Dynamic Duo

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

This tea set is one of the first things in the Arvada Center show. Unlike most of Nan's later work, the set is slip-cast, following Bonifas's preferred method. And it's white. Nan was toying with a career in industrial design after graduation, and the set relates well to the contemporaneous mass-produced wares of Russel Wright and Eva Zeisel.

Married in Baltimore in 1948, the McKinnells were inseparable. Although they worked collaboratively, each retained their individual approach throughout their careers.

In 1949, the McKinnells first came to Colorado to attend the Aspen Arts Festival. On the way from Baltimore, they stopped in Boulder, where they thought they might like to settle. But other opportunities intervened, and instead they went to Paris, Edinburgh and a town in Cornwall, England, where they studied with Michael Leach. It was through Leach and his more famous brother Bernard that the McKinnells first found themselves at the center of vanguard ceramics.

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.

In England they met fellow Americans Warren and Alix MacKenzie, who would later emerge as some of the greatest potters of the century; in the next few years, the McKinnells would come to know and work with many of the most important ceramic artists of their time.

They moved to Boulder in 1951 and taught at the University of Colorado's evening extension program, but because of a lack of facilities, they held classes in the living room of their rented house (see, I told you they were beatniks). The McKinnells lay claim to being the first studio potters in Boulder, though that's hard to believe. What is definitely true is that they were the first of the influential 1950s/'60s generation to get there.

They left in 1952, but during this brief period, they met the great Paul Soldner, who was then a summer student at CU and who is now a living legend of contemporary ceramics.

On a trip to Colorado Springs during that same time, they also stumbled onto a technological breakthrough by way of Edgar Johnson, one of a generation of ceramicists working in the area's small but significant scene that included Irene Musick, Tabor Utley and Eric Helman. Johnson, who was prominent then but has since been forgotten, was firing porcelain at extremely high temperatures in a kiln made of loose bricks -- a radical idea at the time. Jim adapted the concept by creating portable, easy-to-move kilns.

And that was good, because the McKinnells then embarked on almost twenty years as itinerant scholars working around the country and the world. They taught at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana, (where they worked side by side with Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio), the University of Iowa and the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.

Also among their stops was Alfred University in New York, where Jim made the unbelievable slab-built vessel that's on display at the Arvada Center in the middle of the room just across from Nan's tea set. Taking the form of a tree, the piece is finished in a white glaze, with the chocolate-y clay body showing through. It was also at Alfred that Jim made two of the three abstract-expressionist sculptures displayed in a nearby showcase.

Jim participated in the Ceramic Nationals held at the Everson Museum in Syracuse -- near Alfred -- from 1954 to 1966. In 1958, a lidded jar with signature wax-resist decorations of abstracted flowers was awarded a purchase prize and is still in the permanent collection of the Everson. This piece is fairly famous and is frequently illustrated in books on the history of American ceramics. It is not in the Arvada show, but there are several comparable works.

The McKinnells returned periodically to Colorado over the years and finally moved back in 1970. They bought a home in Fort Collins and built a studio there. For a year, they filled in for the late ceramic artist William Alexander at Colorado State University; the next year, they taught at the now-defunct Colorado Women's College.

There's a gorgeous covered casserole dish done by Jim during this time that's been placed in its own showcase at the Arvada Center, not far from the Alfred pieces. It's done in glazed stoneware with lyrical wax-resist decorations. Stylistically, it's related to the covered jar in the Everson collection.

Finally, in 1973, the McKinnells settled down and began teaching at the now-closed Loretto Heights College, where they remained until they retired in 1987. This gave them the sense of permanence that allowed for a staggering volume of output -- the two were potting machines -- and most of the work in Tandem is from this period.

Among the many Loretto Heights-era pots are a row of Nan's thrown but altered stoneware vessels in the form of monumental oil jars that have been placed on a group of sculpture stands of differing heights. Each is spectacular. One is covered in a sgraffito pattern that has been darkened with stain; another features a variety of rich Japanesque glazes done in horizontal bands; a third is in Nan's famous copper red.

Nan was also interested in small porcelains and even miniatures. These vessels are adorned with ruffled, or crenellated, collars, and some are so thin-walled they have translucent patterns in the manner of Japanese riceware. The delicacy of her pieces and the simple and organic forms Nan prefers are not too far from that tea set she had so much trouble with in graduate school.

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