In Memory of Michael McKinnell

On Friday, March 27, 2020 world famous architect Michael McKinnell died of complications associated with Covid-19. He designed the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum for Alfred University and was a close friend of the Museum Director. Wayne Higby offers the following in celebration of Michael McKinnell.

Michael McKinnell
Architect, Mentor, Friend

An edit from ancient Chinese poet Li Po’s Yellow Crane Tower

From Yellow Crane Tower, my friend leaves the west.
Distant glints of lone sail vanish into emerald-green air: nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven.

A tower, he was an architect of international stature. Michael McKinnell was an exceptional architect, an artist, an intellectual, a man of deep perceptual insight and an elegant human being. He designed three signature buildings for the Alfred University Campus, Alfred, NY. Two for the Performing Arts - an administrative facility with student classrooms, a black box theater and practice studios (1995) as well as a magnificent proscenium theater (2010) - there by establishing the Performing Arts Complex. He also designed the beautiful Alfred Ceramic Art Museum (2016).

I met him at my studio in the spring 2004. He was wearing a long, camel hair coat; a classic brown, Borsalino fedora and tortoise shell, framed glasses. He was without question my picture of a famous architect. At the time, I was working on EarthCloud a porcelain tile installation commissioned for the first building of the Performing Arts Complex. He came to see what I was planning to do to one of his buildings. As he took his time assessing my efforts, I grew increasingly tense. He didn’t say a word for the longest time. Finally, he stopped and stood next to me and quietly said: “What you are doing is extraordinary.” And then he said, referring to the yet to be designed proscenium theater: “It will have a profound effect on the design of the new building.” Eventually he invited me to his offices in Boston and we sat down to study his drawings for the new theater. He said: “Keep going. Bring the porcelain tile into the new building.” He showed me how I could use the corner of the new building that faced the original building as a focal point for a continuation of what I was making. He had designed the entire proscenium theater to reside on the site in a way that frame the first part of EarthCloud.

I tell this story because it reveals who Michael McKinnell was as an architect and who he was as an individual. My experience with him runs counter to the traditional notion of a famous self-absorbed architect. McKinnell was not that architect. He was secure with his gift and treated me with great respect. We became friends. He paid attention to my ideas and by his attention and grace gave me the courage and determination to complete a huge artistic endeavor.

Later we collaborated on another project. With his support and guidance, I created the ceramic installation SkyWell Falls for the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, PA. Michael then inspired and encouraged me to accept the position as Director of the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum and help bring his design for that building into reality. All the projects mentioned – the buildings and the art were facilitated by visionary patron of the arts Marlin Miller, a graduate and trustee of Alfred University and close friend of Michael McKinnell.

We understand the necessity and inevitability of change that underlies the ebb and flow of life as we know it. We must part, but long to hold on to those whose lives bring meaning to our own. This longing is often laced with deep emotional pain. In time, this pain wraps the heart and mind in the comfort of memory. Memory keeps us close and the longing informs a more profound understanding of impermanence. Michael McKinnell’s sail vanishes, but I can picture it vividly in my mind and memory. I will always see it there on the horizon.

Wayne Higby

Artist, Professor of Art
The Wayne Higby Director
and Chief Curator
Alfred Ceramic Art Museum
Alfred University