Firing Line

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

At the same time, Jim participated in the prestigious Ceramic Nationals at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, the nation's premier ceramics museum, which is now part of the Smithsonian. In 1958, the Everson acquired a major piece by Jim for its permanent collection, a classic lidded jar covered with abstract wax-resist decorations -- his signature finish. The piece has frequently been published in books and magazines.

All along, the couple thought they'd return to Colorado to settle down, and in 1970, opportunity knocked in the form of a job offer from Colorado State University. William Alexander went on leave for a year, and Jim was asked to fill in for him. In 1971, the pair taught at Colorado Women's College (which is long closed). In 1973, the McKinnells landed their first permanent teaching gigs at Loretto Heights College (which also no longer exists), where they remained until they retired from teaching, in 1987.

Having a permanent studio at their home in Fort Collins allowed the McKinnells to produce a staggering number of pieces during the '70s and '80s. Jim's keen understanding of the science of ceramics led him to make numerous breakthroughs in glazing and firing, and his worldwide connections caused these innovations to be widely disseminated and thus influence several generations of ceramic artists.

"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.

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His obvious brilliance makes it especially tragic that repeated strokes in the 1990s left him mentally debilitated. He went into a nursing home in Fort Collins, the Columbine Care Center, which is where he died. Nan, who is 92, still lives in the home the couple shared for more than thirty years and continues to work in the studio every day.

After Jim fell ill, Nan, obviously a realist, began to look for a repository for their personal collection of approximately 200 pieces. Instead of spreading it around, she wanted to find a single museum that would take it all. The McKinnells' longtime dealer, Meryl Sabeff, owner of the Evergreen Gallery, and Paul Soldner, their old friend from Boulder, facilitated the sale of the collection to the newly created American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California. Having known so many of the giants of ceramics, the McKinnells have also amassed an enormous and virtually definitive collection of the works of their peers, and though Nan is not ready to part with these yet, the AMCA will have right of first refusal on them when the time comes.

The AMCA is planning an exhibit dedicated to the McKinnells and will publish a book about their lives, to be called Time in Tandem: James and Nan McKinnell, a Life in Clay; it is being written by Kathryn Holt, a well-known ceramicist in her own right. Holt teaches ceramics at Arapahoe Community College, and Nan has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations in Jim's memory be made to the McKinnell Endowment, which helps to fund the ceramics program at ACC.

It's too bad a local museum didn't wind up buying the McKinnells' personal stash, but luckily for us, Denver's Kirkland Museum has done the next best thing: Over the last few years, director Hugh Grant has acquired nearly 100 McKinnells, with more than fifty of them currently on display. At the urging of the late sculptor Bill Joseph and his wife, Barbara, Grant went to Fort Collins and selected a number of examples meant to represent the course of the McKinnells' careers. Last year, architect Cab Childress, the man who rewrote in stone the look of the University of Denver's campus, donated dozens more.

The pieces on view at the Kirkland are in various parts of the museum. In the main gallery, on top of a showcase, is a group of monumental creations, including a large vessel from 2003 by Nan and a lidded jar and a charger, both from the 1970s, by Jim.

Most of the McKinnells at the Kirkland are in showcases on the lower level. Don't miss the spectacular "tramp pot," from 1970. So called because Jim would tramp on the clay with his feet in order to get the right density, the theatrical piece is a footed bowl that's been slab-built. It's glazed an ethereal green and has gorgeous abstract, incised decorations in the bowl. Also incredible is the abstract sculpture nearby, from 1966, finished in brown.

A memorial for Jim McKinnell is being planned, though no set arrangements have yet been made. In the meantime, one way for us to honor someone who played so significant a role in the development of post-war American ceramics -- and one of the state's acknowledged craft masters -- is to go over to the Kirkland. While you're at the museum, there will be plenty of occasions to bow your head while checking out some of the marvelous things that he did.

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