnesota, and at the end of that time she said, well, we do not have a job for you, but we’ll find you a job.

MR. SILBERMAN: What year was this, Warren?

MR. MACKENZIE: This would have been 1948, the year when I graduated from art school.

She did find us a job at the old St. Paul Gallery and School of Art. They were just opening their school after being closed during the Second World War, and they decided that instead of opening a general purpose art school they were going to open a school centered on the crafts, and so we were hired to help set up and direct that school.

After we moved up here 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. And in searching for this further training we turned to England and Bernard Leach. We thought since we had responded to his book so strongly that this would be the sort of training that we would like to have. We saved money, during the summer went to Europe, and the first stop was to go to England, visit the Leach Pottery and ask Leach if he would take us on as apprentices.

MR. SILBERMAN: Before you make that great leap, can I go back for a bit and just ask you a little bit more about how you came to ceramics? That is, what kind of painter were you when you were a painter?

MR. MACKENZIE: I was a very hard-edged geometric painter, strongly influenced by [Piet] Mondrian and [Theo] van Doesburg and that sort of thing. Alix was a looser, more linear painter, dealing with amoebic forms, let’s say, close to [Joan] Miró as opposed to my more static exploration of space.

So, it turned out – 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.

Alix, 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. And finally if I had a pot that needed decoration, I would hand it to Alix and I would say, “Can you do something with this?” And she’d look at it for a while and then proceed with a brush to embellish the form and enhance the form, and it was wonderful. She could bring the pot to life, whereas if I did it, it was a disaster. So I very quickly stopped almost all decoration. I was interested in the three-dimensional form of the pots, but my decoration was nonexistent.

MR. SILBERMAN: When you were first picking up pottery but still a painter at the Art Institute, were you also thinking about other media and working in other media?

MR. MACKENZIE: We had to take a very wide-ranging program. I took a number of graphic courses, lithography and etching and wood engraving. We had to take a tremendous amount of life drawing, which was the one class that we just hated. And particularly as I got more and more into ceramics, I thought, life drawing doesn’t have anything to do with ceramics. I found out later on that was not true, that life drawing tells you a great deal about rhythm, about the structure of a human being or any animate object, and this could be directly translated into thinking about proportion and accent, rhythm in a pot form.

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. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: Was the Bauhaus influence strong at the Art Institute or the new Bauhaus influence in Chicago?

MR. MACKENZIE: No. There was a school in Chicago called the School of Design. This was started by [Laszló] Moholy-Nagy, and it was a wonderful school, but we didn’t go to that school. We did have friends who went to that school and we would visit there often, and I’m sure it pushed me in my painting direction very strongly just by association. But we stayed on at the Institute because that was – I don’t know, you start at one place and you stay there, I guess. Inertia takes over.

MR. SILBERMAN: But you were doing silk screen and some commercial – you were doing fabric design?

MR. MACKENZIE: 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. Then 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, et cetera., et cetera.

MR. SILBERMAN: High art.

MR. MACKENZIE: All sorts of dumb things, but it did teach me a lot about the silk-screen process. And so that carried over when I returned from the Army and took more graphic classes at the Institute. And Alix and I actually began to produce a line of textiles, which had silk-screen patterns on them.

You know, when you’re young, you think you can do anything, and we thought, oh, 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. Well, it doesn’t work out that way, as you probably know, and eventually both of us gave up the drawing and painting, gave up the silk-screening, gave up the textile design, and concentrated on ceramic work, because that was where we felt our true interest lay.

MR. SILBERMAN: Before we go to England, one more question about Chicago, which is, what were you looking at there? It sounds as if you were almost self-taught as ceramicists, with some aid, technical aid, but what were you looking at in terms of ceramics and other art when you were in Chicago?

MR. MACKENZIE: 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. There were galleries of great variety showing paintings and ceramics.

Our main inspiration, 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. And so 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.

And the other thing about it which inspired us 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.

In looking at these pots at the Field Museum, Alix and I both came to a conclusion individually but also collectively that the pots that really interested us were the pots that people had used in their everyday life, and we began to think – I mean, whether it was ancient Greece or Africa or Europe or wherever, the pots that people had used in their homes were the ones that excited us. And so we thought, 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.

And I’m not sorry. I don’t find it at all limiting. In fact, 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. And this is something which I think I have been able to communicate to both people I have taught and people that have purchased our work since that time, that they all say, it’s so nice to have these pots with us all the time and to eat out of them and be in direct contact with them in our homes.

MR. SILBERMAN: I am one and I agree. [Laughter.] I can say that.

MR. MACKENZIE: Thank you, Robert.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you get to handle the pots in the collections ever? Did you ever actually get to do more than see them at that point?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, not at all, no. 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. And if you requested a visit, he would take you down in the stacks and he’s say, “What do you want to see?” and you could request to look at anything that they owned, and he would bring it out and put it on a padded table, and you could actually pick these things up and handle them and experience them directly, at least as directly almost as the people who used them in their original lives.

MR. SILBERMAN: But at that time, when you were a student at the Art Institute school, you weren’t getting to handle pots in the Art Institute collection?

MR. MACKENZIE: Not at all. Not at all.

MR. SILBERMAN: How was your taste being shaped, apart from that basic concern with functional pottery, by teachers like Blackshear? Were you being pointed in one direction or another? Were you developing toward one continent, or were you just loving pots in all directions?

MR. MACKENZIE: Not really. The two teachers that I had in the Art Institute who affected me the most were Kathleen Blackshear and Robert von Neumann; Kathleen Blackshear because she taught a class called design – I can’t remember, design something, and in this class – it met once a week – we would do work centered around some theme, word or subject or technique or whatever, and bring it in for a three-hour discussion. And Kathleen was able, in watching and looking at our work, to direct us to all kinds of things which might relate to what we were trying to do, but she never attempted to tell us what to do. She just said, “Have you thought of looking at this?” and so on and so on and so on. And it was a discussion group where everyone had a say, and it was a tremendous learning experience.

Robert von Neumann taught painting, and when I finally got into a painting class of his, he reacted in much the same way. It was a figure painting class, where you had a model, and he would wander around and he’d come up behind someone and say, “Well, what are you trying to do?” And if you told him what you were trying to do, he would then proceed to discuss this with you and suggest things that you might look at and ways in which you could improve what you were attempting to do, et cetera – never worked on your painting, never touched your painting but talked extensively about what you were trying to do. If you didn’t know what you were trying to do, he wouldn’t say a word. He would just turn and walk away. So you very quickly learned to think that you’d better be attempting to do something in that painting class.

And those two teachers were just fantastic, I thought. They never directed you in a single direction, but they just encouraged you to think for yourself.

MR. SILBERMAN: A good model for a future teacher.


MR. SILBERMAN: Well, now let’s make the great leap and take you to England. Tell me what happened when you got there — you and Alix got there.

MR. MACKENZIE: We had decided we needed further training, and certainly Leach was the one we turned to. So we went to England this summer and we took examples of our work along with us and showed them to Bernard Leach and told him what we were trying to do. And of course he took one look at our work and he said – very quickly he said, “I’m sorry, we’re full up,” and this was his way of politely saying, you just don’t make the cut.

So we said, “Well, now, look, we’re here for two weeks.” We had a reservation at a bed and breakfast place, and in England since everyone gets a two-week holiday, everyone goes somewhere for that two weeks and you get a reservation for two weeks at a bed and breakfast or a hotel or whatever. We had a reservation. We said, “Do you mind if we stay around, visit the pottery every day, and learn as much as we can in this two weeks that we are going to be here?” And he said that was “quite all right.”
And so every day we’d trudge up the hill – it was a three-quarter-mile walk up this steep hill to the Leach Pottery, and we would take our lunch with us and generally, I guess, make a nuisance of ourselves. I mean, 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.

At the end of that two weeks Bernard asked us if we would like to sit with him tending the kiln, the big oil-fired kiln that they had. He was still sitting what we call a kiln watch at that time, and he wondered if we would like to sit the watch with him and talk. So naturally this was our last opportunity to talk with him, so we said yes. We didn’t realize Bernard’s kiln watch was from 1:00 in the morning until 4:00 AM. We went back to the bed and breakfast and caught a few hours sleep and then woke up at midnight, walked up the hill, and we sat talking with Bernard through the night until about 8:00 in the morning. And none of us went to sleep; we just talked and talked.

And the interesting thing was we never talked about pottery. Bernard talked about social issues; he talked about the world political situation, he talked about the economy, he talked about all kinds of things. He 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.”

And so we went back to St. Paul, worked for a year – again, I guess I would have to admit now, doing a rather shaky job of teaching people — but at the end of that year we returned to England and worked in the Leach Pottery for two and a half years.

We were more fortunate than most, because 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.

MR. SILBERMAN: It wouldn’t be that way now on a plane. [Laughs.]

MR. MACKENZIE: No, but we had a wonderful trip, a seven-day trip, talking and sitting in the sun and so forth. And as we were approaching England, Leach said, “Do you have a place to live?” And we said, “No, we didn’t.” We hadn’t worried about that. We figured we’d find a room in town, and it shouldn’t be difficult because St. Ives is a tourist town and there are lots of bed and breakfast places and that sort of thing. But Bernard had just separated from his second wife, which we had not realized, and Bernard was a person who could not stand to live alone. So he said, “Would you like to share my house with me?” Naturally we said yes, and it was a wonderful opportunity. And so for two and a half years we lived with Leach.

And when we worked at the pottery, we did learn to make pots, that is, the physical act of making the pot. We learned to control clay, to put it where you want it and not just wherever it wanted to go, and that was valuable. At the end of about six months, though, I think if that was all we had, we may have been inclined to leave because the workshop did not challenge us so much as living with Leach did. Living with 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. Eventually we even got to the point where we could disagree with him. 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. Eventually everyone said, “You know, you’ve got to stop that. Call him Bernard or call him B.L.,” which was what most of the people in the pottery called him.

And so we became more familiar with him, and with this familiarity came, I wouldn’t say contempt, but certainly an awareness that everything that he said was not necessarily what we were thinking. That doesn’t mean it was wrong, but Leach was a person out of a different generation. In fact, he was several generations removed from us. At that time we were there, I think Alix 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.

But we did respect him, although we also were willing to challenge ideas and at least put forth our feelings about the way the pottery was run, about things that were done, about the pots we were making, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and we would get into sometimes some very fierce arguments. We’d be shouting at one another because of disagreements.

MR. SILBERMAN: For example, what would be a big issue that you would disagree over?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, when Bernard wrote his book, he wrote about the fact that even when pots are made in a series, there is a personality to each pot and that the person who made it reflects their personality into the clay. In working in the pottery we found that this was not the case, and instead we were working from very exact models and dimensions and weights of clay to make these pots which had been designed some 10 or 12 years previous to our arriving there. And we, being, I guess you would say young, arrogant Americans, thought that we ought to be able to somehow express ourselves a little bit more in the daily work of the pottery.

Looking back on it now, I understand why that was not possible, because the pottery employed a dozen people, not all of whom are making pots. There was a bookkeeper and a woman secretary in charge of the showroom. There was a man who did nothing but mix clay and pack pots for shipping. There was another young guy who helped mix clay and glazed all the work that we made so it could go into the kiln. And these people had families, children, and they had to have a wage that would allow them to raise their family and they had to get a paycheck every Friday afternoon. So if we had not made pots that would sell it, would not have been possible for these people to be employed.

And for that reason there was a great deal of restriction on the making of the pots in the pottery. 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 do remember that when we left after two and a half years, we went home on a boat again – this was before air travel became really easy – and Alix 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.” And we never did. That is, we never had a catalogue; we never said we were going to duplicate these pots this year and next year and the year after that and so forth. We did make many pots which were repeated, but we allowed them to change and to grow as we changed and grew, and I think that was the big difference. And that’s all right; we were working for ourselves. We didn’t have anybody we had to pay.

And in addition, I taught. Alix had stopped teaching because we had a child and she stayed home to take care of the baby, and I taught. Eventually I gave up teaching at the St. Paul Gallery because of disagreements with the philosophy of that museum, and I got a job at the University of Minnesota, which was very fortunate because it was a part-time job and that gave us a great deal of time in our studio to work together and to make the pots we wanted to make.

MR. SILBERMAN: Before we go forward on what happened on your return, can we go back to England for a few more minutes?

MR. MACKENZIE: Back to England.

MR. SILBERMAN: You obviously gained great proficiency technically working there. How did you develop your ideas and your forms and the kinds of pots you were making when you weren’t making Leach pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: Several ways. First of all, we were living with Bernard in his home. He had a fantastic collection of early English and Japanese and Chinese and Korean pots and German pots, contemporary English work as well. And we had access to this collection. In fact, when Bernard would be called away to go up to London for something and we’d be living alone for a couple of days, we would dig into the storage areas in the house and we’d get out all the pots that we might not see in the course of our daily life, because we weren’t using them in the house on a steady basis. But we found some fantastic pots in there tucked away, and we could look at them and examine them and handle them.

And it was there that we really first came in contact with the work of Shoji Hamada, who was Bernard’s best friend from Japan, who had come from Japan back to England with Leach when Leach was establishing his pottery. Bernard had acquired many Hamada works. Some of them, it was interesting – first of all, Hamada worked in St. Ives for about four years before returning to Japan to start his own pottery. He had exhibitions in London, and if these exhibitions didn’t sell out, the galleries were instructed to send the remaining work down to the Leach Pottery, where they would go into the showroom for sale. If Bernard saw one that hadn’t sold that he really admired, then he would take it (he would buy it), and it would go into the house. It was in that way that we really came to understand the differences between what Hamada made and what Leach was making, or what we were making in the Leach Pottery.

Bernard was, as I said earlier, trained as a painter and an etcher. He was an incredible draftsman, and at the end of breakfast time, for instance, he would push his plate back, and he’d pull an old scrap of paper out of his pocket and a little stub of a pencil, and he’d begin to make small drawings, about an inch and a half, two inches tall, of pots that he wanted to make. And they were beautiful drawings. I really wish I’d stolen some of those scraps of paper, because those drawings were exquisite explorations of his ideas of form and volume in a ceramic piece.

If he 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.

This was a difference between Leach and Hamada. Hamada seldom drew an exact drawing of a pot that he was going to make. I used to think Hamada never drew, until there was a book by Bernard 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. Bernard’s drawings delineated every little accent on the pot, every subtle curve and change of angle and proportion and all. Hamada’s were little one-line notations of something he wanted to remember about a pot or a piece of furniture or a landscape or something like that, and they were just done very quickly and they had, he thought, no artistic quality. They’re not great drawings, but they served to remind him of something he had in his mind, so that when he then went to the studio, that would stick in his mind and he could explore the making of the pot with the clay on the wheel. Bernard was making pots which were duplicates of his drawing, and that was a difference of approach, which I think is quite critical to these two men.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you? Who have you followed in that – [inaudible]?

MR. MACKENZIE: I followed Hamada, because I guess Alix 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.
I say we wanted to do this as though we were able to. I think back to some of the pots we made when we first started our pottery, and they were pretty awful pots. We thought at the time they were good; they were the best we could make, but our thinking was so elemental that the pots had that quality also, and so they don’t have a richness about them which I look for in my work today. Whether I achieve it all the time, that’s another question, because I don’t think a person can produce at top level 100 percent of the time.

I mean, I make a lot of pots in a year’s time and some of them are good and some of them are mediocre and some of them are bad. If they’re really bad and I’d be ashamed of them, I throw them out, but if they’re mediocre and they’ll serve the purpose for which they’re designed, that is, a mixing bowl or a soup bowl or a plate or whatever, I sell them. And this income from the sale of these pots permits me to go on and make other pots. It’s even more important now that I’ve quit teaching, because I do not have a teacher’s salary to fall back on.

MR. SILBERMAN: But your thinking about what kinds of pots you would like to make really started shifting dramatically when you were there, and by the time you got back, you had an agenda, or a mission.

MR. MACKENZIE: That’s right.

MR. SILBERMAN: What was it like being in St. Ives then? Because there are a lot of artists, I mean, now, known for that period.

MR. MACKENZIE: First of all, we benefited from living with Leach, because suddenly all of his friends became our acquaintances. Bernard knew Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Johnny Wells. I can think of a number of people that we met there just because we were living with Bernard. Some of them became our friends, particularly the younger artists, but we were privileged to at least meet and talk with the older artists also. And they would come to dinner, and we would simply be included in the conversation, which was quite fascinating.

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. They have all sorts of legends about the quality of light and everything like that, which I guess Whistler maybe talked about, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s a small fishing town and one can live there inexpensively. There’s a sympathetic population of other artists, where you can exchange ideas, and it’s quite rich in artistic thought.
MR. SILBERMAN: What about the other British potters? Were they coming to visit or were you going to travel and meet them?

MR. MACKENZIE: Both. Friends of Bernard’s came to visit, and when we went to London, we were given introductions to people like Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Richard Batram. All these people were, let’s say, made available to us by a friendship with Leach. In addition there was a potter’s group – what was it called? I think it was called the Cornish Potters Society, but I’m not sure of that. Anyway, they had meetings and we would go with Leach to these meetings and meet other potters, and they would have programs where they would discuss pottery and people would interchange ideas.
And so we got a great benefit from our contact with those people and met people that we wouldn’t have probably met if we had simply worked at the pottery.

I don’t know, it’s very difficult if you’re in a strange country to just barge in and say, “Hello, I’m Warren MacKenzie, and aren’t you happy to have me as a guest,” you know? But they did accept us and we remained friends for many, many years, many of them as long as they lived; like Lucie Rie and Hans Coper were very good friends, and it was wonderful.
Their work was nothing like the work we were doing at the Leach Pottery, and in fact, if you take Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, their work didn’t even relate to what we were trying to do, because they were moving in a different direction, both of them coming out of Europe and the Viennese school of design, which Lucie came from, and Coper learning from Lucie and then springing off on his own when she encouraged him to explore more widely. So he created his own work instead of just working for her and doing her forms. So that was a wonderful thing.

MR. SILBERMAN: The people and the work you saw was more just an affirmation of the artist’s life or the potter’s life than giving you specific ideas or specific influences?

MR. MACKENZIE: At that time, yes, although subsequently – I mean, I’ve been influenced by someone or their work. I mentioned Hans Coper as an example. About five years ago I was working on some forms which were vase forms with a fairly narrow base, and it was after 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. These narrow-footed forms I was making, I thought, gosh, I could push those further, not to construct them the way Coper did but to work in my own manner but push it more toward that form. And I learned to do that and enjoyed it for a number of years. They’re not like Coper’s at all, but the idea came from seeing this catalogue of his work, although at the time we knew Hans, his work was nothing like that.

MR. SILBERMAN: You read Leach’s book, then you lived with him and worked in the pottery, and you talked about how that affected your idea about how to run a pottery or how to do work, but did it reaffirm your belief in functional pottery? Were you tempted to do sculptural work at that time, or try it?

MR. MACKENZIE: No. I never have been. That is not quite true. I shouldn’t say never have been; when I was in school in the Art Institute, we had several problems during the course of the time we were taking ceramic classes where we had to do a sculptural piece. And when I say a sculptural piece, it’s nothing like what we conceive of now as a sculptural piece. 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.

But it didn’t stick with me. I never felt I wanted to go on with that. And as far as I know about Alix’s work, I don’t believe she ever did any sculptural work at all. It was always pottery.

MR. SILBERMAN: What about the wheel versus slab building or molds?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, again, in school we did all sorts of things, molds, slab building. We were not very proficient on the wheel because the woman who taught was not proficient on the wheel. And so we learned from her assistant who had learned from her assistant the year before and so on, and that was not very good training.

But in the Leach Pottery we did most of our work on the wheel. Leach did a little work in the studio, which was press-molded forms, plastic clay pressed into plaster forms to make small rectangular boxes and some vase forms, which he liked to make. These were molds which had been made to an original that he had modeled in solid clay, and during our work there, sometimes I would be pressing these forms as a means of production.
But 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. I’m striving to make things which are the most exciting things I can make that will fit in people’s homes. And in that respect, working on the wheel is economically about the only answer I know, because one can, as Leach said, make 50 pots in a day. You can make 100 pots in a day. A really good potter can make 400 pots in a day.

So since your time is your main involvement here – I mean, the clay doesn’t cost very much. Even the glaze and the firing doesn’t cost a great deal. But your time is the cost, and if you can keep your time to a minimum and still come out with the results you want, that means the pots can be sold for an economic price.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you like working on the wheel, too.

MR. MACKENZIE: And I do. It is true – for a number of reasons. First of all, because of the directness of it; that is, things happen very quickly and they have to happen quickly in order to have vitality, which I think is essentially part of a good pot. But in addition it means that you can explore an idea and change it and then change it and then change it; I don’t mean by changing the one pot, but you make one pot then you make another that’s related to that; you make another – you can make 50 pots in a day and none of them are going to be carbon copies of any other, but they’ll all be related because there’s something going through your mind about the form on that particular day.

And so there is this ability to explore ideas, but with minute changes, and then look at the results. Often you get so excited about what you’re doing that you think, “Oh, wow, this is just great.” And you look at it a week later and you realize you’d been excited by the act of creation, but what you’ve created is not really exciting when you look at it in cold blood. And so that, to me, is a valuable lesson also.

Every pot is not going to be a masterpiece. In Japan I learned something. We visited Japan and went to Hamada’s pottery, and behind his kiln was the biggest scrap heap I’ve ever seen in my life. And in talking with him, he said that he destroyed about two-thirds of his production – destroyed it, I mean, just shattered, broken, because it didn’t come up to the standard that he had set for himself. I don’t do that because I’m not trying to make the super pots the way he did, but it’s an important thing to realize that even a person with the talent that Hamada had was not able to make every pot a really fine piece. There was a lot of scrap.

MR. SILBERMAN: But when you were at St. Ives, you started getting the technical proficiency as a foundation for the expressive possibilities.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, yes, yes, but we were not really allowed the expression in our daily work there. In the evenings, yes. Saturday and Sunday – we only worked half day Saturday for the pottery, and then when we worked on our own stuff in the evenings. Bernard would come in and – in fact, he’d come in while we were working, and we’d discuss what we were doing. And that was really nice because he was then discussing what we were doing, not whether we were making a good Leach Pottery pot. And we got the benefit of his observations.

I would at this point say I think that Leach was perhaps one of the most articulate, perceptive people about ceramic work of anyone I’ve ever known. He had biases. He had certain shortsighted qualities that we had to learn to put up with, but he could look at a piece and say, “You know, if you’d change this a little bit, I think it would make it a much better pot.” And so you’d try one and you’d change it a little, explore ways of changing that part that he talked about, and it would be a better pot, because he had a keen eye and could communicate to you about it.

That’s another interesting difference between he and Hamada – that Bernard did analyze, he did theorize, he did try to find ways of expressing himself about pot forms. Hamada seldom talked about it in the same way. When Leach and Hamada were together, they may have discussed these things – I don’t know; we weren’t privy to that – but Hamada, in terms of control of his thinking, never articulated in the same manner that Leach did. And it wasn’t because he couldn’t speak English; he spoke very good English. It was just that he chose not to. I think it had something to – trying to avoid being too intellectual about what was done.

Leach wrote in his book about the Koreans, who Hamada admired as potters – as craftspeople, I should say. The potters, the weavers, the woodworkers, the metalworkers in Korea, all had an approach which was very loose, and Leach spoke about it as they seldom – I must never say never, I guess, but they seldom talked about a pot as being a good pot or a bad pot. They just talked about it as being a pot. He said they had a term, and I think it was the word M-U – mu, I guess — and this had neither positive nor negative connotations about it. And I think Hamada, admiring the Koreans as he did, tried to put himself into that sort of a situation. So you would think – and yet, no, I’m saying this and just thinking about that great scrap pile behind his kiln. He did decide that some of his pots were not good pots, but he didn’t talk about it too much.

MR. SILBERMAN: What were your pots like when you left Leach?

MR. MACKENZIE: They were very much like Leach Pottery pots. [Laughs.] They were –

MR. SILBERMAN: And how long did that take before you got perspective on that?

MR. MACKENZIE: Oh, I guess there are still remnants of Leach Pottery sense to my pots.

MR. SILBERMAN: What are the good remnants of the Leach Pottery pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: An articulation of form, which Bernard was always talking about, an interaction of structural and – what do I want to say, fleshlike, or enhancement of the structure.

Bernard used to constantly talk about the relationship of the pot to the human body, and this is what I go back to – I said that we had to take a great many life drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I thought afterwards, you know, these will never be any good to me because I’m going to be a potter. But they are good, because in those life drawing classes you learn to look at the structure of a human being and to think about the skeleton, which supports the structure, and think about the flesh, which enhances the skeleton, and Leach was constantly harping on the structure of the pot beneath the form, that there must be a sensed structure. Otherwise, the pot would just be all soft and flabby, without articulation. But if it was too stiff and too angular, it would perhaps be unpleasant, because there was no warmth or humanity to it, and the relationship of the structure to that warmth or humanity was something that Leach was always harping on and something which I’ve tried to keep foremost in my own work.

Many times – it’s embarrassing to say — I make a bunch of pots, and while I’m making them, I have something in my mind. And then if those pots hang around the studio for two or three weeks while I’m accumulating the work for a firing, I’ll sometimes look at a finished pot, unglazed but let’s say the form is finished, and I look at it and I can’t for the life of me think what I was thinking about when I made that pot, because I don’t see any qualities which I admire. Those pots are the kind that I usually chuck out, because they don’t hold up to a more objective view when one gets away from the actual process of making them. But this was something which Bernard talked about a great deal, not only about the pots we made at the Leach Pottery but his own work as well and the work that he wrote about.

An instance happened while we were there which taught me a great deal. Bernard worked in a part of the shop that was away from the rest of us. He had a separate studio upstairs, and so we didn’t actually see him making pots so much. But when he wanted to decorate his ware, it had to come down to the glazing room, where the pigments and slips and so forth were for decorating. And one day he brought down about three boards full of pots, 20 pots, let’s say, and then he got called away to the phone, and we, of course, all went into the glazing room to see what he had brought down, and we were able to pick up and handle his work. And there was a man who worked in the pottery, Bill Marshall, and Bill was technically the best thrower in the pottery. He could work with more clay; he could shape it quickly and easily and throw very well. And Bill looked at all these pots and picked them up and handled them and so on. And he finally said something which shocked us, but I guess I would have to have agreed with it. He said, “Bernard can’t throw worth a damn.” And we all thought, oh, well. And then Bill finished his statement; he said, “But he makes better pots than any of us.”

And that’s, I think, a truth also, that his pots had a life to them which had something way beyond the technical making, and that’s the kind of thing which – well, it woke me up. And Hamada has said similar things. Hamada said once, “I’m not a good thrower. There are many better throwers than I in Japan.” But, of course, he was selected as a national treasure, his work was collected and sought after, and he was certainly one of the best-known potters in Japan and around the world when he was alive.

So it’s not the technical side of it that matters; it’s something beyond that, and that’s something which I think I’ve always tried to keep in my mind, whether successfully or not, I’m not sure. And once in a while I’m kind of horrified. I just had an experience the other day. I had thrown some small covered jars, and I was so intent on the shape of the jars that I somehow ignored the structure. And I took these off the wheel and dried them and put them into the electric kiln for the first firing, for the bisque firing, and two of these jars blew up in the bisque firing, not because they weren’t dry but because they were so thick at the bottom. I had neglected to think about the structure of the pot, I was so concentrating on the form of the pot.

Now, if they hadn’t blown up, I probably would have kept them. If I was excited by the shape, I think the weight I would be inclined to ignore. And that’s just a personal thing. You can agree or disagree with its validity, but that’s the way I work.

MR. SILBERMAN: It sounds like by the time you left the Leach Pottery, you had your Hamada side and your Leach side in pretty clear perspective, even though you had to get your work developed to where it would totally satisfy you.


MR. SILBERMAN: When you were there looking at this great collection and talking pots 25 hours a day, what were the things you really loved that you didn’t know about before, I mean in terms of the different ceramic traditions, and how did you begin to sort out where you might fit between Asia and old English pots at that point?

MR. MACKENZIE: I think we found something within ourselves, which I still believe, I guess. People ask me – let me try and put it this way – people ask me why I am so influenced by Asian pots: Chinese, Japanese, Korean. I’m not so much influenced by Chinese pots, but Japanese and Korean, yes. And if I look for an answer to that, I usually answer by saying, I think that the people in Asia, in contrast to the people in any other country or continent, have paid attention to the things which the contemporary potter in America is likely to pay attention to and worry about.

In that respect I would go to the quality of clay as a beginning. Now, I’m not saying that every Japanese potter or Korean potter was very selective about their quality of clay. In fact, in the old days they were much more likely to have simply used the clay that they were given because it was the local clay of the area. But being given a particular kind of clay, they then looked at it and learned to exploit it, learned to get the most out of it, so that the clay became a very important aspect of the finished product. It wasn’t just a kind of a shapeless paste with no quality whatsoever; it had a texture and it had a color and it had a pliability or a structural quality to it which they could find out about and exploit.
They also studied and exploited the many ways in which clay can be formed, from simple coil building, through the wheel, press molds, slabs, all kinds of things, and got the most out of the technique that they were using to fabricate the piece. And then the quality of the glazes, not just the glaze to make the thing waterproof and shiny but a glaze which had a character in it of itself and a decoration, or lack of decoration, the firing process, all these things.

And these things, in our time today, are very, very much studied by American potters. And so I turned back, and Alix also, to this civilization which had thought about these things before we did and exploited them, and I think we learned a great deal, particularly from having that direct physical contact with these things at Bernard’s home. Since then we’ve built the collection that I have now. This is something you only find out by actually living with and working with a particular pot form.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you like clay from the start, working with clay as opposed to paint and easel and canvas?

MR. MACKENZIE: Oh yeah, yeah. Even in that bad class I did love clay. I think I went to painting because that was what you did at that time if you thought you were going to be an artist, but I never really got involved in the juiciness of paint and the possibilities that exist in that respect, and the excitement of the way paint can be exploited and used in a variety of ways. I never got excited about it. I was always thinking of a visual image and just trying to get that visual image on the canvas, and I think that’s not what being a painter is all about.

And if you reverse the situation, I think that there are potters who are just concerned with a visual image, and they do anything necessary to make that visual image. But their work may just be awful; it may be dead, because they’ve created the image, but they haven’t got any spirit in it. They don’t really love making those pots.

MR. SILBERMAN: You like being hands-on with it, getting your hands on the materials?


MR. SILBERMAN: At what point did you start thinking in terms of the relationship between your hands and the hands of the user, and that communication?

MR. MACKENZIE: I guess from the time we worked at the Leach Pottery, because that was constantly stressed. Even though I disagreed with much of the kind of pottery we were making – it was too formal; it came out of an English lifestyle – but still, the way one’s hands fit on the handle of a mug was constantly being studied and talked about and all, and we tried different kinds of handles and so on. And it was just always uppermost in our mind, was how people related to these things tactically and visually, even though, as I say, it was very much a British expression and not something that I warmed up to much.
In fact, I just remembered – you know, when you’re working in a studio like that five and a half days a week, and you’re making someone else’s work, you do get a little bit fed up. And we had an old motorcycle, and when we got really just tired of making the Leach Pottery pots, we’d take a day or two off and we’d go out and we’d visit other potters and visit shops.
[Audio break.]

MR. SILBERMAN: We are rolling, and you were telling about getting on the motorcycle after a bad day at the pottery and going out to see other potters.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. We would get on our motorbike, and we’d take off a couple days and go visit other potteries and go to shops and galleries and museums and so on. And having been fed up with the repetition and the things that we were doing, we’d come back to the studio, and you would say, you know, in spite of how irritated we get doing this repetition and all, when you come back and look at the Leach Pottery pots, I think they were the best ones at that time being made in England for a production pottery, a pottery that was turning out a fair amount of work and employed people to help in that process.
You lose sight of it if you’re buried in it all the time. You just get kind of fed up with it. And it was that, problem, I think that prompted Alix to say, “You know, it was a great experience, but that’s not the way we want to run our pottery.” But it was a different situation, too, because of employees, because of the fact of having to produce a ware that was going to be satisfactory to people who ordered it out of a photograph in a catalogue, and it couldn’t be just something that somebody wanted to toss off sometime, which I can do now. And if it’s something a little wild, I can put it in the showroom until somebody sees it and loves it. But they couldn’t in England, because they were selling it daily in shops and catalogues.

MR. SILBERMAN: I once wrote, “In overhead begins responsibilities,” which is business and employees. [Laughs.]

Well, let’s bring you back to America. You had your two and a half years and your training and your conversations and arguments with Bernard. What did you think you were going to do, most want to do, and what did you do?
MR. MACKENZIE: Before we come back to America, our last thing that we did in England, we had quit work at the Leach Pottery and completed our work, and we had gone off to Wales to do some volunteer labor, but Bernard had asked us to come to this International Potters and Weavers Conference, which he and another woman organized at Dartington Hall. This was in 1952. Leach had invited Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, the leader of the folk craft movement, to come to that conference, and it was the first time that Hamada had been in England, I think Bernard said, since 1935.

The other funny thing is Bernard, who was Hamada’s closest friend and Hamada’s – Bernard is his closest friend, Bernard would write constantly to Hamada in the intervening years. Hamada never wrote back until suddenly Bernard wrote and invited him to attend this conference, and Hamada wrote and he says, “Yanagi and I will come,” and they came.

So that was where we first met Hamada, at that conference, and it was really a wonderful experience. There were people from all over the world and potters from Africa, from Germany, from France, from Scandinavian countries, from Japan, not only Hamada but another potter, and it was a great experience. We lived together for, I guess, about 10 days, and they had demonstrations and they had papers and all, so we learned a great deal.
At the end of that time Leach decided he was going to go back to Japan with Hamada and Yanagi, but they also, discussing it, decided that instead of going the usual way from England, which is to go through Europe and India and on to Japan, they would continue West and go to America, where Leach had been but Hamada had not been, and Yanagi had not been there for many years.

So Alix had this brilliant idea. She was a great one for ideas, and she 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.” And so then Alix naturally arranged to have them stop one of the stops in St. Paul (we taught at St. Paul). The first one was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. The second one was in St. Paul. The third was at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, and the fourth one was in California at the Chouinard Institute, I think it was, where Susan Peterson was teaching.
And then Alix, with a great deal of nerve, said, “Well, as long as you’re coming to St. Paul, could you send an exhibition over?” And so Hamada said, “Well, I can’t do it, but I’ll call my son and have him send a show.” And so he called his son and his son, Shinsaku, selected an exhibition of Hamada’s work and about 20 pots of Kanjiro Kaiwai also, which came to St. Paul, and we had what I believe is the first exhibition of Hamada’s work in America, the first major exhibition of Hamada’s work at a museum, in America.

But unfortunately it never got the attention it should have, but it was a remarkable thing to see that collection of his new pieces that he had just made before he left for England, and they were sent to the gallery in St. Paul.

So that was a wonderful thing to have happen. But that all happened sometime after we had returned. We came back in, I guess, July or so, and we went back to work at the St. Paul Art Center, but that didn’t last too long because we were growing somewhat unhappy with the direction the Art Center was taking. They were doing too much compromising, in our estimation. And so I tried to get another job. And the University of Minnesota was unhappy with their person who had been teaching ceramics and they were letting her go, and so the director of the art department, Harvey Arnason said, “All right, we’ll give you a chance.” But, he said, “If at any time there is any problem with a drop in enrollment or budget problems, ceramics is going to be closed down.” And fortunately there wasn’t – [laughs] – and I was able to stay on there from then on. I guess I first got that job in 1953, in the spring of the year, and ceramics went on successfully.

But meanwhile we had found a place, this place where Nancy and I are living now, in the country. It was an old defunct farm. The man had sold off so much acreage that no farmer wanted to buy it because they couldn’t earn a living on the little remaining land. It was within our price range, which was just absolutely dead cheap. And the other thing, they had just put in a new furnace in this house and they had drilled a new well, so we knew that the heat and the water supply were going to be taken care of; we didn’t have to put any money into that. And we looked at the house, we said we could live in it, we didn’t have to put any money in the house, and we put all our money into starting the pottery, which we did in the basement of the old barn just to the west of us here.

We got friends to help shovel out the manure, and we tried to insulate a portion of the lower section of the barn as much as we could. We built a concrete block wall around a section of that lower part of the barn, which we could heat, and work in in the winter.

Meanwhile we built the kiln. I spent the summer building the kiln, and the kiln that I built was a kiln patterned after the one at the Leach Pottery, because it was the only large kiln that I’d ever seen built. We had rebuilt it while we were there. I didn’t mention that, but it was one of the activities – the kiln had been built in 1923 or ‘4 and it had lasted until 1950, but it was in pretty bad shape, and so they decided to rebuild, and I did see and participate in the rebuilding of that kiln. And then we built our kiln here patterned after that one. So it was oil-fired. Ours was a two-chamber kiln instead of a three-chamber kiln, which was at the Leach Pottery. And it worked all right – not well, but all right. [Laughs.]
We finally began to love it, because it was the only kiln we had had our own control over. Gradually the pottery changed a little bit, and we had a little display area outside the working space, which was – the display area was not heated; the working space was heated. We mixed our own clay. I designed a pug mill and had it done by a local welding shop. And we mixed our clay in that pug mill and then stored it in plastic barrels and wedged it up by hand to prepare it for use.

A lot of things we did in that pottery were patterned after the Leach Pottery. We built a clay storage cupboard which had concrete shelves where we could pug out this clay in long columns and then stack it on these shelves, and you could store it for two or three months and it wouldn’t dry out. We had potters’ wheels, which we had brought back from England with us, because those were the wheels we had worked on at the Leach Pottery and we were used to them and we liked them. And I still work on that kind of a wheel, although not the original ones, because in 1968 I managed to burn down the pottery and we lost those wheels, but that happened later.
We were given exhibitions at the Walker Arts Center, which was still supportive of the crafts, although the director of that art center left, oh, it would be in the early ’60s, I guess, and shortly thereafter the Walker stopped showing craft work, for all intents and purposes. Before that time, they had given us several exhibitions, and the last show, just before Alix died, was in 1962, and it was a really, I think – I think it was a good exhibition for our work at that time. It wasn’t a great exhibition if I look back on it now. At that time it was the best we could do, I’d say.

MR. SILBERMAN: What was your work at that time like? What problems, formal or otherwise, were you trying to work through, and what do you like about that time now and what do you think maybe you realize was just of that time?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, we did make all utilitarian ware. That is ware for use in a home. I don’t have any examples of it because we didn’t believe in saving our work; we thought you mustn’t save your work or you tend to live in the past. And so we had a rule that each one of us could save one pot at any given time, and if we found another pot that we wanted to save for our personal collection, we had to take the one we had been saving and put it out for sale.

I think it was a good idea. I think it was an excellent idea, because it did keep us from living in the past. We had to always go forward. It worked to my disadvantage because Alix died rather suddenly and I only had one pot of hers at that time in my possession. It is a great pot. I still have it. But it means a lot of things that she did I don’t have. Fortunately, there are friends who have them and once in a while some of them will send me one and say, “I think you really ought to have this because it’s important to you.” So I’ve got a few that we put together, including some of her paintings, which she did when she could no longer make pots – really interesting things.

MR. SILBERMAN: I’ve seen some of those pots and they’re fine, and the decoration is remarkable. She did all the decoration?
[Audio break.]

MR. MACKENZIE: At that time I found out if I picked up a brush, I ended up doing what I can only call cheap Japanese brushwork, and it was very unsatisfactory. So I finally found ways to decorate pots which kept a brush out of my hand. This is why I concentrate even today on the form of the pots, and when I do decoration, it is usually something, if possible, which is not brush decoration. Instead I’ll do beaten patterns on the surface of the clay, or I’ve learned to adopt one of the techniques I used to use in painting to decorating pottery, but it’s not a brush technique. It’s a type of monoprint, where I would charge – I was working very geometrically and I would charge a straight edge of some sort, a piece of wood or cardboard, with paint and then press it down against the canvas and print a line. The printed line had a quality of nervousness about it which I really liked. It wasn’t a drawn line. And I’ve tried this and continue to use it now on ceramic work. I print with pigment on the wet glaze, and it fires in and becomes decoration. But I did learn to get rid of the brush, because with a brush I’m not very good.

MR. SILBERMAN: When you were working with Alix and presumably continuing the tradition of nonstop talking about the pots — apart from the family that you started to have, you had daughters — what kinds of pots were you making? I mean, you didn’t have the production ware versus the individual ware of the Leach Pottery, but were you making cups, dishes, bowls?


MR. SILBERMAN: How did you decide what to make, and were you discussing the designs of the pots, and then you would make them and she would decorate them? Or was she throwing as well?

MR. MACKENZIE: She was throwing as well, yes. And we’d take the kids down to the pottery and put them in a playpen on the floor of the pottery while we worked on the wheels. Alix threw as well as I did, but she did all the decorating at that time. It was only after her death that I began to really push new techniques that would allow me to decorate without doing brushwork.

There are a few of our joint pieces in existence today in some museums. There are a couple in the Weisman Museum [The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis], and there are more in the Minnesota Museum of American Art, in which Alix decorated all my work.
When I’d get stuck with a pot that didn’t quite come off – you know, you have the pot and then you’d look at it after it’s dry and has gone through the bisque firing and you say, “You know, it isn’t really quite right.” And I’d say, “Well, now can you solve this?” And I’d hand it to her and her solution was, “yes.” She’d look at it and size up the form that I’d made and then begin to just draw on it with a paintbrush and iron oxide, and she was always able to relate her painting to decoration, to the form of the pot, which was something I was never able to do.

So she improved a lot of my work at that time. Where it was an unsatisfactory pot, she would make it a satisfactory pot. I mean, a pot can be complete in form, or it can be incomplete in form and need decoration to embellish it, and that was often the case with my work at that time.
I think that a lot of them perhaps would have been – maybe all of them would have been improved by some embellishment, because my form sense at that time was relatively unresolved and not as rich as I would like to think it was. There was not the interaction of ideas and forms, and the technique of making was probably a little stiff because I was not as relaxed and as sure of myself as I am today.

MR. SILBERMAN: Were you looking at different things when you came back or looking at the same things in different ways?

MR. MACKENZIE: We were looking at the same things in different ways, because we still — in our museum visits and all we gravitated to the utilitarian objects, but we did look at them in much different ways, because – I think because of the exposure to Bernard and to Hamada. We were looking for a personal expression, which could occur either in the concept of the pot or in the physical making of the pot.

Leach was more likely to have a personal expression in the concept of the pot, not so much in the making. Hamada was more likely to have this personal expression in the making, in the physical making of the pot.
And we were very lucky, we were able to acquire some of Hamada’s work at that time. When he had the exhibition in St. Paul, he asked me about pricing the work, and at that time I was really into very low prices. I thought, you know, a $2 pot was getting up there. [Laughs.] But we didn’t have the pots in front of us; we only had a bill of lading. And Hamada would describe the work to me, and I would think about it and I’d say, “Well, if I made this, it would cost so much,” but then, this is a famous potter from Japan and therefore I’d multiply that by five or seven and I’d say, “Well, does $11 sound all right to you?” And Hamada never batted an eye; he just wrote down $11 and that was the price those pots sold for.
So when we had this exhibition in St. Paul, these pots were available to people at very modest prices. Hamada at that time was, of course, selling for much more money in Japan, but it meant that we were able to buy a set of small desert plates out of that exhibition.

We had to have a lottery, because many people were wanting to buy a lot of work, and we said no, each person could only buy one piece or one set. So we had a lottery and Alix drew number two, and with her number we did pick a set of desert plates which I still have. And I drew number 96, which is almost the end of the line, and we began to despair, you know, we’d say, “Now, if nobody takes that pot, we’ll take that one with 96.” Well, then somebody would select that pot and it was gone. So when 96 came, we were wandering around in there and we picked up this one pot, but we didn’t make our decision right away. We picked it up and we were looking at it and looking around and finally went to the secretary and told her we wanted to purchase this pot. And it was only after we did that that Yanagi came up to us and he said, “You’ve just bought the best pot in the entire exhibition.”

Now, this meant that 95 other people had selected pots out of that exhibition prior to us, and I’m not sure that we got the best. I don’t think there is a best pot. I think there are many best pots – there are better pots. But I know that that particular pot, which is a very simple piece, continues to excite me every time we use it. Every time I pick it up and look at, it I see something I’ve never seen before, and I think that is a sign of a really great pot, that it is not going to be something you understand with one use, one look. It’s going to come and continue to renew itself with you throughout your life. And that pot of Hamada’s is, I think, one of the best ones that we own. We own a number of his now, have acquired them in various exhibitions and so on, but that’s a really great one.

MR. SILBERMAN: That’s a great story, too.

MR. MACKENZIE: And 95 people passed it over. That’s the wonderful thing. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: Warren, how were you selling your pots back then? Would they sell at the Walker?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, the Walker Art Center had a book corner which also sold ceramics, and so they had our work for sale there, as well as other people’s work.

We sold them at our pottery. We had a mailing list and whenever we’d have a firing, we would just hand-address postcards and send the students out to people, saying, we’ve fired again and if you want to see new pots, come out and look at them. And gradually people began to know about our work.

We also, I would say, at that time, did everything possible to tell people why we were making pots and how we were making pots, in order to get them interested, I guess. I mean, we would do art fairs and sit there day after day talking to people and not selling very much. We did demonstrations for groups. If they would come out to our studio, we would entertain them in the studio and do demonstrations for the groups. We’d give lectures wherever it was asked.

And in addition, I was teaching at the university, and to a certain extent you have to say you’ve got a captive audience, you know? I was talking about what I thought was important about ceramics, and some of them were convinced and they would come out and buy a pot because they could do so for not too much money. And that was the way we began to sell. And gradually you built – someone would tell someone else about it and you got more people coming, but it was very slow at first, very slow.

MR. SILBERMAN: The ’50s.

MR. MACKENZIE: Fortunately, we didn’t make that many pots either, you know. We were not very fast potters at that time.

MR. SILBERMAN: In spite of your experience at Leach.

MR. MACKENZIE: I’m still not a good thrower. I’m not a fast potter. But I’m a lot better potter now technically than I was then and – I don’t know. But we made – I suppose we fired our big kiln – the big kiln held about 400 pots and we fired it about six times a year, I guess. And now I’ve got a kiln that holds 600 pots, and working alone I fire it about 12 times a year, so that explains the difference in making.

MR. SILBERMAN: Maybe we can turn to the university in a moment, but when you first came here, were there many other potters in the area?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, there weren’t. One woman I remember was Martha Cutkomp [ph], who is a potter, and she was the only other person that I remember as a working potter in this area. Gradually, potters have moved in. First of all, some of the people who took classes at the university stayed on and became potters when they graduated from school, or they went somewhere for graduate work and then came back here because they liked the atmosphere in this area.

There is something about living in Minnesota, or living in the Midwest, I think I’d say. My pots are really most at home in the Midwest, and I think there’s a number of potters who have gravitated to this area because they find it sympathetic to hand pottery. And it doesn’t have to be fancy hand pottery, such as you’re likely to find in the big galleries in New York or San Francisco and so on, the latest thing. They want pots they can use in their home. And there are a lot of potters around here now who are making that kind of work and are earning a living as potters. Also we’ve got the development of the Northern Clay Center, which is a studio and a classroom situation for people, and many more of the schools around have got strong programs in ceramics. Not only the colleges and universities but the high schools have now got major programs in ceramics, which is wonderful. Instead of your having students at the university who are starting from scratch and have never seen clay, now you’re getting students who have had two years of it in high school maybe, and if they had good training, it’s wonderful.

MR. SILBERMAN: You had a long career at the university — and I should say for the record that you retired as a university professor, regent’s professor, which is the highest honorary rank the university can award — but what was it like when you started teaching that way? You taught at the Minnesota Museum, but to teach at the university, I mean, in an art department?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, in the art department, which was much smaller than it is now. The director of the department had been hired to bring together a group of art offerings, which had been under different areas, and they said, let’s get an art department. Now, he was an art historian, but he really knew enough to hire – this sounds very self-serving – excellent people. [Laughs.] I can’t remember all their names, but Kyle Morris, a painter, and there was a woman who taught sculpture.

MR. SILBERMAN: He hired Jerry Liebling, photography and film.

MR. MACKENZIE: Jerry Liebling, teaching photography, and Allen Downs and Walter Quirt in painting, and Phil Morton taught jewelry. Malcolm Myers taught printmaking. Malcolm Myers taught printmaking right up through the time that I retired from the university, and he was a marvelous printmaker, studied under Lasansky.

There was a woman teaching weaving. When she retired, they hired a weaver, Ginny Nagle, who kind of took, not a moribund section of the art department, but one where it had been pretty safely taught, and she just got those students so excited that everyone was truly amazed that the weaving department began to expand. Although when she retired, the person who took her place was not very good, and so we lost the weaving department. The man who was the director of the department, Harvey Arnason, said, “As long as you teach and things go well, I won’t be saying anything to you; it’s up to you. But if things don’t go well, then we’re going to have to get together and talk about why.” And when the weaving department fell on bad times, he said, “They’re not teaching weaving as an art form; they’re just teaching weaving,” and so he got rid of it.
And Phil Morton, who taught jewelry and was an excellent jeweler, lost interest in jewelry and wanted to become a sculptor, and so the jewelry department disappeared.

MR. SILBERMAN: But initially there was a strong presence of craft materials?

MR. MACKENZIE: Correct, correct.

MR. SILBERMAN: And ceramics continues to flourish.

MR. MACKENZIE: Ceramics grew and we became a very strong area in the department.

MR. SILBERMAN: How did the relationship between functional and nonfunctional play out? Was that an issue for you in terms of teaching functional ceramics as opposed to art or sculptural ceramics?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, no, but the thing is that my work is functional. I am not a sculptor, and I felt really unable to teach sculpture as a ceramic expression. Fortunately, there was one of the sculptors who was willing to let them do ceramic sculpture if they so desired. But when we got an additional position added to the ceramic area, the one thing I knew was that we wanted someone who was not going to be a functional potter, and so Curt Hoard was hired, and Curt was much more interested in a sculptural expression. He also was interested in glass, and that was another thing which was added at that time, and Curt started the glass department. Although when he lost interest in that, then we had to find another person to take over the glass department.

And by that time Arnason had moved on. He went to New York as an executive in one of the big foundations, and a different art historian took his place. And we began to have some friction between the studio section and the art history section of the department. And that got worse and worse and eventually the two were split into two departments, as you know. I think our first – I think our first chair that we selected was Malcolm Myers, who was one of the senior instructors and we felt could run the department.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you at first, as the ceramic teacher, taught everything? You had to teach the chemistry as well as the art.


MR. SILBERMAN: How did you develop your method of teaching? You’ve said – you talked about what it was like being at the Art Institute. You had many, many students and many, many students who went on to be professional potters.

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, I guess I realized that one of the basic things you need if you wanted to understand pottery was the ability to physically make a pot, and that was the basis for my beginning instruction, that you had to learn to make a pot either by hand or on the wheel, and actually we studied both methods. Although I was not a hand builder, I could teach the elements of it. Secondly, we looked at a lot of pots, both at the museums around here and I brought pots in from our collection, which was growing constantly, so that people were able to look at and handle and discuss work by potters from other countries, potters from other cultures.

This also expanded at the University Museum, as it was then called, what has subsequently become the Weisman Museum. It was the University Gallery, I should say, because they did not have much of a museum collection. But the woman who was the director at that time used to talk the president of the university out of some of his excess money at the end of the year, and she was very interested in ceramic work. Ceramic work was not too expensive, so she would take that extra money and go out and buy a pot, and that was the way they acquired work by Marguerite Wildenhain and by Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach, from an exhibition that came over during the war, sent by the British consul, and eventually mounted exhibitions in the gallery by very well-known potters. And this was, I think, a great thing for the students, because they could – it wasn’t just a case of looking at my work or even thinking about things the way I thought about them, but thinking about them in a variety of ways from the work that came in from outside.

And the university gallery collection — because the woman who was in charge of it knew that we would take care of it, she allowed me to bring students over and to set up a study area in the gallery for a class period. And the students could select pots they wanted to talk about and bring them out and look at them and handle them and talk about them and argue about them in class. So that was a wonderful experience, too, a hands-on experience, which I think is critical to any real learning about ceramics.
MR. SILBERMAN: You’ve done a lot of workshops as well and taught at other craft centers and schools.


MR. SILBERMAN: What had been your experience there? Which craft centers have you been at, for example, among Penland [Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina] or Haystack [Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine] or the Archie Bray [Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana]? What have the experiences been like when you’ve gone to places like that as opposed to teaching in the university?

MR. MACKENZIE: Very exciting. The people who came to those centers came because they wanted to study with a particular person probably. I mean, these centers would have a changing faculty and you would go for a summer session because you wanted to work with one of the people who was going to be teaching there. This is an advantage that those centers have over a school, in that they can have a faculty which varies from year to year, and varies as – I hate to say it, but there are fashions in ceramics.

MR. SILBERMAN: I’m shocked.

MR. MACKENZIE: [Laughs.] And as these fashions change, why, they change their faculty, you see. At a university we can’t do that. We try to cope with it by talking about these things, but you don’t always have an instructor who’s intimately involved in a particular way of work.
The disadvantage of those summer sessions is that you have to come into contact with these people very quickly. It’s a one-shot affair. You meet them, you work for two weeks usually, and then they disappear, you disappear, and that’s the end of it, unless you go back and teach at the same school, or you teach at another school and a student may come because they want to hear something more about what you’re doing.

But it is a short-term exposure. The disadvantage is that you never get to really know your students well in that short period of time. You’re expressing your ideas, but it’s very difficult to get in contact with the students’ desires and the students’ background, what they do, whereas at the university, you meet students, you get to know them for two, three, sometimes even as much as four years, and you can watch their development and you know what they’re working toward and therefore can talk, hopefully, about what they’re interested in doing.

Obviously you are limited by your own interests and background. I used to say to the students that I could not talk intelligently about ceramic sculpture to them. Curt Hoard could. And I always used to think that Curt’s teaching of pottery was limited because that was not his expression, and so we would try to steer people into a class where they would have a sympathetic instructor.

MR. SILBERMAN: You, of course, said earlier you went to the Art Institute and then turned to pottery, and in some ways that was a good idea to come to ceramics after having been a painter. Looking at the scene now, what do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of going through a university art program versus a craft school or summer program or learning through an apprenticeship, as in a way you did when you got to Leach, in some commercial – or individual potter or company?

MR. MACKENZIE: I think it depends on the school, of course, what sort of a program they’ve set up. At the University of Minnesota, in their good sense, they say all students must take a class in the drawing and painting area, all students must take art history, all art students must take a class in each of the major areas that the department offers, ceramics, printmaking, photography, and so on, and these are required of all art majors.

In our program at the Chicago Art Institute, we didn’t have that breadth of instruction demanded of us. You’d get painters there and they thought anything except painting was just mud, you know, and I don’t mean mud in terms of ceramics. They thought photography was terrible. They thought anything that wasn’t splashing some paint on a canvas was just unexpressive; that’s all there was to it. And I think that very often you get a student in Minnesota and they might start out, as I did, thinking they were going to be a painter, but if you get them into a ceramic class or into a photography class, they would find that this was what they really wanted to do and they would respond to it much more strongly.

In these summer programs, as opposed to a university, you are divided. You just take a one-shot deal with metalwork or woodworking or ceramics or whatever. And most of those – I’m not sure I can say this with any degree of authority, but most of the schools that I’ve taught at in the summer, those summer programs only are dealing with the crafts. They don’t have – they didn’t used to have a painting component, although now I think some of them are adding that to their programs so that you do have painting offered as well.

I think painting is, to me, an essential thing, drawing or painting or drawing and painting, because this is a case of, particularly if you’re drawing, you’re often observing and putting down your interpretation of an observation, and it teaches a student to really look very sharply. And that’s the reason I think that it’s better to have a variety of classes, because in each class you have to look at your material in a different manner, and that may influence – the way a student looks at a photograph may influence what they see if they look at a pot and vice versa.

MR. SILBERMAN: And if you had come to ceramics from sculpture?

MR. MACKENZIE: I might do much different work.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you do sculpture at the Art Institute? Was that one of your requirements?

MR. MACKENZIE: No. No. We did not have requirements of that sort. As I said, you could be a painter and never do anything except drawing and painting.

MR. SILBERMAN: When you did the summer craft schools, did you do any one in particular regularly or –


MR. SILBERMAN: You were here many summers, so you would go out and do one workshop at one place and then the next summer or several summers later go somewhere else?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. I made it a point never to teach summer school at the university, first of all because I was very jealous of the time and wanted to work here at the studio, and secondly, I thought if they want to have a summer program, it’s better they bring in a visiting artist from some other place. And so that worked out well for me.

But I have taught at Penland and Haystack and Anderson Ranch [Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village, Colorado] and Archie Bray and so on. They’re all exciting in a different way. It depends on – it really depends on who comes to your class, you know, whether you truly hit it off or not.

MR. SILBERMAN: And I feel compelled to ask, for the record, you’ve also taught at Black Mountain [Black Mountain College, Asheville, North Carolina] one summer? The most famous of all avant-garde art centers?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, but that was – just it was by accident. When Hamada and Leach and Yanagi went to Black Mountain as the first stop on their American tour, I was sent down as an observer from our school, and the St. Paul Gallery, because the St. Paul Gallery anticipated – having been aware that Alix had arranged these four stops, they anticipated maybe publishing something about the four different workshops that these men gave. And I was sent as an observer to Black Mountain. It was there I first met Karen Karnes and David Weinrib, who were the potters in charge of the program down there.

I guess because when they wanted to do a summer program the year after that, in 1953, my name was still in their mind, and they asked me to come down and teach a session. And so we went down there and stayed for, I guess it was three weeks or a month; I can’t remember. It was very exciting because there were such people as Merce Cunningham and John Cage and David Tudor, and so you met a great variety of people that you wouldn’t have ordinarily rubbed shoulders with. And that was fun.

But I don’t think it was as good an experience as most of the other summer programs I’ve taught in, and the reason was at that period of time Black Mountain was really running through a lot of problems. Josef Albers, who had been the head of the school, had quit and moved on, and a man named [Charles] Olson, a poet, had taken over as the director of the school. And Olson was, I think, somewhat – how can I put it politely? – he had this strong ego and he really didn’t sympathize with anyone who was outside his range. And so there was not a lot of support for the ceramic area at that time. And it’s, I think, typical that within several years, Black Mountain folded, because Olson was preaching anarchy and the students were destroying the school. They loved it, but they were destroying the school.
MR. SILBERMAN: The ’60s before the ’60s.

Warren, you’ve touched in passing on figures like Michael Cardew and now Karen Karnes. There was the Leach group, and then you came back, you were sort of part of a generation of American ceramicists, including Karen Karnes and others, who were widely scattered in some ways, but how did you establish contact with those people, or friendships with people like Karen Karnes and Ken Ferguson, Rudy Autio, Peter Voulkos? What did that mean at the time in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, let’s say, when you’re at the U?

MR. MACKENZIE: At that time NCECA, the National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts, was just building its organization, and we used to go to these yearly meetings, and it was there that I met many of these people for the first time and became friends with them. Pete Voulkos was, just in the early ’50s, changing his approach to ceramics from one of producing a lot of narrow-necked bottles, with wonderful decoration on them but not very exciting form, to the sculptural expression, which he was moving into. He was at the Archie Bray Foundation and then eventually out to California.
Pete was certainly one of the, if not the most, important American potter that I can look at, because he had such an influence, and the interesting thing to me was that he influenced many people who went in – not in his direction but in other directions — which have become important in American ceramics, I mean, people like Paul Soldner and others, who learned from Pete, but not working the way he did, and that I think is the sign of a great teacher.

Pete had a personality, too, which just affected everyone that he met, because he was full of energy and a certain irreverence, which young people do respond to, and they flocked around it. I think he was a really great, great ceramicist. I wouldn’t call him a potter, because what he did is not pottery, generally speaking, but expressive use of clay in a manner that nobody else had thought of up until that time and now it’s a fairly common way to work, with the freedom that Pete brought to that field.

There was a time when if you didn’t tear the hell out of a piece of clay, why, you just weren’t much of anything, and functional ceramics really went downhill for a long time. Now I think people are realizing that there are ways of working which are sculptural; there are ways of working which are moving toward a painterly expression; there are ways of working which are conceptual; and there are ways of working which are pottery. So there’s more of an understanding of the validity of each one of these ways, whereas at one time pots really almost went off the board.

MR. SILBERMAN: In the early days of NCECA was that an issue, or only later when you were active?


MR. SILBERMAN: You were the president, yes.
MR. MACKENZIE: It was only later on. Yes, I was the president. That doesn’t mean much. It means you’ve been around a while and, you know, they need somebody who will run the organization and be responsible for it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re accepting your viewpoint of ceramics or anything like that.
MR. SILBERMAN: It’s a democracy, an artistic democracy.
MR. MACKENZIE: That’s right. [Laughter.]
MR. SILBERMAN: Or an anarchy. [Inaudible] – Anarchists. Authoritarian as president.
What about locally? Around the same time the Minnesota Craft Council was going –
MR. MACKENZIE: Well, yes.

MR. SILBERMAN: – or starting. What was your role there, Warren?

MR. MACKENZIE: I was involved with them when they started out, and then I kind of – living out in the country like this, you know, you’re removed from a lot of activities that take place in the Twin Cities, and so I lost touch with the Craft Council. And there was one person who was elected as president and his whole desire was to close down the Craft Council, and for a few years it did close down. It had been an active, productive group dealing with exhibitions and meetings of various sorts and so on, and then it suddenly disappeared, because this man wouldn’t do anything to keep it going. And when your president won’t do anything to keep it going, it just fails.

Then after a hiatus, Peter Leach came along, and he remembered the old Craft Council and he thought it was worthwhile starting again. It centered mostly around ceramics at that time because there were more potters than other craftspeople in the area. And when it started again, Peter started it as a ceramic group, which has grown, and I was involved in that. I met with them – I was the very cautious member in that renewal. I remember they wanted to rent a big building and have a place where they could have studios and have exhibitions and all, and I said, “No, you can’t do that, you know, we have no money.” Fortunately, no one listened to me, and they did rent a building and they got a director who was very good, and it grew and grew. And then that director moved on and they elected another person and another person, and now they have Emily Galusha, who is an incredible livewire, and under her direction this has grown astronomically.

They now own their own building, and it has drawn money from local and national foundations for projects that they have instituted, and it’s one of the major forces, I think, in this area for clay work. They have a gallery, which brings in wonderful exhibitions; they organize exhibitions and then take traveling shows as well. They have studios where students can work, where professional potters can work, and they have classes that they give. It’s just expanding every day. And I think it’s one of the strongest elements in ceramics, around this area anyway. People know about it from a distance and come because of it.

MR. SILBERMAN: I agree. And there are major workshops featuring visiting people, so it brings in outsiders to help the community –

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, that’s great. Yes, yes.

MR. SILBERMAN: – by exposing them to work and ideas.

MR. MACKENZIE: And they set up a series of lectures and awards. They got support from –


MR. MACKENZIE: The Regis Masters series from a man named Kunin, who, interesting enough, runs the Regis hair salons, but, I mean, this is a big corporation, and the Kunins are very interested in art and he has supported the series of lectures and visiting artists and exhibitions, which they bring with them. That’s gone on now for about four, maybe five, years, maybe longer than that. And then they, in a sense, felt that they hadn’t exhausted all the American artists, but they wanted to expand their view, and they brought in a Japanese artist, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who is a national treasure in Japan, and he sent an exhibition over here with pots priced extremely high. I mean, you’re talking about thousands of dollars, and to the amazement of everyone, all the pots which were available for sale sold here in Minneapolis-St. Paul. So that’s, I think, a sign of how important clay work has become in this Midwest community.

MR. SILBERMAN: I agree, they were great pots.

MR. MACKENZIE: They were great pots.

MR. SILBERMAN: They were worth it.

MR. MACKENZIE: But, you know, $20,000 for a pot is a lot of money to put out. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: The prices have gone up a bit since the time when Hamada’s pots were on sale.

And I should mention here again for the record that of course you were one of the people honored as a Regis Master, along with many of your great contemporaries like Peter Voulkos and Karen Karnes.
[Audio break.]

MR. SILBERMAN: Well, let me ask you about some of your travels. When you were in Japan for the first time, you were in the army, and that was your experience of Japan. Did you go out and see pottery?

MR. MACKENZIE: That was my first exposure to Japan, and I didn’t know anything about ceramics and wasn’t interested in ceramics, although I did buy a couple of pieces of ceramic work while there, none of which I now own. We had a cat that broke one and that sort of thing. But it did stick in my mind, and after becoming a potter, a group of us went to Japan to visit – I think it was in 1974.

[Audio break.]
MR. SILBERMAN: So we’re going to ask about the second trip to Japan, in 1974.
MR. MACKENZIE: No, we’re going to ask about the first trip to Japan because –
MR. SILBERMAN: Okay, tell me about the first time you were in Japan, just to be sure.

MR. MACKENZIE: The first time I went to Japan was I was sent there by the U.S. Army. During the Second World War, I was in the States all the time because my eyes were so bad I was not suitable to be a soldier, a combatant. And then after the war was over, the army sent all of us who had been in the States overseas to relieve the people who had been fighting so they could come home, and I was sent to Japan.

The army also had the stupid idea that you had to be placed in the same job that you’d had in the States, and I happened to have been working in a printing plant printing charts about how to dismantle a machine gun or things like that, so they said, “You’re an artist, you have to be an artist,” and there was no work for an artist in Japan until I found a mapmaking outfit that had an opening for, I think, five artists or something. So they requisitioned me and I worked for this mapmaking outfit.

This outfit ran a printing plant in Yokohama, but they only officially ran it. The actual manual work was done by the Japanese printers, who were superb craftsmen and could run all the machines and did wonderful printing.
But those of us who were in the army, we were told we had to look busy, and so several of us said, “Well, let us paint the activities of the army here in Japan and also the scenery around Yokohama and Tokyo,” and so they said that was all right and we did that. But we did the painting in the morning, and then in the afternoon, why, we’d go to galleries and we’d do things like that, and it was in one of these galleries that this other young guy and I met a painter named [Shigeo] Miyata, an elderly man who had studied with George Rouault in France. He was a medical doctor but a part-time painter. And we got to talking, and he persuaded the gallery owner to give the two of us an exhibition, which was how I got my first professional exhibition in Japan [Nichida Gallery, Tokyo], of paintings which were not very good, but that was it.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did people come and did they sell?

MR. MACKENZIE: People came and a few of them sold, yes. We were a curiosity I guess you would say. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: And were you aware of Japanese crafts, and especially ceramics, then?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, no. I was not aware of Japanese ceramics – I was aware of it but not interested in it, although I did buy a few pieces while there, and I bought some weaving and things like that. But no, I thought I was going to be a painter, and so I couldn’t wait to get back to art school and get back to painting classes.

But that was my first exposure to Japan. It didn’t stick in my mind when, in 1974, one of the fellows around here heard about some space on a charter flight, that we could get to Japan very cheaply, and we got that space, about seven of us, seven potters, and we went to Japan for two weeks. And our idea while there was to visit all the old traditional kiln sites that we could in the two-week time and see what was being done and so forth. And we were on such a short schedule that we traveled at night and went and toured around during the day and then traveled at night and toured around during the day, but we did see a lot of different places. We went to Mashiko, of course, and met Hamada again and Shimaoka, his best apprentice, who had set up a studio right near Hamada’s, and we went back to Tokyo and Kyoto, up to Shigiraki and Tamba, down to Kurashiki, up to Hagi, down to Onda, and eventually back home.

We were exhausted at the end of the two-week time, needless to say, but it was a wonderful exposure to the traditional world of Japanese ceramics, and I think it did affect my work, again quite strongly, just by coming into contact with these people who were making pots and earning a living making pots and succeeding very well in an economy that was not going great guns at that time.

MR. SILBERMAN: What surprised you when you actually saw Hamada’s place of work as opposed to having met him and seeing the pots? When you actually got there or to some of these other sites, what surprised you most or what fascinated you or interested you the most?

MR. MACKENZIE: Keep in mind, he had been declared a national treasure in, I think 1955, and he was incredibly wealthy. His compound consisted of about eight different buildings. Nearly all of them, perhaps all of them, had been old buildings which he had bought, had dismantled, moved to Mashiko, and then reconstructed. His main house was a gigantic farmhouse, a big old farmhouse that he’d bought. Perhaps the workshop proper was a building that had been built just from scratch, but it was an amazing compound of activity.

Unfortunately, when we were there, it was the middle of summer, August – not the middle of summer; it was the end of summer – and it was so hot that he had told half of his workers to take time off and go to the sea to have a vacation, and so things were pretty well shut down. But he was so generous with his time and he spent a lot of time with us showing us around the studio, and then up on the front porch of his so-called treasure house, where he had all of his collection stored, he said, “I’m sorry, you can’t come in the treasure house because it’s chaotic.” And he brought pots out in their boxes, and he’d open them up and show us these pots that he thought we’d be interested in. And if we said the right thing, then he’d go in and get another one. And they were wonderful pots. They were pots from all over the world that he had collected and which eventually, of course, went into a museum.

But he also gave us introductions to potters in other parts of Japan, which allowed us to have access to potteries in Shigiraki, for instance, that we would never have seen if we’d not known Hamada and had his introduction to tell them that they should be nice to us. So that was a wonderful experience.

We also met Shimaoka, his best apprentice, who at that time had left him and started his own pottery practically next door. He was the personal friend of this friend of ours, Taeko Tanaka, who was traveling with us. This is a woman who was born in Japan and knew Shimaoka before she came to America. And so she introduced us to Shimaoka and he very kindly showed us around his place, a completely different situation than Hamada’s, and then we went on to these other traditional villages, where we saw all kinds of ceramics being made.

But it was fascinating because it was also coming to grips with the day-to-day operation of a ceramic village. I mean, the village of Onda, where practically every family was a pottery family, there were these big water-driven clay crushers, which kept thumping up and down all day long and all night long, driven by the water from a small stream, and the people there made pots as a living. They also farmed a bit, but essentially they were potters, and that was a fascinating thing to see.

MR. SILBERMAN: And did you spend time in Tokyo? Did you see a lot of museum and masterpiece pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: We went to the museums in Tokyo, yes, but we didn’t meet any potters there. But we did go to the museums and saw their collections, which were incredible and really an eye-opener about Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pots, because what we had seen in this country was just the tip of the iceberg, as you can imagine, and there they had these fantastic collections, which went on room after room after room. We spent a lot of time in Tokyo looking at that.

MR. SILBERMAN: Any specific changes when you got back, or just general inspiration?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, it’s just – I guess it was a reinforcement of the direction that Alix and I had started out in and that it was – it just said, it’s really a pretty nice life being a potter. [Laughs.] And I think that today, too.

MR. SILBERMAN: You’ve gone back since, Warren, to Japan.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. When Fritz [Walter] Mondale was Ambassador to Japan, he and his wife, Joan, lived there, and I had known them before he became ambassador. Joan is a potter and a pottery devotee. While she was there, she asked me for some slides, and she and a friend of hers, Amy Kato, went around and they finally found a gallery that was interested in having an exhibition of my work. So that was the first time that I went to Japan to exhibit ceramic work. And this man was a very interesting man. He owned a gallery in Tokyo, but we had corresponded considerably before the show was set, and I, in letters, talked to him about my feeling about pricing pots, and I was concerned that they not become too expensive for the ordinary people to buy, and he went along with that.

I don’t think he made much money on that exhibition. I mean, it sold out, but even so he could have only made a few thousand dollars on that show of quite a few pots. But he has continued to show my work, and also recently the shows have been dual shows with my wife Nancy [Nancy Spitzer MacKenzie], who is a fiber artist, and he has shown both of our work a number of times now. He keeps wanting to have a show almost every other year, and, frankly, it’s expensive to go to Japan, and even though he allows us to stay in his home with his wife and himself, and it’s a situation which is quite wonderful for us, but even so, I’m coming to the point where I’m ready to say, I’ll send an exhibition, or we’ll send an exhibition, but maybe we won’t come over this time.

I mean, it’s foolish to think that we have to be there – although this is very Japanese. Apparently, Shimaoka, who is now a national treasure, when he has an exhibition in Japan, it is expected that he will be at this exhibition all through the running of the show in order to talk to people and explain his work to be kind of a host. Fortunately, an exhibition in Japan traditionally only runs for about a week and then they change. But Shimaoka will be in a gallery. Even if there is no one else there, he will be waiting for people who might come to visit his show and talk with him. It’s not in our makeup to do that, and particularly since we don’t speak Japanese. [Laughs.]

MR. SILBERMAN: We should mention that Japanese television sent a crew over to make a documentary about you, and David Lewis’s fine book on you and your work was published by a Japanese publisher, Kodansha [Warren Mackenzie: an American Potter. Tokyo; New York, 1991].
When you’ve gone back the last few times, have you been able to explore other areas of the country or other aspects of culture and art?


MR. SILBERMAN: What have you seen that you brought back with you?

MR. MACKENZIE: The first time that we went over, when Joan arranged that first exhibition, we did travel around quite a bit. And since Nancy had never been there before, she was interested in seeing many parts of Japan. Subsequently, we’ve tried to visit a different part of Japan each time. But if you’re only there a week or two, you don’t get very far. There’s so much to see. But we have been fortunate to meet potters and fiber artists and to see areas that I had not seen before, and to meet potters that Leach knew when he was a young man in Japan. They’re now all very old, naturally; you can understand this. But we’ve done that and enjoyed that a great deal.
MR. SILBERMAN: And you spoke at the Folk Craft Museum, the Mingei Museum.
MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. I’ve given several talks at the Mingei Craft Museum, trying to explain American crafts to the Japanese public. And I believe they’ve been well received, although they were always, of course, having to be translated into Japanese, and that means that you don’t have much time to explain yourself. But with slides and so forth there is a communication, and I think people have liked what they saw.

The first time I talked mostly about American ceramics, and then the last time I talked, I talked about American work in the crafts, in all crafts – metal, wood, weaving, basketry, and so forth – which had been influenced by what they call mingei, which is traditional or people’s art, things which are made to be used in an ordinary home. And they went well.

MR. SILBERMAN: You’ve also done workshops in other parts of the world, in South America and in Europe. What have those experiences been like — the people you’ve met and the work you’ve seen and what you’ve been able to do as a teacher?

MR. MACKENZIE: I’m not sure what you’re able to do as a teacher. Again, you’re talking about short-term workshops, you know, a couple of weeks, similar to the summer programs that we spoke of earlier in America. But there has been an interest in the kind of work that I’m doing, that is, the kind of work which I would say belongs in people’s homes. Even though many of the potters who live in these other countries are more oriented towards a gallery existence, I mean, they’re making art which is shown in galleries, and once it’s purchased it’s probably put on a pedestal in someone’s home rather than being used in the kitchen. But there is a communication about this, and generally I think there’s been an acceptance of what I am trying to do.

We were recently in Denmark, and that was for me very interesting, because most of the Danish potters I met were, well, I’d say they were trying as much as possible to make their handmade work look like industrial, machine-produced work. And I don’t know whether this is a characteristic of all Danish ceramics. No, I know it isn’t, because I’ve seen some that is not that way. But there is certainly a strong carryover from what we used to call Danish modern design, which found most of its expression in furniture probably, but it had an effect on the ceramics as well. It’s a little disturbing, though, to find a young potter sitting down at a table with a piece of paper and a ruler and a protractor and drawing designs on this paper which are thought of as being ceramic designs. I mean, it just doesn’t enter my world.

MR. SILBERMAN: Not your style.


MR. SILBERMAN: You did a workshop in Venezuela. Was that closer to a folk tradition or utilitarian tradition or more –

MR. MACKENZIE: No, because, again, most of the people there who attended the workshop, they considered themselves artist potters. I did meet one young man there, Guillermo Cuellar, and he has since come to the United States a number of times and has actually worked with me in my pottery, because he’s married to a woman from Iowa and so they come to visit her family. He also is faced with a situation where he needs to buy materials from the United States and there’s no way of getting dollars out of Venezuela because of the economy down there, and so he makes the pots up here and we sell them, and he has a dollar account where he can purchase ceramic materials. But he’s a very good potter, and I would say he is convinced that there is a possibility of earning a living in Venezuela as a functional, utilitarian potter also, and his work is closely related to mine.

MR. SILBERMAN: Great. Functional pottery lives for a particular time.
Well, you’ve touched on it before, but let me ask you directly about your relationship with dealers and galleries. How have you viewed that over the years?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, frankly, I do sell in galleries in other parts of the United States, and I sell in a gallery showing in Japan, but essentially it’s not something that I feel very close to, because a gallery is a commercial business, and depending on where it is, it has to earn a living for the gallery owner who has, of course, many expenses of publicity and photography and openings and all that sort of thing as well as rent and lights and electricity, and so these people have to push the price of my pots quite high.

Maybe I’m not being realistic about it when I say anyone who comes to the studio here buys the work at wholesale price. In other words, I cannot discount my prices for a gallery and earn a living at it. At the same time, Nancy and I are blessed with living at the end of a dead-end road, and everybody – most people who come here are looking for pottery, and for that reason we can have a self-service showroom where people take care of themselves. I don’t have to stop work to wait on customers. I mean, you can’t very well run a showroom and stop work if you’re trying to sell a $5 or a $10 pot, but on the other hand, if people wander in and buy a $5, $10 pot, okay, that’s $5 or $10 which is sold, and that’s the way we’re able to work our showroom.

And Nancy’s work – now I’m married again, and Nancy is a fiber artist – she has fiber work for sale in the showroom as well and it works well enough. It works better than hiring someone to do it and it works better than selling through galleries on a regular basis.

But I do understand the galleries’ problems, but on the other hand it moves against what I’m trying to do and so I tend to try to avoid that.
MR. SILBERMAN: And is the work of other individuals besides you and Nancy in the shop?

MR. MACKENZIE: That’s correct, yes, because –

MR. SILBERMAN: Other potters?

MR. MACKENZIE: – there are a lot of potters in this area, in this general area, who do not have a studio or a showroom near the metro area. We are fortunate. We’re within 15 miles of Minneapolis and probably 12 miles from St. Paul, and people think nothing of driving out here on an afternoon or evening and buying pots. These other people live maybe a hundred miles away from the city, and that’s a trip that people don’t undertake lightly. So we’ve asked some of these people if they want to show in our showroom, and they have to accept the fact that there will probably be some losses from dishonest people. There’s breakage that occurs, some of which is paid for, some of which is not, but everyone is happy to participate under those conditions.

MR. SILBERMAN: It has been difficult for you because of your well-deserved reputation to stop certain people from coming in and buying too many pots.

MR. MACKENZIE: That’s true. I’ve had to – well, I didn’t have to, but I put a limit on how many pots a person could buy out of any given firing, and it has meant that the pots get spread around among more people. But again, it’s a showroom run on the honor system, so I don’t know whether it’s held to or not. I can’t say that. It’s an attempt to try to say, “Look, you’re not building a collection; just buy pots that you want to use in your house and treat them that way.”

MR. SILBERMAN: And I would say, just as an interested observer who’s in the shop occasionally, that you do get people from, sort of, down the road and in the community who are buying pots for that purpose or perhaps as a special gift and people from the cities coming out to use them in the way you wish and also as gifts, and so it works as well as it can under the circumstances.

Overall, Warren, how do you think the market for American craft has changed during your lifetime, what you’ve seen, your career as a professional?

MR. MACKENZIE: I think, first of all, the education in schools has improved tremendously. I mean, most colleges and universities have a strong ceramic program. Many high schools have a strong ceramic program. Those people who take ceramics, whether they become potters or not, have certainly become educated about what it is to be a potter and what the possibilities are and what they should be looking for, and they may not become potters, but they may be more inclined to purchase handmade work for use in their homes. So that much has changed.

When Alix and I started our pottery out here, we used to send out postcards and we’d say there was going to be a sale on Saturday starting at 9:00, and 9:00 would come and no one would be here, and we’d sit looking down the road and wonder whether anyone was going to come on that Saturday. And this was nerve-wracking. And we never sold all of our work at that time, but we had a little display area so we could leave it there for later.

But nowadays many potters in this area, either singly or in groups, have sales at their studios, and those sales are extremely well attended. There is a group of potters in this area, and these are – I would have to say these are all potters; they’re not ceramic sculptors; they’re all potters. There may be eight or ten in this group, stretched for a distance of 30 miles up along the St. Croix River, and they have started a group sale, which is well publicized. And in that group sale, in one day’s time, those people will sell between $50,000 and $70,000 worth of pottery, and that’s, I think, a very good situation.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you’ve been the model. You’re the firstest with the mostest.

MR. MACKENZIE: We didn’t set out to be a model for anything, because many potters are very happy to deal through galleries and exhibitions and earn their living that way, and that’s just another approach, that’s all.

MR. SILBERMAN: Have you ever done commissioned work, Warren?

MR. MACKENZIE: When we first started our pottery, we did. We thought about the Leach Pottery, and the Leach Pottery used to sell work which had been commissioned. Bernard would take on commissions to do specific pieces. When we started out, we said, “Well, we’ll accept orders for up to one-half of a kiln load,” which at that time was about 400 pots in a kiln load, but we did reserve the idea that for half the pots, they would be pots that were not ordered, for the simple reason that an order always meant that somebody had seen something of our work somewhere and they were asking you to do the same sort of thing. That meant you’re repeating yourself. And I repeat myself all the time, but I want to do it on my terms.

And also, nearly always a person ordering a pot has something in mind, and there are so many things that can happen in the course of making a pot, firing the pots, glazing the pots, all these things. Some of them you can control; some of them you can’t. And whether your idea of what you’re going to make is the same as the person who orders it, that’s a big question. And they walk in and you more or less can tell by the look in their face that this is not quite what they expected, and we always tried to say that this is not a firm order; we’ll make something and if you like it you can buy it; if it’s not what you want, forget it; we’ll sell it to someone else.
But still we felt it was not going well and gradually cut down the orders – cut down the orders. And then when Alix died, I took that opportunity to simply write everyone who had ordered anything and saying, “I’m sorry, I’m wiping all the orders off the book.” And since then I’ve not taken orders and I’m much happier and I hope that the people who buy the work are happier, because now they see a finished pot in the showroom and they either like it or they don’t like it. If they don’t like it, they walk out of the showroom; if they like it, they can buy it.

MR. SILBERMAN: Simple enough. Maybe you could describe the environment now as opposed to when you and Alix were in the basement of the barn, your working environment. And we mentioned the salesroom, which is very nice and in a separate spot, but what about your studio and where you work?
MR. MACKENZIE: Well, in 1968 I did have this disastrous fire. This was after Alix had died, but I was firing the kiln and evidently broke an oil line or something like that, and the barn was completely destroyed. Fortunately I had a friend who was an architect who came to dinner the following evening, and he said, “Well, don’t sit around on your butt and worry about it; let’s design a pottery.” And that evening, with a pad of typing paper and a pencil between the two of us, we designed a three-unit building, which was going to be the new pottery.

The kiln was not damaged, although the burners and the air blower and the oil pump and so forth were destroyed. The kiln brickwork was not damaged, and so we started building around that, a building which is completely concrete, including a concrete roof so that it can’t burn down again, and then a studio off to the side, connected to the kiln room, of course, in which I wanted to have tall ceilings, because working in the basement of that barn, the ceiling was about a foot over my head and that leads to a kind of a depressing feeling. And so we made a two-story room there where I could work, and clay mixing room attached. And it was interesting, because it did change my work. I found that the pots, somehow they opened up a bit. They maybe increased in scale somewhat, but they also had a better feeling to them than the ones I made in the basement of the barn.

Eventually I added another room to that complex, always with the idea – at that time I was still teaching – I had the idea that if I wanted to quit teaching, I might like to have an apprentice or two to work together, because I had always worked with someone in the studio, with Alix. And so I built a fairly good-sized studio which could accommodate several apprentices. Subsequently I’ve learned that I really can’t bear to work with another person in the studio for a long period of time. Sometimes for a short period I can do it, but I can’t do it on a steady basis. It’s just my shortcoming; I can’t help that. I’m quite happy working alone, and in the summertime when Nancy is working on her dyeing of silks (she works in the loft above the throwing room), and so we do communicate. There is another warm body there to exchange ideas and pleasantries with, but I don’t work with apprentices.

And then the last building, which we added relatively recently – well, come to think of it, it’s not relatively recently; it’s about 20 years ago, I guess – is a new showroom, and it’s a separate building nearby. It’s an unheated building with good southern exposure, and on a warm sunny day, even in the middle of winter, it’s pleasant in there, and people come and look at the work and purchase it if they so desire.

MR. SILBERMAN: Great. I’d like to ask more about the work, but I want to ask a footnote, which is about technology. Has technology changed in any way that affects your work or affects your ability to do the work at the wheel?

MR. MACKENZIE: Well, when you say technology, I’m not sure whether you’re talking about machinery that I use – I still work on a treadle wheel because that’s the wheel I’m comfortable on. At one time I had a stiff knee and I thought I was not going to be able to treadle that wheel anymore, so I bought an electric wheel, thinking I could go on potting on an electric wheel. I then found out that I really can’t work on electrical. I’m just so imbued with the connection between my foot and my hand that I can’t work on an electric wheel, and so the wheel sits silent and I’ll probably sell it. I’ve decided now, I guess, that when I can’t treadle the wheel around anymore, I’ll give up potting or make smaller pots or something else.

There was a time, however, when my wrists and elbows were giving out from wedging clay. I mixed the clay in an old dough mixer and then stored it in plastic barrels, but before working on the wheel every bit of clay had to be hand kneaded to make it homogeneous, to get the particles of clay laid up together so that it would work right on the wheel. I use about 12 tons of clay a year. It takes about a ton of clay to fill my kiln, and I fire 12 times a year. Now, hand wedging 12 tons of clay is just a job that I can’t do anymore. And when my wrists and my elbows were failing, I bought a pug mill, a de-airing pug mill, and it’s a wonderful machine and has permitted me to go forward and continue to make pots. I’m sure if I did not have the pug mill, which does most of the kneading for me, then I probably would have quit potting some time ago. I’m just not able to do it.

But other than that, technically – I mean, essentially, I guess pottery doesn’t change that much, and I’m still mixing my own glazes and using the same chemicals and so forth that I’ve always used, so it hasn’t changed that much.

MR. SILBERMAN: What about the working process? Have you changed that much in terms of the working, what you decide to make or how you go about it? You talk about the sort of the discipline you learned from Leach, the ability to make work in a series, but has that changed in terms of how you go during the day, in terms of choosing what to make and how you go about making it? You’re not doing drawings, as you said.

MR. MACKENZIE: No, but I do repeat ideas for pots, even though the individual pot may vary from one to the next. People need something to eat out of.

One thing, now you ask, I realize I used to make dinner plates simply because people wanted dinner plates. I dislike making dinner plates. I find them limited as far as form goes, and since form is my main concern, they’re not very satisfactory to make. They can be made, but they’re not interesting. And I feel they really need some treatment, some decoration on them in order to become a complete unit. So I don’t make dinner plates. There are other potters who sell their work here in our studio who do make dinner plates, and that’s wonderful, so I don’t have to. But I make a lot of eating utensils, mugs, drinking vessels of various sorts, bowls to eat soup or cereal out of, bowls for serving, bowls for mixing, bowls for all sorts of purposes.

I think I’ve moved somewhat into, I shouldn’t say a concentration on, but certainly I’m making many more vase forms than I used to when we started out. A vase is a wonderful thing to play with because anything with a hole in the top of it you can say is a vase, so you can make anything you want. You’re absolutely unlimited. And at the same time, with that freedom you have to relate the vase to whatever is going to go into it and to your relationship with forms that you’re involved with at that given time in your life.

And sometimes I’ve made vases which pursue an idea I have, and I try to push it as far as it will go and see what the limits are. Often when I get involved in something like that – I just discovered this last week – I mean, it’s very recent for me to be saying this. Very often when I am pushing an idea that way, I’m more interested in pushing the idea than I am aware of what I’m creating, and I’ve decided this is not a good thing to do because I end up making bad pots. When I look back on them, they’re bad pots, I think. I think now that’s what I believe. Now, I’m not saying I’ll never do that again, but right now I’m not.

MR. SILBERMAN: Even when you’re making a lot of something, for example, vases, are you still making other kinds of pots?

MR. MACKENZIE: Oh, yes. When we worked at the Leach Pottery, they had a system which was designed to utilize the work of the people in the studio and accommodate orders which they had on their books for pots that people had ordered, demands from shops that they sold through for certain other pots, and also to fill the kiln economically. And that kiln took about 1,500 pots to fill. It was a three-chamber kiln, and the first two chambers were full of glaze ware, about 750 pieces to each chamber, and the third chamber was with a tighter packing because the ware was unglazed; it could be stacked. It held the 1,500 pots for the next firing in the glaze chambers. And this bisque firing was a free firing by overflow heat on its way to the chimney.

So we had a making list at the Leach Pottery, and each person, depending on their abilities and demands of the pottery, was assigned so many pots to make for the next firing. And I’ve retained that idea: to make up a list of things that I want to make, and I know it’s going to take me about 600, 650 pieces to fill the kiln. And that’s everything from small wine cups to large vases or big serving bowls and so on. And so I make a list of 20 of this and 50 of this and 10 of this and so on and so on to come up with what I think is going to be needed to fill the kiln. The only difference between what I do and what the Leach Pottery did is I don’t feel stuck with that making list. If I’m bored, I just stop making whatever I have on the list and go to something different, or I may just scratch some things because I don’t want to make them that month, that firing.

But it’s a good beginning, and instead of going down to the studio in the morning and sitting there and twiddling my thumbs and looking out the window and wondering, now what am I going to do, why, all I have to do is look on the making list and pick anything off it and at least I can work. I can start making something. I may lose interest in it and stop, but it gets me working in the morning.

MR. SILBERMAN: And then there’s always what happens in the kiln to the work.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, that’s true. Sometimes the kiln is a vehicle for expression which produces work that’s better than what you put in the kiln. I mean, something can happen in the firing that you never expected; you put in a very ordinary pot and it comes out just fantastic, and you had nothing to do with it; it’s just chance. Sometimes you have a wonderful idea of the way this pot is going to come out, and it doesn’t come out that way at all; it comes out a real disaster. But that’s part of what’s exciting about making pots. I mean, you never – well, you can. I’m sure there are potters who can control everything that they do, and if they do that, I feel sorry for them, because they lose that possibility of the discovery of wonderful things or of the shock of finding a disaster in their hands.

MR. SILBERMAN: Did you have a salt kiln here at one point?

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes, yes, at one time we built a salt kiln and it interested me for about three years. I thought – this has happened several times in my life — I thought, okay, I’m going to learn about salt firing, and so I thought the best way to do this was to really concentrate on salt firing. And I stopped doing glazed ware for a bit and did a lot of salt ware, and then I lost interest in salt.

The same thing happened – I was doing some porcelain and I thought, oh, well, I can go ahead with porcelain and stoneware at the same time because they’re both fired at the same temperatures, use the same kinds of glazes, roughly, and I can mix them up and have a great time. I found out I couldn’t, because I started to make porcelain and all I was doing was making white stoneware pots, and the feeling of them was of a stoneware pot. I didn’t know what my feeling about porcelain would be. It didn’t want to be thin, translucent, perfectly formed, but it didn’t want to be just a gob of clay thrown on the wheel either. And so I quit doing stoneware for three years and did nothing but porcelain, but then I got bored with that and so I went back, and now I’ve decided I’m a stoneware potter; I’m not a porcelain potter.

MR. SILBERMAN: And you have your old favorite glazes.


MR. SILBERMAN: And you also are always experimenting with some new things on the side.

MR. MACKENZIE: Yes. I try to have a few glaze experiments in each firing, but the ideas you have for experiments, the percentage that work out as being worthwhile is very small. When we worked at the Leach Pottery, Bernard put me in charge of the experimental aspect of the pottery, and he dreamed up all kinds of things he wanted to test, you know. So my job was to weigh these out and make tests of them and put them in the firing. And I remember the year I did this – it was the second year of our being there – I must have made 120, 150 different glaze tests, and out of those only one came out to be a glaze which we wanted to use in the studio and which would repeat itself satisfactorily. And that’s just the percentage you get. Sometimes you’re lucky and you get more, but if you get one out of 100, I think that’s pretty good.

MR. SILBERMAN: But you keep trying.


MR. SILBERMAN: Warren, just a few more things. I’m not going to ask you as a writer about writing and craft writing, but I would like to ask you just what role the craft periodicals, American Craft or the ceramics periodicals like American Ceramics and the Studio Potter, played for you in your development as an artist or your role as a teacher?

MR. MACKENZIE: As a teacher they were good, because they kept me aware of what was happening in other parts of the country and of, I hate to say it, but the trends in the ceramic world.

When I quit teaching, I have to confess that I simply dropped most of my subscriptions to magazines. I found that they interfered with my thinking rather than helping it. And so I muddle along on my own now. At one time I had an idea of writing a book, and I started to collect some photographs about utilitarian pots, and then I sat and when I got a few photographs together I thought, well, you’d better start and see whether you can write or not. But then I very quickly found out I can’t; I’m not a writer. And so I returned the photographs to the people and that was the end of that.
Leach was a great writer. He thought in complete units. I visited Bernard just before he died – I mean, not a month before he died.

He was practically blind. He couldn’t hear very well. And I lived with him in his apartment for two weeks. He dismissed his housekeeper and secretary and we just lived there together. And in that time he had a request for an article about something; I can’t remember what it was. He had a tape recorder, so he thought about this for a while and he sat down and turned on the tape recorder and he spoke this article, which ended up to be about a page and a half long in printed form. And when he was done, I took the tape and took it to the woman who had worked for him as a secretary, and she transcribed it and put it in typescript, and I read it back to Bernard when it was typed, and he only had to change about one word in that entire thing. There were no “uhs” or badly constructed sentences or ideas that did not follow in the correct order for the article. It was a fantastic experience, so as anyone who hears this tape will know, you hesitate, you change, you “um,”“ah,”“er” and it doesn’t always follow in a proper sequence.

MR. SILBERMAN: Well, that’s a rare gift to have Bernard Leach’s ability as a writer.

MR. MACKENZIE: It was. It was a wonderful gift, yes.

MR. SILBERMAN: Since we’ve gone back to England, I want to ask you one more question about coming back to America. When you came back to America after being with Leach in England, did you have a different sense of historical American pottery and older American pottery, or did you have that before you left? Because he taught you to look at old English pottery.

MR. MACKENZIE: True, but also Bernard antagonized a number of American potters when he came through America lecturing and giving demonstrations, which he did not only in 1952 with Hamada and Yanagi but in 1950, when he did a whole circle tour of the United States. And Bernard antagonized so many American potters by saying that we had no history; we had – as he put it, we had no taproot, which means a history that goes back 500 years or something like that and on which you build and it narrows down and narrows down, narrows down. He thought that was a tremendous loss and that we were deprived because of this. I think that American potters, they don’t have a taproot; they have a dozen taproots, because America is a country where people have come from other countries where they have traditions, and they bring these traditions with them and build upon them.

And so today we’re an amalgam of a lot of different countries, and we don’t absorb it all, but we certainly absorb a great deal of it. And, of course, things have changed since Bernard was young, also, because publishing has increased and travel has increased and people not only can read and absorb ideas from other countries, they can travel to other countries and have other people come to this country to bring their ideas to this country, and you explore those and benefit from them.

So I don’t think we changed our view. In fact, Alix and I, even before we had any money, we had started to put together a collection of pots, pots from all over the world, because we usually bought them in junk shops or antique shops. And it was amazing what we found, I mean, Early American pieces, yes, but also pots that people had brought with them from Europe, pots that people had imported from the Orient, and pots that came from the American Indian culture, all of these things, which were available in shops. And if you picked the right shop, you could sometimes get something for a few dollars that was an extremely important pot, not in a museum sense but an important pot in that it meant something to you and became part of your life. And so I don’t think that the lack of a taproot is any big problem.

MR. SILBERMAN: Does the international travel and the availability of, sort of, being in touch with things going on change what’s going on from what you can see in terms of American ceramics? And it sort of rolls it – is everything becoming more internationalized?

MR. MACKENZIE: I’m not sure. I’m not sure.

MR. SILBERMAN: Let me rephrase. I mean, how do you see your Americanness coming out in your pots? You’re regarded as in part under the influence of Hamada and the Asian, Japanese tradition, Korean, and part Leach, but where does the Americanness come out, just as a model of one American potter as opposed to all American potters?

MR. MACKENZIE: First of all, I don’t think I can make anything but American pots. And I would go back to something that happened to us in England. When we were working at the Leach Pottery, there was a theater group that wanted to produce an American play. They wanted to produce Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And they asked us, as Americans, to come down and tell them how to act like Americans. Of course, we went down and we said, “Well, the only thing you have to do is lose your English accent,” which is not what they wanted to hear. They never did produce Our Town. They couldn’t get enough people who could do it, but they did produce a play with several American characters in it, and so we did work with them.

But the thing that amazed me was that the director of this play tried to point out to the people acting like Americans, that look – and Alix and I were both involved in this; we were just down there trying to talk with them – and this director suddenly said, “Well, look at the way they’re standing. No English person could stand that way. They just don’t do it.” And I think that there’s probably something about the way our bodies move and the way we tend to gesture which is different than an English person or a French person or Italian or a Japanese or anything else, and so we can’t help but make American pots.

I know I’ve been accused of making pots which are very Japanese. They’re influenced by Japanese qualities, but they’re certainly not Japanese pots. In fact, I think Japanese would find – the Japanese, let me say, are unusually chauvinistic about pottery, and they believe, and perhaps rightly so, that Japan is a very important ceramic nation. But they are also jealous of the fact that people, in a sense, imitate Japanese pottery. I don’t imitate Japanese pottery, and the Japanese people who I’ve known are well aware of this fact. They say, “Oh no, your pots are American pots; they’re not Japanese pots,” even with a strong influence.
Now, why it happens, I don’t know, but I think it’s something to do with the fact that I just live in America. I’ve said before, and I’ve repeated, that I think my pots are Midwestern pots. I’m most comfortable in the Midwest. I’m not comfortable on the East Coast or the West Coast, and that may be a very narrow view, but it’s the way I am and so I like it here.

MR. SILBERMAN: We’re glad you’re here. As another Midwesterner, I’m glad you’re here.

One last question, since we want to end with the work. As a practical matter or a specific example, could you describe what you made today and what ideas you might have been thinking about as you made the pots today? What was behind your thinking in terms of what was interesting?

MR. MACKENZIE: No, I can’t because I wasn’t making pots today. Today, I was glazing pots this morning. I mean, my month sequence runs through about ten to 12 days of making of pots, and as they dry, they’re being fired off for the first firing in an electric kiln, and then when all the pots are made and bisqued, I start to glaze. And that’s what I’ve just completed, was glazing pots today, and then tomorrow I’ll start packing the kiln. It takes a couple days to pack it, and then it is fired.

But I don’t know what I think about any given day in making pots. The making of the pots is the part I like the best, but you may know that. Michael Cardew has said, “There are people who are glaze people, there are people who are fire people, and there are people who are mud people,” and I guess I’m a mud person, because it’s the making of the pots and the manipulating the clay in a variety of ways which I enjoy the most. But, no, I can’t describe a sequence.

MR. SILBERMAN: That’s a perfect statement to end on. Thank you very much.


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Smithsonian Oral History Interview: Michael Cohen

Oral history interview with Michael Cohen, 2001 August 11

Cohen, Michael, b. 1936

An interview of Michael Cohen conducted 2001 August 11, by Gerry Williams, for the Archives of American Art’s Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, at his home in Pelham, Mass.

Michael Cohen, Tilemaker

Cohen speaks of his childhood, living outside of Boston, Massachusetts; his first adventures in art; attending Mass Art; his attraction to Clay; his mentors; his first job with Bill Wyman; joining the Army; his travels; his unhappy experience at Cranbrook Academy of Art; his first studio in his mother’s basement; enjoying his first summer at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and the other schools of craft; how his pottery is meant to be functional; his fear of dying at 59 and the great sculptural work he did in that year; exhibition shows and how they have changed over the course of his career; why he’s moved to primarily making tiles; apprenticeship and the benefits of paying your apprentices; how expensive being in the pottery business has become; various teaching and workshop experiences; local pottery guilds he is a part of; the creation and design of his studio space; technological advances in the field and the distinctive tools he loves to use; specialized periodicals that he reads or looks at; what makes a pot beautiful; limitations in clay; commissions and the lack of benefits involved with commissions; the permanent collections of museums that he is a part of; how he thinks he will be remembered; his most memorable exhibitions; where he gets his ideas from; social and political issues he’s involved in and how he does not include them in his work; the craft organizations; curators he’s enjoyed working with; his ex-wife Harriet Goodwin and how their collaboration was important to his work. Cohen also recalls Francis Merritt, Bernard Leach, Peter Voulkos, Ron Burke, John Glick, Bob Sedestrom and others.

This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.

Interview Transcript

This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Michael Cohen, 2001 August 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


Michael Cohen and Gerry Williams have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


MR. GERRY WILLIAMS: This is Gerry Williams interviewing Michael Cohen at the artist’s house in Pelham, Mass., on August 11, 2001, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. And we’re sitting in Michael’s living-dining room upstairs on the second floor of his studio, looking out over the porch and the flowers and the forest behind, listening to the birds.
Now Michael, I’ll start with a series of questions, and you can answer as long or as short as you want. Let’s start with the very first question: where were you born and when?
MR. MICHAEL COHEN: Well, I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, March 7, 1936, in the same hospital that my daughter was born in, Boston Lying In [Boston Lying In Hospital].
MR. WILLIAMS: And tell me a little bit about your parents. What did your father do?
MR. COHEN: Well, my father had several jobs before I was born, but when I was born, he owned three liquor stores, and my mother took care of the house. And I had one brother, an older brother, seven years older than I.
MR. WILLIAMS: And were you a city boy, for the most part?
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. We lived in Brighton, Massachusetts, in an apartment house, in sort of a Jewish ghetto, and maybe a five-minute walk to the T, which I learned to navigate through shopping with my mother every Saturday morning. And I went to school in Brighton, and then went to Brighton High School.
MR. WILLIAMS: And did you start in clay work in high school?
MR. COHEN: No, I think earlier than that I was sort of discovered by an arts and crafts teacher who had graduated from Mass Art [Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, Massachusetts]. And I was going to a day camp in Brookline [Mssachusetts], and she took me on as sort of an assistant, and then she became my mentor. And, as a part of her life, she made marionettes. And she taught me how to make marionettes and how to paint scenery — the first time I’d ever touched oil paint, and we painted scenery. And it was a big production. And she made me part of a team, the troupe, and there were five people. And we would travel around, three shows, maybe, in a year, for about three years, and we would do it with half the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So we’d be doing musical numbers, like the Nutcracker Suite and things like that.
So it was all marionettes and then the orchestra in front of us. And that was my introduction to classical music and my love of classical music. To be almost within the orchestra while it was happening was great. So she inspired me to go to Mass Art.
MR. WILLIAMS: What was this person’s name?
MR. COHEN: Her name was Helen Denison, and I didn’t keep track of her. I don’t know where she is now. But she was probably 20 years older than I was. But while I was in high school, I was chosen to be in a scholarship program at the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston has a program of taking two people from each high school and bringing them down to the Museum of Fine Arts basement, where we had intensive art courses. And that was fantastic. It sort of pointed me in the direction of Mass Art.
On the other hand, I was so ignorant of everything. My father had died when I was in high school. I was so ignorant of the way things worked that when I applied to college, I applied to Mass Art. That was it, no back up. I can see that I got in pretty easily, but it was very scary. And then I went to Mass Art for four years. And in my sophomore year, I had the mandatory class of ceramics with Charles Abbott, and that was something like around 1953, something like that. And that’s how I got started in clay.
MR. WILLIAMS: And what attracted you to clay?
MR. COHEN: It spoke to me. I realized there was a connection between my design sense and the total — I don’t know the word — the ability to manipulate it into anything. You can make it look like anything, or like a real ceramic bowl or something. The mechanics was interesting to me, the fact that you’re using a machine to make the pots. But all you had were sort of stand-up kick wheels and a few electric kilns, and I spent two years doing just that kind of stuff.
Abbott was a stickler on glazes, and so we had to learn glazes with slide rules. It was horrible. I’m very bad at math. But I think the physical experimentation got me through, you know, getting glazes and understanding what the materials were. So by the time I left Mass Art, I had a pretty good sense of clay, but I realized now that I knew nothing.
MR. WILLIAMS: Before we leave Mass Art, did Mr. Abbott become a mentor?
MR. COHEN: He was a mentor. He wasn’t the greatest potter in the world, but as a Zen master, he certainly brought me to a new level. The minor spirituality that I have, I think a lot came from Mr. Abbott. He was a wonderful guy.
MR. WILLIAMS: What was his background?
MR. COHEN: Well, I think he was an architect, or his wife was an architect, or something like that, and I don’t know. He got into clay somehow. He went to Cranbrook [Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan], and he fell in love with Maija Grotell, who was then healthy. By the time I got to Cranbrook, she had disintegrated.
MR. WILLIAMS: Did he bring to you, through Maija Grotell, certain aspects of ceramics?
MR. COHEN: Not really, no. He had become a production potter, and I love that direction; I love the repetition. So during my last year at Mass Art, Bill Wyman, who was teaching, I think at the museum for his living, also had a little crummy basement studio. And he hired me to throw mugs, ashtrays, and cast porcelain decanters and porcelain mugs. So I would go there every weekend for a dollar an hour. And being next to him, as a master, during that time, he produced some of his greatest art pieces. Along with his production, he made slab pieces with impressed glass and sand, and he became very well known for those. And I was there, and we would talk about why one should write on a pot or what can someone write on a pot; should someone write on a pot? We would talk for hours. And so, you can’t buy that kind of —
MR. WILLIAMS: And there was an episode in the meantime between two academic places.
MR. COHEN: Yes. After Mass Art, well, I had been in the top third of my class at Mass Art, which, that’s what you needed to avoid the draft, which was then very, very heavy. And I was sort of penniless, and my family was penniless, and I thought I could save some money if I went into the army. But everyone was getting drafted. So I thought if I joined, they guaranteed you a school, which I joined, and I got photography and lab. And after my basic training, I went to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where the photography school for the army is, and I learned photography by the army way. And I came out second in my class there.
The first in this class spoke perfect German, so of course they sent him to France. I had taken German in school, thank God, and went to Germany. I mean, I was in the army three months and I was in Germany. It was the first time I had ever been out of the country. I was a punk kid, but I went to a company that was all photography. It was 150 guys; 100 of them took pictures or were involved in the lab work. So I spent two and a half years going around Europe in my free time. Weekends, you know, you could go to Munich on a weekend.
I met potters all over Europe. I would go to the Frankfurter Messe, which was a big exhibition, and I met all the people there, and then I would get their addresses. And then I would visit them, and I would take pictures, but not enough. Little did I know I should have been writing this all down for Ceramics Monthly. I would have been published long before John Glick went to all the places I had told him to go to, like Hohr Grenzhausen. He had my list of people and places, and he followed it when he was in Germany.
So you get a certain amount of vacation in the army, and I went one time to Spain and took pictures of peasant pottery and things like that. But the main thing was going to England, because I wanted to become an apprentice with either Harry Davis or Bernard Leach. And I wrote them; I visited each one for several days; and I showed them my portfolio from Mass Art and Haystack [Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine]. Oh, I went to Haystack after Mass Art, then I went into the army, studied with Toshiko Takaezu and Hal Rieger. Can I make a side thing for Hal Rieger?
The studio was so crowded that Hal said, well, why don’t you try raku, and you can do it outside the studio. And so, all we had was A Potter’s Book [Bernard Leach. London: Faber & Faber, 1988 (3rd ed.); 1940.]. Using A Potter’s Book, we did the best we could do. We dug a pit, we made a sagger, we burned wood; we actually made pots with the formulas from A Potter’s Book, and Hal took pictures of all of this. And so therefore, that summer, he had about 100 pictures, and they became the beginning of the chapters of the first raku book in America. It was published around 1960.
So I go to visit Harry Davis, and he says — he looks at my pictures — I’m too one-of-a-kind; I have too many one-of-a-kind things. And then I go to visit Leach, who was just charming and lovely, and I sat with him for hours as he decorated pots, and we talked; he looked at my slides, and he looked at my pictures. I had photographs, because I had access to all this photoprinting equipment. And the result was that he felt I was too American and that I could never do the production type of pottery; I would not be able to stand the repetition. Little did either of us know that I would make thousands of the same object, just as he did. So that was England. So I took those same photographs and applied to Cranbrook for a scholarship.
MR. WILLIAMS: Where is Cranbrook?
MR. COHEN: Cranbrook is in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and it’s a very exclusive graduate school. At the time, it took 100 people, and Maija Grotell was the teacher. So I got a full scholarship and I went there. Interestingly enough, my class, there were many wheels. And there were so many wheels in the studio that they had to cover them with boards because there weren’t enough tables. So you’d be working onto covered-up wheels. It was stupid. And behind me was John Glick, and in front of me was Ron Burke. It was quite a group. And then Bob Sedestrom, who became the ceramics instructor at New Paltz for 30 years.
MR. WILLIAMS: When was Maija Grotell there?
MR. COHEN: First of all, she was just crippled from arthritis. She couldn’t move her hands. She would shuffle around. And after I started going, after a few months, I started making functional pottery. And the worst moment I had at Cranbrook was I had done a lot of trays and had decorated them in different ways, had different shaped trays and different feet on them. And I got them all out of the kiln and put them on a board, and she came along, shuffled along, and she pointed her gnarled finger at the trays, and she said, “We don’t do this at Cranbrook.” And I was crushed.
Later that day, she called me into her inner sanctum, which only the most favored people would get to go. She, of course, would spend three months on a pot, four months, six months on a pot. The whole thing was covered up in plastic. She would meticulously work on it for months — one object. I, of course, am banging things out as fast as I can make them, because I want to learn how to do that. And she accused me of sending someone else’s pictures for the scholarship to go to Cranbrook. And I burst into tears and I couldn’t stop crying.
And in that moment, I was so, not weak, but so needy. I said, what do you want me to do? I’ll do it. Just tell me what you want me to do. And I didn’t know that in graduate school no one tells you what to do; you’re supposed to do it on your own. No one told me anything. I was very naïve about everything. That was a horrible moment. I walked out. She let me out of her private door so I could go to my room and weep. That moment is when I should have left and gone to study with [Peter] Voulkos, who was an incredible influence on me, as he was on everybody. I should have gone to Berkeley and sat at his feet. On the other hand, if I had, I think I would have been dead already from drugs and alcohol. So it’s probably a good thing I didn’t go.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you stayed in Cranbrook and graduated.
MR. COHEN: No. It’s a two-year program; I left after one year. I didn’t go back. It was cheaper for me to start my own studio than to go back and pay the money, which wasn’t very much, but I didn’t have anything. So I started in my mother’s basement. Well, that summer, I went to the new Haystack up in Deer Isle, Maine, and Fran [Merritt], the year before, had taken Bill Wyman and myself to the site when there was not a thing on it, and that was a great moment.
The next year, it had been built, and I wrote Fran. I said, I will do anything to be at Haystack the first year. And he said, well, we need a maintenance man. And for half the summer, I became the maintenance man at Haystack. So it’s very strange, when you’re among all these semi-professionals, and all of the sudden, it’s your night to give a slide show, and the maintenance man gets up and shows slides from Europe and his own work — it was a great moment. It was one of the most wonderful summers. And every time I go to Haystack it’s wonderful. So then I started my own studio in ’61.
MR. WILLIAMS: Since we’re talking about travels abroad, where else did you travel?
MR. COHEN: Well, recently, I’ve gone on elder hostel things. I have a phobia about travel. It’s hard for me, so I have to force myself to travel. But I’ve been to Florence, and I’ve been to Sorrento and Naples and gone to museums there, all through elder hostels. And I’m about to go to Sienna in March, culture and culinary arts. I love cooking.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you go by yourself?
MR. COHEN: Yes, I go by myself. I’m going to the Grand Canyon with my sweetheart in a couple of weeks, on an elder hostel program, to the Indian reservation at the Grand Canyon. So that’s going to be interesting.
MR. WILLIAMS: And these travels have been not organized, but in terms of the arts. But you’ve found your way —
MR. COHEN: Oh absolutely, all over Europe, when I was in the army, going to Madrid, and I had been to Paris in the Army, and Madrid, and seeing all the museums.
MR. WILLIAMS: Did you travel in the Far East, Japan?
MR. COHEN: Never have been there.
MR. WILLIAMS: Any interest?
MR. COHEN: No, I don’t really have interest, because being a poor kid and seeing all these rich kids spending years studying in Machiko or Bizen — sort of trust-fund hippies would go to Japan and study with masters, you know, and throw their hundred bowls. I was jealous, and I sort of kidded myself into feeling it was like a cliché to do it. So I’ve never really wanted to go to Japan, and now I think it’s more like a production line of American potters going to Japan. So I don’t think I really want to go.
MR. WILLIAMS: In that context, do you think of yourself as being part of a traditional line of pottery?
MR. COHEN: Yes, definitely, first of all, from the Bernard Leach line and [Shoji] Hamada. I remember seeing around 1960, there was a show of Hamada and — oh God, I forget the names of the great Japanese potters at that time — in Cambridge, and it blew my mind. It was the epitome of what I wanted to do. I even, for years, for almost 20 years, I used a four-petaled flower with dots in the spaces as my trademark, and it came right off of a Hamada pot.
Years after that, I met Hamada at a show he had at Bonniers in New York City, and he was wonderful. It took guts, but I asked him for an autograph, and he did an autograph. That was in 1960s.
MR. WILLIAMS: In Japanese.
MR. COHEN: In Japanese.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you still have it?
MR. COHEN: Yes, I do.
MR. WILLIAMS: Can I buy it from you? [Laughs.]
MR. COHEN: I remember looking at his vases or looking at his pots, and, oh, they were outrageously expensive, $200 for a bowl or $200 for a vase. If I had any money at the time, I would have bought — I think, he also said, you don’t have to buy anything. You have it in your mind. You’re looking at it, you have it in your mind, it’s in your eyes; you don’t have to own it. He was right.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good advice.
MR. COHEN: Yeah, yeah.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, you had mentioned Voulkos as part of the American tradition. What interest did you have in that direction?
MR. COHEN: He and I, I think, were influenced by the same cover of Craft Horizons. It was a box with a face on it, and the face had a top hat on it. He told me that he thought those were four feet high, and that’s when he started doing the gigantic stacked pots, because he wanted to make something as impressive as that. It was only years later that he found out those were four inches high. But because of the angle of the photography, they looked monumental.
MR. WILLIAMS: Whose work was it?
MR. COHEN: Some Finn, I don’t remember. But see, he liked — were very large at that time, and I always looked to that kind of stuff. So when he started coming out with his torn work and his thrown-together work — between him and Eric Gronberg, who handles clay in another way, sort of similar, which is the nontouching, you know, having saran wrap between him and the clay, and using stamps in his clay, that was very influential for me. But watching Voulkos grow was such an inspiration. And I tried to work in a way where you would — it’s also a Japanese thing, which is where you’d hit the pot or hit some slabs together, and you’d leave the mark of the paddle, and you’d leave your finger marks. And that was how it influenced me, and both the Japanese pottery and Voulkos, as a combination of things.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s talk about function and its role in your work.
MR. COHEN: Well, for 35 years or more — 37 years, I think — I’ve been making mostly functional pottery. I would say 90 percent of my work is functional pottery, and 10 percent is nonfunctional, more sculptural. I loved the idea of people using the objects that I made. And it’s just an incredibly important part of my life. And so, when I started out making a line of pottery, it was totally functional. It was plates and mugs and bowls and pitchers and all the things, but I tried to put my own spin on all of these objects so that it wouldn’t look like everyone else’s and using interesting glazes.
And I was trying to do the best I could, but it was very hard to make a living, because there were no stores to sell stuff in. And I guess I have to tell you, the selling experience was, you would make pots, you’d wrap them in newspaper, you’d bring them to Marion Ruth [store in Boston], and you’d kneel down on the floor, you’d unwrap the pots, and your hands are getting filthy, and she’s waiting on customers. Then she would pick some pots that she’d write a check for $105, and then you would sit there and wrap up the stuff and take the rest of it home. Then you go to Upper Story and do the same thing, and that’s how I lived.
When I got married, and Harriet saw the way I was doing this, she did it one time — Harriet, my ex-wife, my wife at that time. When she saw how I was doing it, she said, this is stupid, this is degrading; you’ve got to have samples, and you’ve got to have order blanks, and you have to have photographs. And we went in that direction. And we went on selling trips with samples, and people wanted to buy the samples. We said, no, no, these are samples, and here’s an order blank; we’ll write out your order. And she says, oh no, you’re not going to send us what we order, because you’re going to somehow cheat us. That was from Frans Wildenhain, who said that to us.
But I think we were the first people to have an order blank. I think I am; I don’t know. But as a production pottery, they just couldn’t order from an order blank from a production potter. They could order from Dansk from order blanks; they could order from anybody from order blanks; but when a handmade work came through their door, they had to buy the actual object that they were looking at. Well, we tried to change that with, I think it was with, America House.
We would never take pots to America House. We had a fabulous photography book with all the wholesale prices, and there was an order blank, and he would write orders. And he was one of the first people — I forget his name [Robert Hodges] — who did it.
MR. WILLIAMS: At America House.
MR. COHEN: Yes, at the old America House.
MR. WILLIAMS: So it has been a part of your life.
MR. COHEN: Totally part of my life.
MR. WILLIAMS: May I move on just a little bit to religion and sense of spirituality?
MR. COHEN: Very little.
MR. WILLIAMS: You said in the beginning, you spoke about your Jewish background. Has that been part of your life?
MR. COHEN: Not at all. I might make things for people who are religious. I made a lot of menorahs that were exquisite, extruded, square things that I would make into menorahs, and then I would make mezuzhas. I made mezuzhas for about ten years. It was so funny; we’d make them production style. We’d have three “shiksa” in a row, which is non-Jewish people, and we’d be making menorahs. And we just laughed as we did it, and we would make about 100 menorahs in a morning — not menorahs, mezuzhas. And we sold lots and lots of mezuzhas, and they were lovely, really lovely. But I did it as a commercial thing, not as a religious thing. Very nonreligious, in fact, an atheist.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
MR. COHEN: No, I really don’t consider myself spiritual. I’m more like an engineer, more practical.
MR. WILLIAMS: Engineers don’t have spirits?
MR. COHEN: No, they’re thinking of the practical part of life, the actual part of life, the part you can touch and feel and make.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is there a spirit to your work?
MR. COHEN: Well, when you come downstairs and see some of the sculpture that I’ve done, well, that was the only spiritual thing I’ve ever done, I think. My father died when he was 59; my brother died when hewas 59. I was becoming 59, and I made a whole set of tomb figures and guardian figures, and sort of like things on canopic jars, Egyptian tomb figures, and that was my most spiritual. I was kind of almost expecting to die when I was 59, and to get through that year, I think I made those sculptures to get the death feeling out of me. That was the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done.
MR. WILLIAMS: In that respect, what, in a tangential manner, has race, sex, or ethnicity entered into your work?
MR. COHEN: No, it does not have anything to do with my work. The sex part, I think I’ve always done erotic work. I’ve done some humorous erotic work and humorous erotic games, but they’re for my friends and never to be sold. They have been exhibited, which has always been fun.
MR. WILLIAMS: So the male-female, gender aspect of sculpture, for instance, hasn’t particularly interested you.
MR. COHEN: Not at all.
MR. WILLIAMS: Your masculinity is not overtly —
MR. COHEN: No, I’ve been trained very well by Harriet. When the first Ms. magazine came out, it was the beginning of my education. And it was a rough year or so, my trying to become liberated, and I hope I’ve succeeded. I think I have succeeded, because when I have women workers, afterwards they’ve told me that I was, like, the first guy who ever treated them like a human being, or not as a sex object but as an equal. And that’s from my training with Harriet. [Laughs.]
MR. WILLIAMS: But your work itself —
MR. COHEN: No, I don’t think so, no. No, only when I was sort of putting in erotic parts to a piece, but only for the pleasure of doing that, not so much that I’m trying to make a statement. It’s only that I would make openings that are feminine. And there is a funny thing. In my decoration, for years I was doing brushwork, until Harriet said, look, leave that to the Japanese; you know, get into the sponge-printing thing. And I would do a penis and testicles in brushwork that was so abstract that only I knew that it was that. And thousands of those are out.
MR. WILLIAMS: No vaginas.
MR. COHEN: No, only in sculptural pieces. On the three-dimensional pieces, I would have vaginas.
MR. WILLIAMS: Has the African-American culture had a heavy influence on you?
MR. COHEN: No, not African-American, but African, absolutely inspiring in the primitiveness in the way they handled the wood and made the masks. I think a mecca for me is the Metropolitan collection of African — that whole collection at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City]. I’ve been there 10 or 15 times.
MR. COHEN: — Northeast group of craftspeople. I forget even what it was called. And they, many, many years ago, probably 30 years ago, started up at Mt. Snow, and they had their first craft show, but it wasn’t a retail crafts show, it was a wholesale crafts show.
MR. WILLIAMS: ACC [American Craft Council].
MR. COHEN: No, that was long before. It was us. It was the Northeast region of the ACC, but ACC had nothing to do with it, until it got to Rhinebeck. So we went to see the first show, and we were so impressed that we applied the next year, and that was the beginning of just a dignified way of bringing your work to many, many shop owners. So the shop owners, the number of shops were growing; the fair produced people in front of your booth. I mean, where else can you be rejected by 99 percent of the people, and you’re just looking for one percent?
And we would take orders for maybe $6,000 worth of stuff or $10,000 worth of stuff. That’s when we were grossing something like $30,000; two people working, grossing $35,000. But it was a wonderful way of doing it. It was hard, but it was wonderful. And then, it moved to Mt. Snow and we did that, and then Mt. Snow moved to Bennington. And Bennington was fabulous. Those were the hippie days, and it was all incredibly warm. It was wonderful.
MR. WILLIAMS: What year was this?
MR. COHEN: I have no idea. I can’t remember. Then it moved to Rhinebeck, and it was in Rhinebeck, New York, for 10 years. But during the beginning, Carol Sedestrom used to work for like $1,000 a year, because they needed someone to organize the thing. And I remember encouraging her, Harriet and I encouraging her to ask for $10,000 a year, because the job she was doing was worth it, which she did. But that’s when the ACC moved in. And to make a long story short, it took it over.
You know, it was still Northeast — we had it locked to the Northeast, but the ACC said, let’s get 50 people from California. And we all protested, because we don’t want — you know, it’s going to take our market. But, of course, the ACC did whatever it wanted, brought the 50 people from California, and maybe by the next year, it was national.
MR. WILLIAMS: Pardon me, what is the ACC?
MR. COHEN: The American Craft Council. Then it became more and more bureaucratic, and the craftspeople — because the whole thing was run by craftspeople. I forget the name of the guy who used to come three days early to actually make chalk lines in the grass. And everybody did it; everybody worked. It was wonderful. But when the ACC took it over, the craftsmen got further and further removed from how the place was going to be run, and then it became a megabusiness and started the wholesale shows in Baltimore; then there were the copycat shows of Richard Rothbard across the street.
And then, when Baltimore became overflowing with too many craftspeople — you know, it would have 800 craftspeople at that time, and there so many good people who weren’t getting in — Wendy Rosen came in and scooped up another 800 people. It was like a license to print money. But Wendy made money, where the ACC never made money because they had so many committees and so many people who had to get paid, where Wendy ran as a dictatorship and got things done.
I did a couple of Wendy’s shows when I got rejected from the Baltimore shows, and the same buyers would come. And that was wonderful. All the buyers came, you got orders, you made a living. That was the major change. Three and a half years ago, I had been working on tiles for a little bit, and I decided to go with only tiles. So I went to a Baltimore wholesale show with only 24 tiles, and in a white booth lined up along the wall, and I got originally about $10,000 or $12,000 worth of orders. And almost every one of those people re-ordered, and that’s the most important thing, the re-order.
I mean, my son convinced me to get a fax machine. Sometimes, in a day, it starts smoking if I get three orders on a fax machine. I mean, when I was making pottery, I would have to call people and beg them to buy my stuff. It was lovely stuff, but — and then they’d give you an order, and it would take two months to make it. In the tile business, we make so many ahead of time that we ship in a week, and they love that. They can order in the last minute and get it in a week.
MR. WILLIAMS: So your tile business now has taken over everything.
MR. COHEN: Taken over everything. And the only pots I make are for retail shows, which is then making a pot for $30, making a bowl for $30. It’s worth it, as opposed to not making any money at $15, as we all know.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you’ve learned how to write an invoice.
MR. COHEN: Oh, with my computer I’ve made a fabulous order blank, and all my little forms are made by working on my computer, which I’m trying to learn as much as I can about.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are you on the web?
MR. COHEN: No, I don’t have a website. In a way, I really don’t need a website, because I don’t want retail people to find me. It’s mainly I want wholesale people to find me, and I give my e-mail address and I give my fax machine number and my telephone number, and they reach me; they get me. So that’s been a modern miracle for me.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you have a dealer?
MR. COHEN: No, I do all my own. I’m my own dealer.
MR. WILLIAMS: Why do you object to the concept?
MR. COHEN: Well, you have to give them five or ten percent of your price, and you don’t have the control of the shops that you’re selling in. I mean, I hate to visit some of the shops that I sell in now, because they may be junk shops. And most of the shops I haven’t seen. The ones that I do make an effort to see are places like Appalachian Spring, and all the Abacus stores in Maine are gorgeous. And so, I sell in very beautiful places, but I think I’m also selling in not-so-beautiful places, you know, sort of jumbled.
MR. WILLIAMS: [Inaudible.]
MR. COHEN: Not that much, because I never see them, and they’re faithful to me, and a lot of stores give me standing monthly orders. They know that it’s a guaranteed sale. And if the first order or the second order they order 24, I send them a beautiful little wooden rack with my name on it and what the thing is. And so, not only does it display the tiles, but as it gets empty, they realize they should order. And it has my name on it, and I give it to them free. And so that’s worked out very well.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you’re very pleased with how you’re selling now.
MR. COHEN: Yes. I mean, the creative part comes from the making of the molds, the stamps that I use. And for three years, I’ve made about 100, but only keep about 36 in production. And I drop things that aren’t selling, and I create new things that people might find more saleable. So each stamp might take three or four hours to carve, and that’s like meticulous carving in clay.
MR. WILLIAMS: I want to ask you how much you make a year, whether it’s adequate enough to survive on.
MR. COHEN: Well, I’ll tell you something, it’s three times more than I used to make — double to three times more than I used to make making pots. But also, I’ll tell you that my expenses for help is $50,000 a year. I write $1,000 in paychecks every week.
MR. WILLIAMS: That says a lot, and leads us into the next question about apprenticeship. Tell me how that started.
MR. COHEN: Well, I felt that I was an apprentice, working for Bill Wyman for a dollar an hour. And then, when we got together at Herring Run Pottery in East Weymouth, Massachusetts, he left his cellar and I left my cellar, and we got together. We started having apprentices who would come and beg us to work for nothing, and we would train them to be our helpers. And that persisted not so much in New Hampshire, when we moved to New Hampshire around ’65. We moved to New Hampshire, and we bought ten acres, and a house, and about ten out buildings for $16,000.
MR. WILLIAMS: We is….?
MR. COHEN: Harriet — my wife and I. And that’s where we had our children, Amanda, who is now 33, and my son, Josh, who is now 31.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you began to employ.
MR. COHEN: Yes, except when we moved here to Pelham. Then again, there were so many people who were interested in becoming potters in this area, maybe 20 years ago or 30 years ago, ’73 or whenever that is, that again, they banged down my door trying to become a free apprentice. I mean, my kiln took three months to build, and it was done with the help of a free guy, who was still potting. And a lot of my apprentices did go on to become potters.
And I would have an apprentice every year, for at least maybe ten years, for free. I mean, I would give them space in the studio to work and a little bit of firing. But as times got more expensive, people were not coming to be an apprentice for free any more, so I started paying people. And in a way, it’s almost better, because they’re not around the studio all the time, and they’re not trying to learn from you every second of the day, and you kiss them goodbye and they’re out of your studio, and you have privacy.
Having apprentices around, you’d be watching television at 10 o’clock, and you’d hear banging in the studio as they’re throwing out slabs or something. So the paying of the people who worked just hourly wages, worked out well.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are they employees rather than apprentices?
MR. COHEN: Yes, they are employees. Well, we call them outside-contracted work.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you provide health services for them?
MR. COHEN: No, I do not. And they pay for their own taxes. We sit down with a sheet that tells their responsibilities. I give them two weeks paid vacation a year, some snow days paid, some sick days paid. So out of 12 months, they work 11 months, but they get paid for 12 months. And I try to pay them more than they can make anywhere else.
MR. WILLIAMS: What is the hourly wage now?
MR. COHEN: Let’s see, the cheapest person coming in will get $11 an hour, and my most expensive will get around $18 an hour. And they’re worth every penny. We were working four days a week, and my son came up — it was 24 hours, I think, all together. And my son came up with the idea of, why are we working from 9 to 3? Why don’t we work from 8:30 to 3:30? I said I would give them the same amount of money for 21 hours as opposed to 24 hours, and we’ll only work three days a week. And they promised that they would work hard, you know, faster and more efficiently, and they did. And now, we’re down to three days a week, and we make all this money working three days a week. I mean, people can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.
MR. WILLIAMS: But you support the concept of apprenticeship.
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. There is nothing like it. You get the inside look. I mean, a lot of people who were apprentices got out of pottery because they saw what the life was. It’s not an easy life. I mean, when we first came here, we were working about seven days a week, which was a normal thing up in New Hampshire. And then we had our children, and I would work in the morning, and Harriet would work in the afternoon in childcare things and cooking.
MR. WILLIAMS: But the apprenticeships nowadays are few and far between in relation to how they were then.
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. I don’t know anybody who has an apprentice right now, except, I don’t know, maybe Todd Piker.
MR. WILLIAMS: What does that say about our field?
MR. COHEN: That you can make more money being a lawyer. That’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for security, and they’re looking for comfort, and they’re looking for a lot of money. That’s what it says to me. And since I got into it so long ago, I got in for very artistic reasons, and these kids are not going in for artistic reasons. We’ll get into this in the colleges a little more, because they’re not teaching functional pottery in the colleges. They’re teaching one-of-a-kind art.
If you open up American Craft, you have 99 percent one-of-a-kind pieces, all exquisite, all beautiful, all art, and sort of a token casserole. Maybe the casserole has like a racing horse on the top of it.
MR. WILLIAMS: How many apprentices do you think you had?
MR. COHEN: Oh, 10 or 15, because some wouldn’t stay a whole year.
MR. WILLIAMS: What are the names of the current people who assist you?
MR. COHEN: Zoe Wright is my right-hand woman, and my son, Josh, is sort of the chief of operations — we call him. And the changing person will be the next person coming in, and right now we’re using John Ozereko, who is the son of a ceramics teacher at UMass [University of Massachusetts]. And he’s at Mass Art right now, going into his sophomore year. And he used to work for me packing on Saturdays, but he’s now developed into a tile maker and packing. So he’ll be leaving in a week.
MR. WILLIAMS: And you clean the toilets.
MR. COHEN: They sweep and vacuum and wash the studio. And I do clean the toilets, to tell you the truth. And I do all the paperwork and most of the dealing with the stores.
MR. WILLIAMS: Would you recommend apprenticeship to other production people coming up?
MR. COHEN: Well, I don’t recommend going into pottery at all right now. I think the competition is very, very high, very fierce, fierce competition. It’s very, very expensive to be a potter. If I built my kiln today, it would cost me $20,000 to $25,000. It cost me, I think, $3,000 or $4,000 when I built it. I just spent three or four days taking down the kiln shelves in my kiln, chipping and kiln-washing them, and I estimated that the shelves are worth something like $4,700. There’s, like, 97 shelves in this kiln.
And that’s only the kiln shelves. And bricks that I paid 35 cents apiece for are a dollar apiece, and bricks that I paid a dollar apiece for in ’73 are three dollars apiece. So it’s very hard to do. If I left my studio for some reason, like I was, you know, too decrepit to work or something, and I wanted a small studio, I would probably buy a nice car kiln from Bailey [Bailey Ceramic Supply], and just have it plunked down in my studio and not have to build anything. Because he makes nice kilns. I mean, my kiln is gigantic. It’s 100-cubic-foot catenary arch, car kiln. 

MR. WILLIAMS: You may not recommend someone else going into pottery, but are you happy with who you are?
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. I belong to a health club, and this is the Amherst area, so there are lots and lots of professors. And what do the professors talk about when they’re changing clothes? They’re talking about backbiting and getting screwed on the job, and their raises aren’t coming through, and they’re not getting any graduate students, and the facilities are rotten. And they complain almost all the time about being a teacher, being a professor. And the whole thing of being self-employed, which I’ve done my whole life, has been so wonderful.
Money can’t buy that. It’s just fabulous. And so that’s why maybe someone could go into art or ceramics, or some craft. But you have to have tremendous self-reliance; you have to know many, many skills such as carpentry, and all kinds of plasterwork, and all kinds of things like that.
MR. WILLIAMS: But you like who you are and what you’re doing.
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. That’s persisted. You know, no one ever asked me that question, but it’s so wonderful to have spent most of my life just making beautiful objects for people to use. I go to shows, only about three retail shows in a year now, maybe two retail shows in a year. I cannot tell you the amount of people who come to me and look at my work and say, “Oh my God, I own this. You’re the person who made this. I use this every day of my life.” And they shake my hand and they want to know me. That’s a warm, wonderful, fabulous feeling. And I’ve made thousands of pots and I’ve made thousands of tiles, and they’re all out there all over the world.
MR. WILLIAMS: Isn’t that frightening?
MR. COHEN: No, it’s exciting. It’s exciting that people are using them and loving them. That’s it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s change the subject slightly. Tell me about your involvement with some of the schools like Haystack, Arrowmont [Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg, Tennessee], and Penland [Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina].
MR. COHEN: Penland, yes.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s start with Penland.
MR. COHEN: Well no, let me start with Haystack, and I’ll do it very quickly. I mean, each school is a long story, but I will make it short. Someone told me about Haystack in my last year at Mass Art. I applied; I got the pottery studio assistant, and I spent all summer there. And I met one of the greatest men in the world, especially in crafts, and that was Francis Merritt. The man is amazing; he was amazing, and a very inspiring man. At the same time, I met his assistant, Bill Brown, who later became the savior of Penland and modeled Penland on Haystack, how Haystack ran.
So when I moved to the new school, as I said, I was a maintenance man in ’61, when I met my future wife. Several years after that, I taught for a session at Haystack. It was fabulous for me. Also, when Penland got started, Bill Brown called in all his friends, like my buddy, my best friend, Ron Burke, who went down and built the inside — not only did he build the inside of the original Haystack pottery, but he built the original inside of Penland. They’re still using the wheels he built and the tables and things like that.
So Bill called me down, and I taught one of the first years there at Penland. And then several years after we were married and we had two children, so that would be like 1971, I taught again.
MR. WILLIAMS: Where is Penland?
MR. COHEN: Penland is in Penland, North Carolina. And where Haystack is more spiritual, Penland is more practical. Both have had an incredible impact on the craft world. So then I went to Cranbrook. I told you my experiences at Cranbrook, which were not happy at all. And then, I’d given courses around in different places.
MR. WILLIAMS: What were some of those?
MR. COHEN: Artist in residence at Notre Dame for three weeks.
MR. WILLIAMS: In Illinois.
MR. COHEN: No, Indiana. Oh, I did workshops in Ohio State; I did workshops in San Francisco Potters’ Guild; I did one at your place, at Phoenix Pottery, when I first got my extruder. I have to insert something about equipment. There are three tools which revolutionized studio pottery. One was the Bailey Slabroller. The second one was the Super Duper Extruder, soon to be bettered by the Bailey Extruder, and the Giffin Grip [Giffin Grip Company, Boulder, Colorado], three wonderful pieces of equipment.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are you a salesperson for each of those?
MR. COHEN: [Laughs.] No, I make no money on this at all.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you taught widely in a number of different places.
MR. COHEN: Yes, but very short sessions. Mainly, we were here making pots for sale.
MR. WILLIAMS: And if you were recommending someone going to one of them now, which one would you recommend?
MR. COHEN: It would absolutely be a toss-up between Haystack and Penland. And I don’t know enough about the university departments. I’m out of the loop. It would be Haystack or Penland equally, and I think I would go to both. If I was a glassblower, I would go to Pilchuck [Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, Washington]. I don’t know if you know this, but that was modeled after Haystack too. He went to Haystack to give a glass course. What was his name? Dale Chihuly. He said, I could do this, and he went out and did it.
MR. WILLIAMS: What would you describe Fran Merritt’s contribution, in a few words?
MR. COHEN: He inspired, just by his presence and his words, every person who’s ever gone to Penland, every person who’s ever gone to Haystack. You felt so inspired there; you felt so good there. He made the atmosphere so that — the fact that it was open 24 hours a day, that you just ate, drank, and lived crafts, and everyone around you spoke the same language. No on wants to leave. You can’t go back into the real world. You pine for the atmosphere at Haystack and the atmosphere at Penland. That’s what it is.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s talk a little about, in that context, the difference between that kind of school and a university. What is your connection with the university or your opinion of the university-trained ceramics person?
MR. COHEN: Well, coming from Mass Art, which is not a university, but it’s certainly — I think more important than what I learned in clay at Mass Art was the two years of mandatory foundation courses. And now, the students yell so much about the fact they have no choice, that they’ve cut it down to one year. And I think that my two years of foundations at Mass Art have carried me in good stead for my whole life. I use something from Mass Art every single day of my life. That’s how important it is to get foundations. I mean, perspective, and color, watercolor painting, and oil painting, and design, everything, and along with clay.
And I really cannot comment on university-trained people. I mean, there are lots of wonderful trained people from — I mean, I never had a great teacher. I’ve almost been self-taught, I think. I mean, if I had gone to learn with Voulkos, I would have turned out a totally different person. If I had gone to Minnesota and studied with Warren [MacKenzie], I’d be a totally different person. It’s that kind of a thing. And those people turn out good people, but there’s so much crap being made. Again, it’s because of the nonfunctional aspect.
And it’s hard to make great art. And it’s really hard to make great art when you’re like a junior in college, yet they do, yet they try, and most people fail. It takes a little bit of living and a little bit of experience to —
MR. WILLIAMS: So in that context now, the American university has a very powerful role in the craft movement, does it not?
MR. COHEN: I don’t know. I’m out of it. I am totally out of that loop. I don’t go to NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts]. I mean, I’ve been in conferences. I’ve been part of NCECA a couple of times, but it’s like a foreign language. It’s like foreign to me when I go there. Most of them are not talking art, they’re talking, how can I get more graduate students, how to develop their departments. You know, I don’t have a great feeling about it. But I’m probably wrong, and there are wonderful things going on. Even Mass Art has a better ceramics department than when I was there. It’s a fabulous ceramic department.
MR. WILLIAMS: So has there been any community outside the university that’s been important to your development?
MR. COHEN: Well, 25 years ago, I started, with a friend of mine, the Asparagus Valley Potters Guild, which is more social than it is ceramic. But being a potter is a very lonely thing. You’re in your studio alone, and you hardly ever see anybody else. So once a month, we get together for a wonderful potluck supper, and we discuss professional things, shows that we should see, books that we should read, stores that you should avoid. It’s a network of about 25 to 35 people.
MR. WILLIAMS: Where is it based?
MR. COHEN: It’s all in the Pioneer Valley, in Happy Valley here.
MR. WILLIAMS: Which is western Massachusetts.
MR. COHEN: Western Massachusetts, yes. We even have someone from Troy who comes, because she’s so isolated that she just has to come to talk to other potters.
MR. WILLIAMS: So this fulfills a purpose and a service that you can’t get elsewhere.
MR. COHEN: Absolutely, and it’s on a professional level. And no teachers are allowed in and no amateurs are allowed in. When we talk business, it’s real; it’s not theoretical.
MR. WILLIAMS: How many members are there?
MR. COHEN: There’s about 35, in that range. Maybe 15 or 16 people show up every meeting.
MR. WILLIAMS: How many years?
MR. COHEN: 25 years. We’re just about to design the new T-shirt, five sets of asparagus stalks, with 25 years.
MR. WILLIAMS: Why asparagus?
MR. COHEN: Because this valley used to be called Asparagus Valley before the asparagus blight many, many years ago, 40 years ago. But they used to make all the asparagus for New York and Boston. Plus, there’s still asparagus here, and it almost grows wild some places where the seeds are flown. You’ll see asparagus between roads.
MR. WILLIAMS: We’re starting tape three, side B. I’d like to talk with you about your studio, its space. Tell me first how you came about building the studio here and what it’s like inside.
MR. COHEN: Well, we sold our place up in New Hampshire and had some money, and we had saved some money, and we bought a house on ten acres, five minutes from the center of Amherst. And we’d known that we were going to build a nice big studio. I think the original part was 1,800 square feet, with a 100-cubic-foot catenary arch kiln on the inside, which probably was a mistake in the long run, because it blackens the walls, as you’ll see — a throwing room with copious space for both Harriet and myself. We were married here about seven years; we were married in our whole life about 15.
MR. WILLIAMS: You’re no longer married.
MR. COHEN: That’s right. We divorced about 20 years ago. But it was designed by a friend of ours, who designed our old studio out of a chicken coop, a large chicken coop that had never been used for chickens. And his name was Frank Robinson, and he was more of an interior designer, but he knew how to architect. And like every architect, he postponed the drawing of the plans until fall, so we lost the summer. And when we finally put it out for bids, one clown said, oh, we think we can do this for $40,000. I said, wait a minute, you know that our budget is $20,000.
It was devastating. To make a long story short, we found someone else who would do it cost plus. And I remember him giving me my last bill, and he said, gee, I wish I had bid on this thing for a price; I would have made more money. But the whole thing cost $18,000. So it was like $7 a square foot. Because it’s a big shell, no kitchen. There’s water and a toilet there, but it’s just a lot of open spaces.
And then, I came in and built all the shelves and the racks. I built the kiln. It took about three months to build the kiln, because it’s so much more complicated to build a car kiln. And I brought the car from my old kiln up in New Hampshire down and fit it around that car. We put the wheels in and had room for materials and glaze mixing, and then a showroom.
MR. WILLIAMS: Describe your studio space.
MR. COHEN: Well, it’s two shed roofs interconnected. There’s seven or eight feet above the top of the kiln, incredibly important. All kiln fires start by having rafters or stringers two inches away from the kiln. You know, it’s hot, so this room was designed to hold that kiln. So it’s something like four or five feet away from every wall. And seven feet from the ceiling, there were windows with a gigantic fan, which sucks out hot air, and windows across the top of the building that we opened in the summer, and even in the winter sometimes.
The chimney I learned how to make from Dudley Giberson, the glassblower and equipment maker. He told me two things. He says, the gas people will say put in a half-inch pipe; put in an inch pipe. He says, it runs 100 feet; he says, you’ll never freeze up; you’ll never run out of gas. And he was right. I remember having Angela Fina call me and she was down to her last few gallons, and I said, pour hot water over the tank, and it saved her firing, because she had a half-inch pipe.
The chimney is a hard brick chimney with a three-inch airspace and then red brick built all around it going up through the roof. And there are holes at the top of the chimney and the bottom of the chimney on the walls so that cool air comes in from the bottom and cools the interior chimney. And God willing, I will never have a fire. And that was an important thing from Dudley, both of those things.
MR. WILLIAMS: And table space?
MR. COHEN: Mucho table space, because you have —
MR. WILLIAMS: No boards on the wheels, like Maija Grotell’s do.
MR. COHEN: [Laughs.] Oh, yes. No, no, no, there’s many square footages of table space, because with tiles, you need a tremendous amount of flat area. We get 400 tiles into a kiln, plus 100 spoon rests, which is an auxiliary thing to this, because we had a certain space that would take a four-by-four-inch object. And so, I invented this spoon rest, which goes in the little spaces left by the tiles.
So at $10 apiece wholesale, that’s $4,000 in tiles and maybe $800 in spoon rests in every kiln. If I was lucky, I’d get $1,500 worth of pots in a kiln. And we fire about 45 times a year, about 35 high-fire tile kilns, and the rest are bisques. And the packing area, we used to use shredded paper from the police station. We still do in a pinch, but I think I’ve finally broken down. I have a couple of sources of peanuts that people call me up and I go and get. But I realize that we’re shipping so much stuff that we need to buy peanuts, which are incredibly expensive.
And I buy all my boxes fresh and clean, and I used to use old boxes. Now, it’s all more efficient to buy boxes and to buy peanuts. And my worker and I can pack $3,000 in about four hours. Not like pottery where you get $150 into a box. That would be the biggest size that UPS [United Parcel Service] will take — $150 inside. Now, a little box can hold $400. It’s crazy. It maybe weighs 50 pounds.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you ship by UPS?
MR. COHEN: Yeah, mostly UPS, except when people, like in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands, we’ll send it first-class mail.
MR. WILLIAMS: And do you ship abroad to Japan or Europe?
MR. COHEN: No. I once did make lots and lots of trays, which I think were used as sushi trays, for a store in New York, which did resell them in Japan. And each one had to say, “Made in USA.”
MR. WILLIAMS: A sushi bowl made in USA.
MR. COHEN: No, excuse me, trays, long trays.
MR. WILLIAMS: In that respect, how many people can work in your studio at one time?
MR. COHEN: Well, four easily; four people, sometimes five. When I was making baskets, you know, mass-producing berry baskets and bread baskets, I would have four people in the morning from UMass and four people in the afternoon. And in a month, in January, their free time, I would make a year’s supply of baskets in that time.
MR. WILLIAMS: Clay baskets.
MR. COHEN: Clay baskets, yes. So it was all run very efficiently, and we had morning shift and afternoon shift. But it was all over by February, and then we had so much bisque that it would last the year.
MR. WILLIAMS: What influences have there been on your work from outside art sources?
MR. COHEN: It’s hard to think of anything outside art.
MR. WILLIAMS: Pictures come from where? The objects on the tiles.
MR. COHEN: Those come mainly from nature, a lot of nature things, hummingbirds, and whales, and things like that. They’re very ordinary.
MR. WILLIAMS: They’re things that you like.
MR. WILLIAMS: Environmentally correct?
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. There’s a whole group of things of endangered species that I’m working on.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you work in semantic material, like some of the other ones.
MR. COHEN: Yeah. Well, the other ones are not so much nature. It’s sort of just charming little things, like a cup and saucer with a sunrise over it, or a beautiful pig with a sunrise over it, and maybe a little fence across it. Sometimes, my workers come up with combinations of stamps that mean something when they’re together, but don’t mean that when they’re printed separately. So they have fun, and I let them run wild. And if people start calling up and saying give me that, we start putting it into the line.
MR. WILLIAMS: So do you draw a lot? Do you have a sketchbook you have all the time?
MR. COHEN: No, I don’t. I don’t draw a lot.
MR. WILLIAMS: When you run to the museum and —
MR. COHEN: I go to museums, mostly archeological-type museums, and things like the Museum of Fine Arts [Boston, Massachusetts]. The Egyptian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts is great, really wonderful, and the Met, of course. And I go to the one in Hartford, the Atheneum [Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut]. They have wonderful shows there. I think mainly when I go to other countries, when you’re faced with incredible age, that’s when I really get inspired, and not only in the museums, but just walking down the street. I mean, there’s nothing like walking down a 500-year-old street. I mean, it makes Boston look like a new little town.
MR. WILLIAMS: What about art movements?
MR. COHEN: Art Deco, tremendous, especially in what I was doing sponge printing on glaze. And it was very simple designs, but used in combination with one another in a three-by-three-inch sponge stamp. Those were very complicated, and those were very Art Deco, very designy. And I think I love just well-designed objects, and I’m always looking at well designed objects and going into places like Crate and Barrel and looking at what people do in manufacturing, in mass producing.
MR. WILLIAMS: In that case, technological advances interest you.
MR. COHEN: Yes, tremendously.
MR. WILLIAMS: Such as?
MR. COHEN: Well, the equipment has influenced me tremendously. I mean, the invention of the studio extruder changed my life, and the slab roller changed my life. And I was able to do things that would take hours and hours and hours to do in minutes by these two pieces of equipment.
Actually, I watch a lot of movies and I watch a lot of television, and mostly for its entertainment value. But when you get to things like [Akira] Kurasawa’s movies, the feeling and the mood of those things, and the visuals of those movies are just part of me.
MR. WILLIAMS: So you feel a part of the movements or the culture.
MR. COHEN: Yes, I think I do.
MR. WILLIAMS: You’re not alienated by it?
MR. COHEN: No, I love kitsch. I’m a collector of kitsch. I have like 300 snow domes, which are driving me out of house and home. They’re not up now because I just had my house painted.
MR. WILLIAMS: Why do you like that?
MR. COHEN: Because it reminds you of a place you’ve been, and sometimes it reminds you of a place you haven’t been. And they’re silly and they’re worthless. They may cost three to five dollars, but they’re inherently with no value whatsoever. But when you put 50 together, that’s something, that’s a statement, and it’s visually very exciting. So I think I got hooked after I had around 10 or 20 of them and I started putting them together in rows. And now, part of my house is devoted to these damn things that are driving me out of shelf space.
MR. WILLIAMS: Will they ever appear in a museum under your name?
MR. COHEN: No, no, no. But there is an underground collection group. There is a group that collects. We have a newsletter.
MR. WILLIAMS: These things?
MR. COHEN: Snow domes, yeah. It’s silly, very silly. But then I collect Catholic kitsch too. You know, nuns playing conga drums and comic books with the Pope, Pope cut-out dolls. I have a whole collection of that kind of junk.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is this Pop art?
MR. COHEN: Oh, I loved Pop art, and sometimes I make it myself. I think the one object that I’ve made, which is incredibly reminiscent — reminiscent, it’s a copy of [René] Magritte’s pipe: This is not a pipe. I made a series of six pipes and painted them in the identical colors that the painting was painted in. I didn’t glaze them; they were just bisque. So I’m painting on highlights and I’m painting on gold, and then I put it on a base, which is the color of the background of the real painting — and I’ve seen the real painting, with the words in French.
And I used it in combination on a poster with a very strange teapot. And so, the top says, “This is not a teapot,” and the bottom one is Magritte’s part, “This is not a pipe,” but in French, which I cannot say. So that kind of surrealism or absurdism, that interests me tremendously.
MR. WILLIAMS: Have you been well received on the whole by writers in this field?
MR. COHEN: Well, there’s hardly anybody who writes. There’s not that many people who write. And no, I have not been. I mean, I’ve had critical reviews of shows that have been wonderful and very, very complimentary, incredibly complimentary. But the objects themselves, I have almost everyone I’ve ever made, because they don’t sell, especially the ones with the very grim theme to them. I’ve gone into the Smithsonian craft show with these figures, these tomb figures, and I had about 10 or 15 beautifully displayed on white pedestals, and people would ricochet out of the booth. They couldn’t get out fast enough, it was so scary, which was kind of a compliment. But when you’re trying to sell them, it’s very dispiriting when you don’t even make the money that it cost to do it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you remember who wrote the good reviews of your shows? [MR. COHEN: No, No.] Is there anyone who comes to mind as a writer in the field?
MR. COHEN: Harriet Goodwin was a great critic, but I don’t think she ever reviewed me.
MR. WILLIAMS: Harriet Goodwin.
MR. COHEN: Yes, my ex-wife. She was a great writer. But when she reviewed a show, she would tell the truth. It wasn’t sort of a physical description of the object and just art babble; it was real, because she knew it from the inside. And she was condemned; I mean, people hated her. She would have hate mail. I remember Vivika [Heino] got panned once by Harriet, and she never forgave her, because Vivika was used to being loved, and everything was fabulous, and “Who was this pipsqueak to criticize me,” kind of a thing.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you ever write?
MR. COHEN: Never. I never, never write.
MR. COHEN: I’m not a writer. I’ve never been a writer.
MR. WILLIAMS: But you’re a speaker.
MR. COHEN: I am a speaker, but I’m not a writer. And my ex-wife is a writer, and my daughter is a writer, my daughter Amanda. She can really write. She’s written her whole life, for all kinds of things, you know, creative writing, and then critical writing, and interviews, when she was interviewing comics from around the country. She’s a great writer, but none of it came from me. She gets her art from me, but not her —
MR. WILLIAMS: What are some of the specialized periodicals in the field that you read?
MR. COHEN: Ceramics Monthly is very important to me. I read about half the articles. Studio Potter, I look at the pictures. Because I don’t write; I don’t read. And Studio Potter is very esoteric to me. American Craft is a house organ for the American Craft Council, and it promotes themselves. And if I see societal pictures in black and white at Joe Blow and Mrs. Somebody at some damn opening, I want to throw up.
So I look at the art. I mean, the ads are almost better than the articles sometimes. You find out what’s happening the art world; you don’t find out what’s happening in the craft world.
MR. WILLIAMS: What magazines do you subscribe to?
MR. COHEN: I think the only thing I’m getting now is Time, which is sort of a twisted view of the news. But I think I get most of my news from the Daily Show [Comedy Central TV show with John Stewart] at eleven o’clock, which is a comedy, which is a non-news show, but it is so wonderful. And that’s all the news you need to know, because everything else has gone to hell, and it’s so depressing to listen to it that I don’t. But I get the basic stuff in Time.
And a periodical that I can read is Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It’s a watchdog group that monitors the religious right’s infiltrating into politics. You know, it follows all the people who are trying to get the Ten Commandments put up in every school and have crosses put up, and things like that, as if it’s the only religion — or having prayers at football games, and things like that. So they watch and they sue. It’s wonderful.
So I give money to them, and I give money to the Abortion Rights League, and I give money to a lot of the arts things, all the arts. The UMass Fine Arts Center I give money to, and I give pots to — things that really touch me. But I don’t read that much. I get most of my stuff visually.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s discuss clay as a means of expression for you. What do you think of expression, in terms of, how you might express yourself?
MR. COHEN: Hard question, because most of the time I don’t consciously think about that. I think most of my work comes from the manipulation of the clay and the fact that I’ve worked for so long in clay. I mean, I’m not the most fabulously technical wizard in the whole world. I mean, I’ve never made a six-foot pot or a six-foot piece of sculpture, nothing like that. I have done commissions of large fountains, but, you know, they’re failures; they’re not great.
So I’m more of a two-foot guy. I mean, if I’m going to really express myself, it has to be within like a foot, two feet in any direction. And as I said, my most spiritual things were these figures, these tomb figures that I made, and it was one of the happiest times of my life. It was about five years ago, I think. And I think there was nobody in the studio working for a few months, and I took that time to make this sculpture. And it was a combination of sort of fear of death and manipulation of clay at the same time.
And it was a fabulous time for me. And I would cover them in sort of envelopes of newspaper so they wouldn’t dry quickly. And I swear, I would come down at night, and I would lift these things up, and I’d say, I made this. That’s how fabulous I felt they were. And then, other people came in, and they said, my God, these are fabulous. So I was getting wonderful feedback. And then, when they went out into the world, they were rejected, really rejected terribly.
MR. WILLIAMS: This was the 59 syndrome?
MR. COHEN: Yes, that’s right. What was the first question, the actual question that you asked?
MR. WILLIAMS: Means of expression. What other expressive —
MR. COHEN: Well, when you’re making functional pots, it’s very hard to say things making functional pots. So the ultimate thing is to make the most beautiful functional object.
MR. WILLIAMS: Beauty is the function?
MR. COHEN: And function is beauty.
MR. WILLIAMS: And what makes a pot beautiful?
MR. COHEN: For me, it’s all the plastic things, shape and form and size, and means of use and means of handling, touch to the lip, touch in your hands, holding it with two hands, what it feels like that, using it to cook with. And I love cooking. I cook an awful lot, so serving on my plates, my beautiful dishes. I mean, how many people make their own dishes? I mean, only a potter does that. And people beg me to make this stuff for them, but it’s so hard to do dinnerware. Just to make my own set — I made a set for myself; I made a set for Harriet; I made a set for each of my children; and that’s it. So functionality, you can’t get incredibly spiritual with just making functional objects.
MR. WILLIAMS: How about the limitations of clay?
MR. COHEN: God, you read a few issues of American Craft or Ceramics Monthly, there are no limitations of clay. You can make clay into anything. You can make it look like wood or plastic; you can paint on it. There is no limitation. Controlling yourself from doing too much on something is a goal, because you can do anything in clay. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. And a lot of people, I think, when they’re doing bad objects, break that line. They make clay into something else.
Well, there’s this whole thing of mechanical-looking objects that you see in American Craft. Someone’s cast some gears and cast some pipes, and then you make molds, and you cast the mold, and you put them together, and what have you got? You’ve got a ceramic machine that doesn’t work. And then there’s the people like, oh, the woman who started doing leather bags and leather shoes, Marilyn Levine.
I remember I was at Berkeley walking around with Voulkos, and she was at Berkeley, I think, at that time, and there was a whole gigantic case of this stuff, and you would swear that it was leather. And he looked at me, and he looked at the things, and he said, “So what.” The fact that you can make something look like leather doesn’t mean it’s art or any good. It isn’t art, but it’s always presented as art, the fact that you can make it look like leather.
At least Richard Shaw and his fool-the-eye objects, you know they’re ceramic. Even though they’re real objects, there’s a quality to them that says clay, where the leatherwork looks like leather. You want to squish it.
MR. WILLIAMS: So clay has limitations within the perception of the person.
MR. COHEN: The perception of the person. You have to stop before you go too far. But there is no “too far,” in a way. You can do anything you want.
MR. WILLIAMS: Have you done a lot of commissioned work?
MR. COHEN: Not a lot, no, no, no, I haven’t.
MR. WILLIAMS: Could you describe a few?
MR. COHEN: Well, my best commissioned work was the State of Massachusetts was giving money to craftspeople, and I was chosen to be one of those people that would make objects for the Fuller Art Museum in Brockton [Massachusetts]. And I made three gigantic bowls; I made six gigantic bowls, and I chose the three. And they were extruded coils with slab pieces, with a thrown foot, and they were two feet in diameter or so, and they were glazed. It was very warm and lovely. And they are in the permanent collection of that museum. That was one of the nicest commissions I ever had.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are they still there?
MR. COHEN: Yeah, they’re in the permanent collection.
MR. WILLIAMS: What other commissions have you done?
MR. COHEN: Oh, I remember making a fountain for a theater. It was terrible. A wall fountain, and the water would come pouring down, and it splashed all over the place. That was terrible. It was a total failure, but it was glued in. And then, I’ve done fountains for fountain planters and walls for a house in Brookline [Massachusetts]. That was beautiful. That was really a lovely commission. But I really don’t like commissions.
In fact, now, when people call me for special tiles, I’ve decided to not even do a different-size tile. You’ve got to take a five-and-three-quarter-inch tile. That’s it. I don’t make any. I don’t make them small —
MR. WILLIAMS: [Inaudible.]
MR. COHEN: Exactly. If you use more grouting, it’s too small. Because every time I do a commission — not every time, but most times when I do a commission, you’ve got to make it twice. Sometimes you have to make it three times to get the one that they want. Then you end up with the other two that, like, have nothing to do with your life. So I try not to do commissions. And the tiles have been taking care of me very well, so I don’t have to.
MR. WILLIAMS: So does this mean you’re not going to be remembered by posterity?
MR. COHEN: Oh, I’m going to be remembered tremendously by posterity. For one thing, I’m in many permanent collections. But that’s another story. I’ll be remembered with my tiles. What comes out of this studio is, like, 11,000 to 12,000 tiles every year. Every one of them has my name and the year they were made. These are going to be the most cherished, sought after collectors items 100 years from now, just the way everybody else’s things from 100 years ago are collected.
You know, the worst pieces of commercial crap are going for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Well, people are going to search for every design I ever made, and it’s going to have the dates on them; it’s going to have my name on it. Plus, all the trademarks that I’ve ever put on my pots are in a trademark book, sort of a really definitive trademark book of contemporary people. So all that stuff will be — I’m on eBay. A vase that sold for $15 sold for $60 on eBay, from probably 20 years ago. So yes, we will all be remembered. This stuff doesn’t go away. Cloth goes away and paintings will rot.
MR. WILLIAMS: After the nuclear war —
MR. COHEN: It will still be there.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, an interesting subject to talk about is the difference between early and late work. Can you describe what might have happened in between? Are they the same, elements of it the same?
MR. COHEN: Absolutely, elements are the same. Even in my most favorite one-of-a-kind pieces, they still have the quality that I still use now. Certain techniques and feelings that I put into my original pieces, which is absolutely —
MR. COHEN: — of poking out and tearing, and the making a knife mark and not cleaning it up. That was an important part for me.
MR. WILLIAMS: Let’s talk about exhibitions. Tell me about some of the single and group exhibitions.
MR. COHEN: Well, I became very famous very early, which is probably the wrong way to do it. I entered the Syracuse International at the Everson Museum and won the Everson Memorial prize. I shared it with Dan Rhodes and Bertil Vallien. I’d been at Herring Run Pottery for one year. And also, Bill Wyman won a prize that same year. We went to Syracuse and accepted prizes. That was amazing.
But then, the important show was the “Objects: USA.” That’s the day I met Voulkos. I almost genuflected. And he took a mirror of mine and said, we’ll trade. Ten years later, I went to Berkeley and got a second one of his plates. It was the day his gallery had called up from New York and he had sold one for $4,000. I had just read a story that Voulkos offered someone with an unsigned second plate $10,000. He offered this guy to buy it back. And if he’s buying it back, then it’s worth $15,000. Well, that was neither here nor there.
And then, I was in American Studio Pottery at the Victoria and Albert [Victoria and Albert Museum, London], and then shows at the Smithsonian, “Collector: Object: Environment” at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts [New York City], and I’m in the permanent collection of that museum. “For the Tabletop” [Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York City] was very important to me, and in September, I’m about to be in a functional show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts again. And then, right after that, one of the pipes is in someone’s collection, and he’s showing his collection at the museum. So I’m going to be in that too, and those will be in books too.
So those are the most important exhibitions. But collections, years ago I was selling at a store in New York City in Greenwich Village, and the man who was in charge of the design collection at the Museum of Modern Art asked for my name, called me up, asked me to bring in some work, and he bought five pieces for the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art. That was such a wonderful feeling. I was proud.
MR. WILLIAMS: What did you send them?
MR. COHEN: We actually brought ten pots, and they bought five. The three of them were mushroom-top vases. It was like a cylinder with a flatop and then decoration on the top, and then a couple of bowls that had pinched — you know, you flare the rim slightly, and then you come back after you pinch the rim, so that the bowl becomes straight again, yet it has these fabulous pinch marks, three pinch marks on the rim, in a beautiful iron-yellow glaze. But I don’t think they’ve ever been shown. I think they’re just collected.
And then, I’m in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. That was donated by Goren Holmquist from Bonniers. And I was in the Museum of Syracuse and the Walker Art Center [St. Paul, Minnesota], the Fuller Art Museum [Brockton, Massachusetts] — well, the Johnson Wax Collection, which I think was dispersed. I think that was “Objects: USA.”
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you know where your pieces are?
MR. COHEN: No, I don’t know where —
MR. WILLIAMS: What did you have?
MR. COHEN: I had a very large mirror. That was at a time when I was making all kinds of mirrors, both commercially and sort of in an artistic way. And gee, it must have been two or three feet long — not the mirror part. The mirror was only about a foot in diameter, but it had thrown sections and slab, and then applied clay. So it’s in Objects: USA, the book. Those are the major places that I —
MR. WILLIAMS: Did you do anything abroad?
MR. COHEN: No, not in permanent collections.
MR. WILLIAMS: Okay, let’s change the subject a little bit, and tell me about your teaching philosophy, if that’s possible.
MR. COHEN: It’s almost impossible. Well, you once gave me a chance to teach at Phoenix, and I’ve taught at Penland and Haystack. Well, most of my times, it would be with either beginning students — not completely beginning students, but first-level students. And my thing is to stress repetition, stress throwing, stress quick throwing. No one should be throwing after three minutes on one object, you know, on a two-pound bowl or a three-pound bowl. You have to throw it in three minutes, three pulls.
MR. WILLIAMS: Did you time them?
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. And I remember timing them myself at Mass Art in my own little studio, making sure that I didn’t waste time, but not for a money reason, but just so that the pots are still alive when you take them off the wheel. And there’s nothing worse than watching a beginning student with an off-centered pot work on something for 20 minutes. It’s got to be ripped off, centered, and then rip off, center, and rip off, center, and rip off. But that’s the way I do it. And cylinder, cylinder, cylinder, cut them all in half; let’s discuss the cylinder. So that’s the way I teach.
MR. WILLIAMS: And how do you teach someone who has some experience?
MR. COHEN: Then it’s just a more advanced version of that. So after you master the cylinder, which takes a year — I mean, you can make a cylinder in a couple of weeks, but it takes a year to actually know what you’re doing and be able to reproduce it, and have control so you don’t have to worry about the damn technique, so you can then put a little of your art into it. Most people don’t get to that section. They’re so busy making a vase that they’re happy to get a vase, even though it’s thrown in a stupid way or it weighs 14 pounds.
So with a more advanced student, after the cylinder, I would then go into making a sphere from the cylinder, and then after that, to make a simple low bowl in sort of a perfect hemisphere. You know, make them do a perfect hemisphere. It’s not take what you get, but how do you make something come out, like a hemisphere, every single time. And after the hemisphere, how far can you bring the clay out before it falls over? How thin can you make things? And so, I would force people to do that.
And so, you’re not getting pots to take home with you. That’s not the point of the whole thing. The point is to learn the techniques so well that you can express yourself when you get home. So when you’re at Haystack, it’s not time to make art; it’s time to learn how to throw, or learn how to put slabs together. How many things have you ever seen come out of a kiln with cracked attachments? How do you put on a handle that stays on — that when it breaks, part of the mug comes with it, not that it breaks off cleanly and you don’t see any score marks? So that’s what I teach.
MR. WILLIAMS: Did at any time any designated philosophy teachings, such as Mingei [Japanese folk craft movement] or Bauhaus, attach itself to you?
MR. COHEN: I think when I was smitten with the Bernard Leach thing in school; but I think as I got older, the whole Mingei thing of the unknown potter, and not signing them, and blah, blah, blah — this is by rich people. That was invented by rich people, not by potters trying to make a living — the people who didn’t have to make a living. Oh, I went to Japan; I stayed for three years. Well, how do you go to Japan and stay for three years unless you have money? And that still happens with sort of trust-fund hippies.
So I sort of put that aside, I think. My philosophy is much more in a practical sense and an artistic sense of my own art. And I think my major thing is to make things that you can look at it and say, oh, that’s Michael Cohen, without having to turn it over. So much stuff now, like all the Minnesota stuff, it’s almost impossible to tell who made what. I mean, all the people who are firing — kilns and making fake Byzan stuff, well, you know, it looks like it’s a thousand years old, but they did it a thousand years ago. So I’m wondering about it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Can you teach pottery by the book, or does it have to be —
MR. COHEN: I’ve known people who’ve learned by the book. I think Brother Thomas learned from the book. He’s practiced enough that he taught himself. And I think I taught myself, because I didn’t learn that much from — I learned the basic things of throwing from Charles Abbott, and that was it. And then, I would watch John Glick throw, and I’d watch Ron Burke throw, and other potters throw, and went to workshops to look at things; I’ve been to your workshops. And you pick up techniques, and you watch movies, and you watch the Hamada movie, that old, old movie of him decorating and having the glaze pour off the wax resistant, and it holds on one of the circles. And all of the sudden, after way too long, the tension breaks and the glaze drops off, and you go, oh, great moment. [Laughs.]
That’s how I learned. And I think you really shouldn’t learn from books. I mean, when I teach beginners and I see them floundering at centering, I put my hands on their hands, and I want to show them how hard I am actually pressing, because they’re not pressing hard enough; they’re not using their bodies; they don’t have their elbows into their sides. And I crush the clay to center it, and then they realize that we’re not playing here. You know, it’s not an easy thing to center clay.
MR. WILLIAMS: Where do your ideas come from?
MR. COHEN: My ideas of objects come from, I must say, every art book and every pottery book I’ve ever looked at, and every show I’ve ever looked at, and every Japanese object. And you know, it doesn’t have to be clay; it could be a knife, or a sword, or a handle of something.
MR. WILLIAMS: Your perceptions are alive.
MR. COHEN: Absolutely. I mean, when I went through the archaeological museum in Naples and saw the mosaics and the Greek and Roman bronze things, and the clay objects and painting, I just come alive. It’s just so thrilling to me. I mean, to see that these things are 2,000 or 3,000 years old and they still go zoom, right through the ages, and still hit me. I mean all the Peruvian work, all the animals and figurines. And then, I mean, all of the Egyptian work.
Plus, everything that’s contemporary I look at. I can reject it, but still, I’m taking it in. I have vacuum-cleaner eyes. Then when I do my own work, hopefully, it will all be filtered through my own soul and come out of me.
MR. WILLIAMS: So where is that space inside you that is private, that you assimilate all of this material, in the middle of the night, or when you’re on the bathroom?
MR. COHEN: [Laughter.] You know, it’s not a forced thing that I consciously do. It’s something that, when I sit down with clay, that it just comes in a very natural way. And it’s come my whole life, from the time I was a little boy. And I combine that with my ability to make interesting tools to help me do my work. And so, I have these very personalized things that I have made, which then translate into making my objects, which can only be made with my little tools. So that’s all I can say.
MR. WILLIAMS: What are some of the tools?
MR. COHEN: Well, beveling tools, tools for cutting off extruding things. I remember I mentioned something about it, and then I get a call from — oh, I forget the name of the company — but it’s just a device, a harp, which you cut off the extrusion when it comes out of the extruder. Most people, you know, you’re holding one hand and you’re cutting with a knife, and it’s all raggedy. Well, my whole use of the extruder was for making mugs and vases, and things like that. It had to have a perfectly flat cutoff, and so I made the cutoff tool, which was a harp with a wire that is on a hinge, and you draw it across the extrusion, and it comes out perfectly flat. Then you go on to the mug. And you can’t do that without having a flat surface, a flat cutoff, things like that.
MR. WILLIAMS: So sometimes, the tool comes first, and then the object that it makes comes after that.
MR. COHEN: Yes. Well, in the use of other tools, I see what I need, and I run into the next room. I have all my little, I mean, very primitive woodworking tools, really primitive, and I knock something up that I think, well, I’ll make a good one when I have time. And I never make a good one because the bad one works so well.
MR. WILLIAMS: You use it for years.
MR. COHEN: Use it for years. You know, one of the hardest things of making tiles is marking up a big piece of clay, a big slab, you know, and you have T-squares, and you have rulers, and on and on. No, no, I saw that was ridiculous. So I make a big frame and string elasticized string in exactly the grid mark that I want, and then you lay the whole grid thing on the soft clay, you do the rolling pin, you lift it up, and there are the marks for the exact tiles, which are then cut with a special piece of wood, a flat piece of wood that, on the very end of it, has a thin piece of metal going down, which sinks into the clay.
How many times have we taken a ruler, you draw the knife across the slab down the ruler, and then as you get to the end, the ruler slips and you get the wrong angle? Well, my little piece of metal sinks down into the selvage of the clay, so that when you’re holding up at the top and you draw down, the wooden thing can’t move. So it makes all those efficient little tricks in production pottery make a lot of sense.
MR. WILLIAMS: Have you ever manufactured it and sold it?
MR. COHEN: No. I tried to sell the designs of the harp, but it went nowhere — because I’m not interested in that part of it all, really. All the people who work for me go off with things like that, but no, I’ve never tried to commercialize that part of it. But I’m so glad that other people have spent the time engineering good tools like the Giffin Grip, and the slab roller, and the extruder. It’s changed my life.
MR. WILLIAMS: Why has the Giffin Grip changed your life?
MR. COHEN: Well, my whole life, I used clay tabs or a foam bath to tool the bottom of objects, and they’d get thrown off and you’d have to re-center, and that takes time; where the Giffin Grip, you hold the outside of the wheel, the flat wheel, and you turn your wheel slightly, and arms come in and grip the bowl, the round object, tight enough that you can trim. It just did away with clay tabs. I spent my whole life with clay tabs until the Giffin Grip. And I was one of the first people to buy one. I think it was like $75 at the time. I bought it at NCECA when I was in Boston, which was many years ago.
And he knew what he had, but he didn’t really sell it that much. He didn’t bring any soft pots; he brought some hard pots, and they slide, and people weren’t impressed at all. I was impressed, though, and man, I bought one of them immediately. It’s been great.
MR. WILLIAMS: Change the subject slightly. Has some political or social commentary come into your work? Can you describe things that you’ve done in that context?
MR. COHEN: No, I’ve never put any kind of social message into my work at all, ever. That comes from volunteering in political things or donating money to causes that I love. So I don’t put that into my art.
MR. WILLIAMS: Why don’t you describe, in your material, what you’re thinking about socially?
MR. COHEN: What do you mean?
MR. WILLIAMS: If you’re interested in preventing abortions and whatever.
MR. COHEN: No, no, having abortions. [Laughs.] Preventing pregnancy. Okay, there are two things that I feel strongly about, and that is a woman’s right to choose. So I do everything in my power, such as picketing and anti-picketing pickets at abortion clinics. I’ve done that a few times in Boston, and I picketed in Northhampton [Massachusetts], holding up signs and have people throw beer cans at you as they drive by, from their pickups. And then, I give money to that, and I give pottery, like large objects, you know, like $300 objects. And I give those so they can auction those off; that’s the one part.
And then, the second part is theater and dance. And there’s just a tremendous opportunity here to help, so I give, it must be $500 worth of pottery to the fine arts center, which is in the University of Massachusetts [Amherst], and I give to them for auctions, and then I give them money, and plus, I subscribe to their things. And so, it’s been such a cultural heaven. And I’ve taken my son to all these things. I mean, when I was a kid, when I was at Mass Art, I used to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But my son has gone to see every fantastic dance group, and we both love dance, and my sweetheart loves dance, and we go to every dance group that comes, and we go to Jacob’s Pillow, and we give money to Jacob’s Pillow. We give money to all the arts and the theater, Asian dance; all that stuff is very important to me and I support it.
MR. WILLIAMS: But your work is separate.
MR. COHEN: Work is separate, yeah. I give my work to them, but it has no political content.
MR. WILLIAMS: I know we’ve talked a little bit about other craft organizations, such as the ACC and NCECA, and so forth. Have you had any experience with any of them?
MR. COHEN: A lot of experience with the ACC and some experience with the Rosen Group, and I think I’ve talked about that a little bit. But the other group would be CERF, which I’ve always given money and pots to that. And then, I give my little bowls to Studio Potter every year, and our group does. We have a good group for that, because we know UPS and we know packing, and we’re a group that gets together, so we give you a big box of stuff every year.
MR. WILLIAMS: Next year, have UPS give you a free service for that.
MR. COHEN: Oh really, because it’s a service?
MR. WILLIAMS: Why not?
MR. COHEN: We’ll see. So I think being able to distance myself from the American Craft Council has been pretty good for me. I mean, I look at their magazine; I don’t read anything in their magazine, but I look at it because it’s contemporary, it’s modern, it’s new, it’s art. But to not have to pay $1,200 for a booth that when I started might have cost $200, and now they’re charging late fees, If you come from Wendy’s show and you’re an hour late, it’s $100, or you’re two hours late, it’s $200. They charge you for trying to make a living.
And what kind of a craft organization that says they’re for the craftspeople does something like that? The whole thing is to do it in the most friendly way possible, and they’re doing it like you’re an enemy. So that’s my feeling about ACC. I love their museum, but where is the American Crafts Shop, where’s America House? What’s the first thing to go? The thing that makes money for craftspeople who make it for a living. And who’s it for? It’s for teachers who make their six pots a year.
MR. WILLIAMS: Have we discussed the museums that you want to?
MR. COHEN: Yes. I think I’ve said enough on that.
MR. WILLIAMS: Are there any curators who you’d especially like to mention?
MR. COHEN: I would. I mean, I’ve known Paul Smith since he was the assistant to Campbell at the Little Museum. And I must say, he’s put on some fabulous shows, and he’s put on some weird shows, but he’s there. He’s really there and he’s a voice, and he’s faithful to people he’s known in the past, yet he is totally open to new things. And so, me being part of the past, I feel very warm that he thinks of me when a show comes up that is functional. He knows that I’ve been doing functional pots for my whole life. So he’s the one.
And then, I think the only other person I’ve dealt with is Leslie Ferrin of the Ferrin Gallery in Northampton, who I’ve known for 20 years. And she has her shop, which is mostly functional stuff that I sell in, sell my tile, and I sold my pottery for many, many years there. And now, she has sort of a virtual gallery on a website, and she’s almost invented the collecting of teapots; you know, one-of-a-kind, weird, wonderful teapots. She’s written a book calledTeapots Transformed, and I have a beautiful extruded teapot in it.
And at first, she was going to try to get a gallery in New York, but the rent’s ridiculous, and you have to have an incredible location. And all of a sudden, the website started working, and now I think she’s just going to keep a website and do it by slides and personal contact. And she’s a wonderful person that has fabulous taste, and she’s done an incredible service to craftspeople.
MR. WILLIAMS: We have talked about your former wife, Harriet Goodwin, and how you both worked together for many years. Can you tell me a little bit more about the collaboration that you had?
MR. COHEN: Oh, very important.
MR. WILLIAMS: And what she’s doing now.
MR. COHEN: Yes. Just a little history is, we met at Haystack in 1961. It took a few years for us to finally get married in 1964, but we were made for each other. She was an Alfred [Alfred University, Alfred, New York] potter, I was sort of self-taught, and we both loved functional work. And we got together, we married. And I remember on the day I asked her to marry me, I said, “Well, separate studios, or do you want to work together?” That’s the kind of marriage we had, and it was wonderful for many years, and we worked together and sold together, and she was a tremendous help in boosting sort of the image of ourselves and our feeling about ourselves.
So we would feel good about ourselves, and we could go into the world a little bit better, at a higher level. And that was wonderful, and we moved to New Hampshire around ’65 and had our children there, Amanda and Josh. And that’s when pottery, for us, got harder and harder to sell, and it was rough times. And she went through some very low periods, but it was a very positive thing to move to Amherst. And we were in New Hampshire seven years; we moved here around 1973.
MR. WILLIAMS: Why did you move here?
MR. COHEN: We moved for the schools. The kids were getting to be school age, and it was, like, primitive in the town we were in, New Ipswich. Primitive. So we could get the radio station from there. We were so high, 70 miles away, we could get WFCR, and it would read off the art calendar. And Harriet came home one day from shopping, and she said, “I know where we’re going: we’re going to Amherst.” And we did.
So things disintegrated after a few years here, and we decided to divorce, which we did. But she stayed here in Amherst, and I built a house on top of a studio, and she took the kids, but I was with the kids. You know, we were just, like, ten minutes apart from each other; it wasn’t that I left. And she worked for two years while we were divorced, because she had to have a transitional period. So we worked together as Michael and Harriet Cohen.
MR. WILLIAMS: Then she went to Smith [Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts] didn’t she?
MR. COHEN: She had gone to Smith, yeah. And that’s why she didn’t want to come back to this area. There’s a whole anti-Semitic thing that happened, though; her life at Smith was rough — but it was the most incredibly valuable education, you know, general education.
MR. WILLIAMS: And she lives here in Amherst.
MR. COHEN: She lives here in Amherst. She lived in a couple of houses, and the house she lives in now, she converted a two-car garage into the most beautiful pottery studio; in that scale, you can imagine. Really lovely. And she worked in pottery for a few years, and she has outside income from an apartment house, so she didn’t have to really sell; so she didn’t have to bend to the commercial world. And she didn’t bend to the commercial world, nor did the commercial world come after her. So she got very discouraged and changed her studio into a graphics studio, which she does for her pleasure. And now, she’s going to be in a gallery up in Brattleboro [Vermont]. And we are still wonderful friends. We do things for each other all the time.


This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Michael Cohen, 2001 August 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


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