Dynamic Duo

Two shows focus on the kith and kiln of Colorado ceramics.

It's really quite inspiring the way the entire metro art world is focusing, at least briefly, on ceramic artists, a group that is typically unsung, ignored and rarely exhibited around here.

A year and a half ago, artist and Auraria art professor Rodger Lang began calling the city's museums, art centers and galleries to let them know that Denver would host the Spring 2000 National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts conference. Since the conference will attract some 3,000 attendees, many of them well-known figures, he asked the directors and curators if they would be interested in presenting relevant shows.

Lang, who will host the conference, could hardly have imagined the tremendous and enthusiastic response.

Porcelain bowl with translucent patterns, by Nan McKinnell.
Porcelain bowl with translucent patterns, by Nan McKinnell.
Lidded jar with slab handles, by Jim McKinnell.
Lidded jar with slab handles, by Jim McKinnell.

Since December, one ceramic show after another has opened, and more are planned nearly everywhere, from the co-ops like Spark and Pirate to the elite commercial galleries such as William Havu and Robischon, and at the major cultural institutions, including the Denver Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Others will open next month, just before the conference convenes in the third week of March.

There have been some missed opportunities, however. For instance, there won't be a contemporary overlook of Colorado ceramics. Nor is there a proper historical survey of Colorado's formidable clay traditions in the works.

One of the worst examples, though, just might be the NCECA invitational, A Glimpse of the Invisible: Exploring the Spiritual in Art, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Though it features a crop of artists chosen from across the nation, it's a real miss. Or should that be mess?

Don't get me wrong: There are great things included, such as a spectacular hanging installation by Nancy Blum and some tremendous gestural vessels by our own Richard DeVore. The problem with the show is that the pieces don't relate to one another; there's no pattern to interconnect things. This is sometimes seen in juried shows, but rarely in an invitational. Because the things in Glimpse don't look good together, the show makes absolutely no sense.

But it's not the fault of Kathy Andrews, the Arvada Center's head curator and museum director, who is credited as a co-organizer. I know her work, so I can say with some confidence that the shortcomings should not be laid at her feet. No, surely the blame lies with Michel Conroy, a professor from Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, and the official NCECA exhibition coordinator.

Luckily, there is another show going on at the Arvada Center, an extremely important one titled Time in Tandem: James and Nan McKinnell Retrospective.

This densely installed and visually rich exhibit is devoted to the lifetime achievements of a married pair of potters who have spent a good deal of their careers in Colorado.

The entry to the show, which is on the lower level, has been marked with a bicycle built for two, a tandem, once a favorite of the McKinnells'. One can almost imagine the pair -- especially since the exhibit is generously sprinkled with photographs -- riding the contraption. What a sight: the Lincolnesque Jim and the diminutive Nan, a pair of '50s beatniks pedaling together through city streets and countryside here and in Europe.

The show was organized by assistant curator Susan Sagara, who had wanted to do something for the McKinnells for several years. When she heard about the NCECA conference, she saw her opportunity, although it left her only nine months to design the show -- a relatively short amount of time for such an endeavor. "Nan and Jim are Colorado treasures," she says. "I know that sounds so cliche, but it's so true."

That it is.

Nan Bangs was born in 1912 in Stanton, Nebraska. In 1932 she enrolled in college in Wayne, Nebraska, where her tuition was only $15 per semester. During the summers, she attended Nebraska State University and earned a BFA in 1938. She then moved to Seattle, where she began to work on a graduate degree in ceramics at the University of Washington and earned her living as an elementary-school art teacher and a teaching assistant at the university.

Jim McKinnell was born in 1919 in Nitro, West Virginia, and moved to Seattle in 1923 with his mother and father. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1941 and immediately entered the Navy, which shipped him off to Pearl Harbor just in time for a ringside seat to the Day That Will Live in Infamy.

He returned to Seattle in 1945 and began graduate studies at his alma mater. Although he was a student in the ceramics engineering program, which was taught on a separate campus, he took a class in slip-casting on the main campus from Paul Bonifas, a Swiss artist who had worked in Paris. As it happened, Nan was Bonifas's teaching assistant.

Nan and Jim met and fell in love. Jim completed his master's degree in 1947 but stayed in Seattle to teach at the university. Nan was still trying to complete her MFA and was teaching full-time. Eventually, Jim wound up in Baltimore, where he got a job with Locke Insulator, a manufacturer of porcelain equipment used for electric wiring. Nan was still in Seattle, struggling with her thesis project, a tea set. Jim had promised to marry her only after she completed it.

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