Firing Line

A salute to the late, great James McKinnell, a master of Colorado ceramics.

It's hard to think of James McKinnell, whom everyone called Jim, without also thinking of his wife and artistic collaborator for more than fifty years, Nan McKinnell. Nonetheless, we are going to have to get used to the idea of one without the other, because on April 13, Jim died, at the age of 86.

Though they followed separate stylistic paths, Jim and Nan had worked together since they both began doing ceramics in the 1940s. Side by side, they threw and built vessels and sculptural forms and often collaborated on the same piece. Whether separately or together, they achieved the highest level of artistic success both here in Colorado and internationally.

Jim was born in 1919 in Nitro, West Virginia, but his family soon moved to Seattle, where he grew up. In 1941, he graduated with a B.S. in ceramic engineering from the University of Washington. Later that same year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Jim wound up as an officer in the United States Navy, stationed in the Pacific. In 1947, two years after the war ended, Jim completed his M.S. in ceramic engineering, again at UW. While in the graduate program, he met Nan Bangs, who was working on an MFA in ceramics at the time.

"Lidded jar," by James McKinnell, thrown ceramic.
"Lidded jar," by James McKinnell, thrown ceramic.
"Tramp pot," by James McKinnell, slab-built ceramic.
"Tramp pot," by James McKinnell, slab-built ceramic.

Nan was the teaching assistant of Paul Bonifas, a Swiss artist who had spent time working in Paris. Though Bonifas's classes were outside of Jim's engineering program, he elected to take a slip-casting seminar, which is where he met Nan. The two married in 1948 in Baltimore, and they were virtually inseparable for the next half-century.

They first came to Colorado in 1949 to attend the Aspen Arts Festival. Traveling through Boulder on their way, they thought they might want to move there one day. Instead, they took advantage of the GI Bill to study in Europe -- Paris, Edinburgh and in a town in Cornwall -- hoping to learn about hand-thrown pottery, which was then rarely done in the United States, having been long supplanted by the casting method. Using their signature tandem bicycle, they also traveled to potteries and studios in France and the British Isles. The tandem bicycle is the perfect metaphor for their relationship: It marks their similarities, with the couple pedaling in unison, and their differences, with Jim being very Lincoln-esque and Nan diminutive.

During this period in England, the McKinnells found themselves working cheek by jowl with the giants in the field. They studied with Michael Leach, and through him met his more famous brother, Bernard Leach. The couple met fellow American potters Warren and Alix MacKenzie, who would later come to be regarded as among the greatest of the twentieth century. They came to know many of the most important ceramic artists of the last half-century. Both McKinnells were influenced by them and also exerted influence on them.

In 1951, they came back to Boulder and took over the evening ceramic course at the University of Colorado's extension service. Finding CU's facilities wanting, they conducted the classes in the living room of their rented house. (I wonder if they got their damage deposit back.) Though they left Boulder the next year, they succeeded in being the first of a group of influential studio potters to work in the town in the '50s and '60s; this included international superstar Paul Soldner, who connected with the McKinnells while he was still a student. Soldner has remained a lifelong supporter of the McKinnells and has helped them make arrangements for the disposition of their life's work -- but more about that later.

While in Colorado, the McKinnells took a trip to Colorado Springs to check out the radical kilns that Edgar Johnson was using. At the time, kilns were typically made of cemented bricks with fixed doors and vents, but Johnson was doing high-fire porcelains in a kiln made of loose bricks, the configuration of which could be changed at will. Jim adapted this idea and invented his own flat-topped, loose-brick kiln. This represented a major technological innovation that revolutionized the way studio potters around the world fired their pieces. Two of the great advantages of Jim's kiln were that it could be extended to accommodate taller pots and easily packed up and moved.

This second feature would become really important, because for close to the next twenty years, the McKinnells were gypsy scholars, teaching ceramics across the country and in Scotland. Jim, most often with Nan, taught at some of the hottest ceramic spots, including the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana -- where they worked alongside Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio -- and at New York's Alfred University. Both Archie Bray and Alfred hold special places in the history of American ceramics because so much of the post-war story of clay happened on the premises of these two institutions.

During this period, Jim also taught -- again, often with Nan -- at the University of Washington, University of New Hampshire, University of Iowa, the Edinburgh College of Art, and the Glasgow School of Art, among other places. According to a formal written statement from Nan, released immediately after Jim died, the couple traveled so much because they went "wherever he was asked." The relentless traveling also reflected Jim's taste for new adventures.

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