A DELICATE porcelain bowl, so transparent that light glows from within, sits on a shelf near a magnificent clay pot - hand-built, tall, graceful, and a tad exotic. But these vessels are functional, made to be used as well as admired.
In the hands of James and Nan McKinnell, rare porcelain clays and cruder clays alike go into the fire only to emerge as splendid vases, pots, and plates - works of high craft, great skill, and extraordinary beauty. Sometimes the vases and bowls teeter toward sculpture.
The McKinnells have made significant contributions not only to the art of functional pottery, but also to the technical development of the craft since they were married in the late 1940s. James McKinnell was trained as a ceramic engineer after World War II and invented the double-chambered, suspended-roof, soft-brick kiln. His soft-brick kiln had the great advantage of being portable and for many years represented a state-of-the-art innovation.
The McKinnells went off to Europe as newlyweds to study with some of the finest potters in Paris and Edinburgh, traveling all over Europe on a tandem bicycle - an appropriate symbol of their collaboration. Back home in America, they taught many university courses over the years, freely sharing technical advances and discoveries James made in glazes, clay-body recipes, and firing techniques.
They have contributed a great deal to each other's works, though their styles are very different. Nan's pots are graceful, often combining large size and delicate surfaces. Whether she works in porcelain or earthenware, there is always a delicacy of detail, an organic unity and elegance in her forms. James's are sturdy-looking, forceful earthenware, incorporating splashes of expressionist design, and often including the most amazing color - deep, rich reds, blues, blacks, and browns.
Both the McKinnells have always experimented with form and detail, color and size. They frequently work together - he throws a pot and then asks her to add something and vice versa. They constantly consult each other, often adding to each other's designs or forms. She prefers to draw on nature for her designs - frogs, flowers, insects, and leaves. He more often draws his decorative designs from his own imagination, making abstract shapes. He has always loved the arts, always visited galleries.
``I think their craftsmanship is superb,'' says Maynard Tischler, chairman of the School of Art at Denver University and a ceramic sculptor himself. ``They have always paid a lot of attention to detail. They are unique. Nan was building those large hand-built pots many years ago before anyone else, using all one piece of clay. She [helped] expand the field.'' He points out that the McKinnells' work helped form the bridge between functional studio pottery and high-art ceramics.
* `James and Nan McKinnell: A Retrospective Exposition,' will be at the University of Denver until Sept. 30.