Alana Cuellar, left, and her father Guillermo Cuellar examine pots from a recent firing.

Honors legacy of Warren MacKenzie

A week and a half before the annual St. Croix Valley Potter Tour, Shafer potter Guillermo Cuellar is unloading his kiln. 

The array of pitchers, teapots, mugs and other vessels have one thing in common. They’re meant to be used.

“I don’t make pots as artistic statements,” he says. “I’m not trying to be overly humble about it, but I think the overall purpose is just for people to take them and use them at home. If they break it’s not a tragedy.”

It’s a philosophy shared by many in the region, from potters themselves to those who buy and use their hand thrown wares. 

“There’s a huge audience for straight, functional pots,” reports Cuellar.

It’s a phenomenon he attributes, in large part, to the late Warren MacKenzie. 

This year’s tour will be the first without MacKenzie. But at Cuellar’s studio, one of the tour’s host sites, MacKenzie’s impact is as evident than ever.  

“He valued functional pots,” Cuellar says. “Not extraordinary gallery pots, although a lot of his pots ended up in museums because they were just that great. But they weren’t made with that intention.”

MacKenzie learned the craft from English potter Bernard Leach, whose studio ran not on artistic expression but quality and consistency.

“Warren learned in a production studio where they had to make a number of pieces to standard for a catalog,” Cuellar says. “They had cards with a silhouette of the piece and the amount of weight of clay necessary to make that piece. So you had to learn to throw and have the piece come out exactly like the silhouette. It was a real training like a musician would go through, which today is very, very rare.”

MacKenzie returned to the United States excited to share his knowledge, minus the strict adherence to standardization of form.

“He was a natural teacher,” Cuellar said. “He had the charm and really engaged with the public. 

“He had a number of generations of students, and students of students, who have carried that interest forward and made Minnesota an international center for pots. It just took on an energy of its own.

“Even though people make pots in other parts of the country, there’s a real ferment here. There are so many people making pots that it attracts other people who want to make pots.”

Part of a younger generation influenced by the valley’s culture of pots is Nick Earl. New to the tour, Earl has been creating work from the late Richard Abnet’s studio in May Township for more than four years. 

His philosophy? Making pots for people to use, and that people can afford to use.

“If I were to charge much higher prices, people wouldn’t use it as much, and they wouldn’t grow to love it in the same way,” says the Edina native. “I try to make a lot of pots, that’s how I can get good at it and afford to sell a lot. And the work gets out to more people that way.”

Earl studied studio art at the University of Vermont and apprenticed with Dick Cooter, a Two Harbors based potter whose work will also be on display at Cuellar’s stop on the tour. 

Within the conditions of affordability and usefulness, Earl aims to be as expressive as possible. 

“I could replicate white diner mugs,” he jokes, coming all but full circle to MacKenzie’s training, “but I try to have an expressive piece of art.”

 St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour

 The St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour is a nationally recognized show and sale by potters making a variety of handmade ceramics. The tour started in 1993 as a coordinated sale among a collective of area potters. Now in its 27th year the tour bring 63 potters from 17 states and England with collections to the studios of seven local potters.

When: May 10-12, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Seven tour stops at the studios of Jeff Oestreich (36835 Pottery Trail, Taylors Falls), Matt Krousey (2785 Stark Road, Harris, Minn.), Richard Vincent (39388 Hemingway Avenue, North Branch), Will Swanson and Janel Jacobson (41421 Ferry Road, Harris), Ani Kasten (29815 Unity Ave, Shafer), Linda Christianson (35703 Vibo Trail, Lindstrom) and Guillermo Cuellar (18855 263rd Street, Shafer).

Details: Tour is self-guided. For more information visit

Warren Mackenzie and Mingei in MN

Two related events are happening in Minneapolis.

• The Monday following the Pottery Tour, May 13, there will be a memorial for influential potter Warren MacKenzie at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall (2128 4th Street, South). Doors open at 5:30 p.m., program at 6:30.

• An exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, “The Persistence of Mingei: Influence through Four Generations of Ceramic Artists.” The exhibit explores the roots of Japan’s Mingei folk art movement and how it has influenced generations of ceramicists regionally.

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