"Lidded jar," by James McKinnell, thrown ceramic.
"Lidded jar," by James McKinnell, thrown ceramic.

Firing Line

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.

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.

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.

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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