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.

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.

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.

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.

And Jim's approach was never far from the jar he did for the Everson. More expressive than Nan, he continued to do thick, robust stoneware at Loretto Heights. A good example is in a case toward the end of the show. It is a lidded jar with a pair of ridiculously oversized slab-built handles. There's a ceremonial quality to this piece, enhanced by the subtle decorations in panels on the body. It looks like a parody of an ancient Chinese jar.

In another case, just to the right, is an abstract-expressionist centerpiece in white glazed raku, also by Jim. This is a type of bowl that he calls a "tramp pot" because he "tramps" on the clay with his feet to create its surface.

Finally, there are a great many pots produced in the last few years, some major examples of which were done in 1999. Neurological problems forced Jim into retirement a couple of years ago, but Nan is still working. In one showcase are a few of her latest accomplishments -- monumental vessels in copper red, some with floral decorations.

Most of the pieces in the show sold on opening night during a collecting frenzy, but there are plenty more available from the McKinnells' longtime dealer, Meryl Howell, a potter who runs the Evergreen Gallery in Evergreen.

Assistant curator Sagara hopes that Tandem will give the McKinnells the recognition they deserve; the NCECA conference is just the vehicle to accomplish that. But even more so, it gives those of us who live here a chance to see the work of a couple of great ones who have been quietly working in Colorado for decades.

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