Mingei International Museum of Folk Art San Diego

Arts of Asia - March/April 1997 issue

Text by Timothy Mertel
Photographs by Kevin Walsh


1. The home of the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art located in the recently rebuilt House of Charm in Balboa Park, San Diego, California


Balboa Park, located on a mesa just above downtown San Diego, is home to a variety of museums including the San Diego Museum of Art, The Museum of Photographic Arts, The Museum of Natural History and The Museum of Man Recently, a welcome addition has been added to this list of cultural institutions: the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art. This museum has been part of the San Diego scene since 1978 where it had been contained within a shopping mall in La Jolla, California. Now the museum resides in a beautiful space called the House of Charm, a reconstructed building from the 1915-1916 World Exhibition centre known as Balboa Park (1).

2. Martha Longenecker, the Mingei's
founder and director
THE JAPANESE term "Mingei" is an abbreviation of minshu-teki Kogei which translates as "the arts and crafts made by the people to be used daily by the people" However, this word means much more than people's craft. It can be said that these items are a stark contrast to bourgeois fine art which was merely created for aesthetic enjoyment alone. Mingei items are used and the use is integral to their design and intention. The term incorporates a whole aesthetic appreciation movement. In the early part of this century the industrialisation of Japan brought about the mass production of utilitarian items. A small group of artists and scholars were concerned about the loss of the traditional arts. They wanted to ensure that these arts would not expire and that artisans and craftsmen could be able to pass down their skills to the next generation.

Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) is considered to be the founder of this art appreciation movement. Author of the inspirational work, The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi explains that "Mingei items must be: 1) Honest to utility and 'healthy' in form; 2) Particular about quality; 3)Produced without being forced, artificial or self-imposing and; 4) Conscientious of the user." Yanagi concludes that "Spontaneity, humbleness, modesty, and simplicity are the fundamental elements which nurture beauty, just as in the case of human virtue". This concept of the natural beauty of objects emanating from the souls of the unpresumptious craftsman in everyday life was a revolutionary idea in the field of art appreciation, collection and curatorship.

3. Ainu coat from Hokkaido, cotton
with applique and embroidery,
19th century. Gift of Keisuke Serizawa

Soetsu Yanagi was joined by two famous Japanese potters, Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) and Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), in forming the core group behind the Mingei movement. These potters are revered for the simplicity of their designs illustrating the spirit of Japanese Mingei thought. The public manifestation of the Mingei movement was the creation of the Mingeikan, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. Yanagi founded this institution in 1936 to exhibit the items that nu collected that were the embodiment of his theory of universal beauty.



4. Ainu glass bead
necklace from Hokkaido,
length 36 inches, 19th century.
Gift of Keisuke Serizawa.

5. Japanese Sasano-bori
ningyo of a hawk, 19th century.
Gift of Keisuke Serizawa

Bernard Leach (1887-1979), the British potter, a good friend of Yanagi, aided the movement in spreading the word. In 1952 Leach, Yanagi and Hamada toured the United States, lecturing and giving workshops on the Mingei concept and pottery. This mission sought to involve craftsmen. They wanted to help define the focus of the craftsman in a post-industrial society, to let the creative process naturally unfold. They were to create simple objects not of self-expression and conceit but from a respect for tradition, function and reliance on the natural process itself. In one of these seminars held at Scripps College in Claremont, California, there was a young graduate student studying painting and ceramics. She was captivated by the message these three men brought.

6. Japanese Shibori child's kimono, 19th
century. Gift of Keisuke Serizawa

"That seminar was so inspirational for me," she says, "particularly with the Japanese ceramics and related art forms having their base in Zen Buddhism, which is concerned not so much with the thinking as with the doing. I had an unbroken schooling of structured art classes, so I was very much aware of design and proportion and colour and theory and all that. Then to see that turned totally upside down by their philosophies. It was such a revelation to me. They didn't approach design and beauty as something you had to study or analyse, but rather something that was a natural flowering of the person's character."

The life of the student, Martha Longenecker, changed. Although at the time she did not know it, she would later become the founder and director of the Mingei International Museum in San Diego (2).

Martha Longenecker, born in Oklahoma and raised in Alhambra, California, has lived a life of art with an international perspective from a very young age. She was fascinated by leather tooling in high school which lead to a summer apprenticeship with a Russian leather studio in Los Angeles. However, painting was her true love. She went on to UCLA to study art including pottery. In graduate school, Longenecker was torn between pottery and painting, but after being exposed to the teachings of Leach, Yanagi and Hamada, her ceramic career took off with exhibitions at Dalzell Hatfield galleries in Los Angeles and New York. In 1955, San Diego State University was in need of creating a ceramics department. They wanted a dynamic individual to spearhead the programme and asked Martha Longenecker to join the university. Early in her tenure there of twenty-five years she was able to take a sabbatical and apprenticeship with Shoji Hamada. During her stay in Japan, in the footsteps of Yanagi, she collected ceramics and old handmade objects. Later in 1968 she returned to Japan and apprenticed with Hamada's number one student, Tatsuzo Shimaoka (born 1919), an honoured ceramicist designated a Japanese National Living Treasure.

7. " Weaving" from the print series
"Folk arts Of Japan" by Keisuke
Serizawa. Gift of the artist.

It was another Living Treasure, Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984), who shaped Longenecker's museum direction. In the early seventies, Serizawa, the painter and textile artist, was scheduled to have a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which was cancelled. This travesty appalled Longenecker and she tried to have the show moved to San Diego. Her demands fell on deaf ears. This situation lead to the realisation that southern California needed an institution and exhibition space to take on such opportunities.

A foundation was created in 1976 with two hundred members. Mingei International operated as a "museum without walls" holding their first exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art on "Mingei of Japan". This was strongly received by the community. Shortly after that exhibit, there was a generous gift by a local developer to the Mingei International group for a space within a large shopping mail. The foundation raised the money to complete the interior and Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art opened in 1978 with the premier exhibition, "Folk Toys of the World", curated by Longenecker drawing upon her own as well as other local collections.

With the mall space, the Mingei Museum curated three or four exhibitions a year on a variety of topics from all parts of the world, within the mandate of the Mingei tradition. Serizawa finally had his California exhibition at the Mingei in 1979. This was curated, designed and installed by the artist himself The National Geographic filmed the opening reception for a special programme on Japanese Living Treasures.

8. Bashofu kimono by Keisuke Serizawa.
Museum purchase.

This important exhibition led to a major contribution by Serizawa of classic forms within the Japanese Mingei tradition from his own personal collection. It is a tremendous honour for a man closely involved with the Mingei movement to have handed down to the next generation of a foreign culture esteemed treasures that embody the ideal within his own culture. Serizawa considered the Mingei Museum a worthy recipient upholding the movement's thought and ideals.

Among the beautiful items given by Serizawa are two pieces from the Ainu culture in Hokkaido. The large coat with the strong appliqued design (3) is an Ainu example of combining the imported striped cotton textile with the traditional evil-dispelling designs of the Ainu people. The cotton was a warm material accepted by the Ainu as an agreeable alternative to their own elm bark fibre. This coat is embellished with a black/blue applique design with white embroidered stitching producing a strong graphic symmetrical image with the natural asymmetry that results from being a handmade garment. The patterns vary from garment to garment where no two coats are alike, symbolising the wearer's inner spirit as well as the guardian spirit. Arts such as this are evidence of a culture which did not have the opportunity to continue its traditions. These Ainu garments are no longer being made. It was through the collection of materials in the twentieth century that led to thc preservation of these items.

Another Ainu piece of note from the Serizawa Collection is the glass beaded necklace from the nineteenth century (4). The necklace (Tamasay) worn by women was created from beads imported from Japan. The centre bead in this example is a brilliant light blue, which is a stunning contrast to the dark blue garments that would have been worn by these women.

9. Four-fold Hiragana screen by Keisuke Serizawa.Gift of Martha Longenecker

A remotely related object to the Ainu crafts from the Serizawa Collection is the Sasano-bori ningyo of a hawk (5)The technique used to carve this image was borrowed from the Ainu people in the north, where the birds feathers are created by paring thin curlicues with a knit. Toys such as this hawk were created as talismans to bring engi (good luck) and avoid misfortune. During the win months in the north of Honshu wood carving passed months away. Toys such as these are referred to as engi 1 toys and are considered a classic form within the Mingei tradition, a simple form carved from the heart without any pretension and used for a specific purpose within immediate community.

Clothing and textiles are a major component of the Mingei aesthetic. Shibori, a tic-dye technique unique to the Japanese, is illustrated in a marvellous child's kimono from the Serizawa Collection (6). This creation is either from the town of Narumi or Arimatsu, both near Nagoya. These were rival towns that specialised in difficult tie-dye textile designs. The shibori technique is to either tie or stitch the textile prior to dyeing in order to resist the dye, resulting in a reserve pattern of white on blue. The delicate nature of the design lends itself well to summer yukata or children's kimono.

10. Footed lacquer bowl by Arihiko
Natsume. Gift of the artist.

In addition to Serizawa's contribution of antique works he also contributed works by his own hand. Serizawa was an accomplished textile artist and illustrator. From his series on the folk arts ofJapan, shown here (7) is a lovely block print entitled "Weaving", with a woman sitting at a loom with a spinning wheel, thread spool and dyed bundles of yarn in the background. The love of textile art is seen with the simple objects that create the finished project, each works of art in themselves.

One of Serizawa's beautiful textile creations was purchased by the Mingei Museum. Serizawa studied and collected textile arts not only from northern Japan, but fibre kimono (8) is a recall of the traditional bashofu textiles unique to Okinawa. This is a material well-suited for the tropical heat and humidity of the island. Serizawa played upon the bashofu material with a large stencil design in indigo blue of alternating matched images of banana leaves.

From Longenecker's personal collection, the museum is fortunate to have a four-fold screen by Serizawa (9), reminiscent of the Korean folk art paintings referred to as Munchado combining calligraphic characters with colourful drawings. While Munchado paintings are based on the Confucian lessons of filial piety, Serizawa's screen combines the first twelve phonetic characters from the old Japanese Hiragana alphabet with a pictorial image of a word that begins phonetically with that same character, such as Ine (rice plant) for the character "P. Here the Japanese syllabary order of previous times is preserved for future generations.

11. Japanese kokeshi doll,
height 24 inches, 19th
century. Gift of Fred and
Barbara Meiers
12. Ceramic vase by
Shoji Hamada.
Gift of Peter and
Nathalia O'Reilly


In 1982 the museum installed another show featuring Japanese Mingei but from the twentieth century perspective, focusing on the works of contemporary masters: ceramics by Tatsuzo Shimaoka, textiles by Takashi Yotsumoto and lacquer ware by Arihiko Natsume. Natsume donated a beautiful footed wood bowl with a traditional negoro (red and black lacquer) finish (10). A timeless design uniquely Japanese, with three curled feet and decorative apron brackets adhering to the base contributing to the importance of the shallow bowl form.

13. Ceramic vase by Shoji
Hamada. Gift of Peter
and Nathalia O'Reilly

There have been many donors to the Mingei Museum, which provides for a diverse collection with very unusual examples as well as standards within the tradition. A most unusual kokeshi doll (11) resides within this collection as a gift from Fred and Barbara Meiers. Kokeshi dolls are made in the Tohoku district of northern Japan, a rural farming area known for its traditional crafts and toys. The simple lathe-turned wood dolls are very popular within Japan and are a classic form with a cylindrical body often painted with a kimono design and a simple round head. The Mingei Museum example is quite extraordinary, with the body having remnants of the original painted bark and the gesso covered painted head all carved from a single piece of wood. Usually these dolls are constructed in two pieces with the head carved separately from the body and joined together with a hidden wood peg. There have been many variations on this simple theme, however most of these occurred in the latter half of this century. This is a large nineteenth century example, 24 inches high, probably carved by a farmer during the cold winter months.

14. Ceramic bowl by Tetsuzo Shimaoka, diameter
20 inches, 1963. Gift of Martha Longenecker

The Mingei Museum also has fine examples by leading twentieth century Japanese ceramic artists. Shoji Hamada is considered the leader of the pack with the kilns that he established in Mashiko in the middle of this century. As previously mentioned he is also one of the originators of the Mingei movement in Japan. Hamada tried to capture the essence of Mingei in his pottery. He potted his ceramics in his studio, either on a wheel or by slab, but decorated his ceramics out of doors. This was to interact with nature while glazing his pots. This effect aided the natural man-made design that he wanted to achieve. A Hamada vase within the collection is a terrific example of this technique (12). A slab-built rectangular form with narrow neck and mouth, it is decorated with a simple weed in iron brown on the raw clay in a natural abstract way, grounded by the horizon line in the background and finished in a translucent overall glaze.

Another Hamada vase in the collection is more typical of his work. This vase (13) is reminiscent of the classic Chinese cong shape, the ancient symbol of the earth, basically an upright rectangular form with a circular base and circular mouth. The formality of this shape is eased by the chamfered effect creating the circular mouth in a suggested octagon form. The persimmon glaze of the vase is a signature of the Mashiko kilns. This design is further augmented by the turquoise off-centre vertical and horizontal lines crossing the face of the vase.

15. Two ceramic vases by Kanjiro Kawai.
Gift of Millard and Mary Sheets

This glaze colour combination of brown and turquoise was one of Hamada's students favourite combinations. Longenecker was fortunate enough to study with this artist: Tatsuzo Shimaoka. Shimaoka also set up his kiln in Mashiko and travelled frequently to the US, exhibiting and lecturing. His works continue the Mingei tradition by employing the same clay and techniques as Hamada but coming up with his own soul's designs, that naturally evolved into his signature works of bowls and plates. The Mingei Museum has an extraordinary large bowl (14), measuring 20 inches in diameter, reminiscent of Korean pottery with the simple clay body impressed over a hundred times with the same starburst shape, then filled with slip and wiped clean. The bowl is covered overall in a translucent glaze revealing the true colour of the body with the contrasting white starbursts on the cavetto.

A Mingei ceramic collection would not be complete without works by another principal artist of the original Mingei movement: Kanjiro Kawai. A charming excursion while visiting Kyoto is to this artist's home which is now a private museum exhibiting the Mingei style and a variety of the artist's works. Two marvellous Kawai vases (15) in the collection were given by Longenecker's mentor, Millard Sheets. Longenecker was a graduate student of this famous California watercolourist. He also had a fascination with the Mingei concept and collected items that spoke to him. These brilliant containers speak of Kawai's passion for hand-built items. Both vases have a mottled, almost faceted, texture where the potter's impressions can be felt. Both pieces are simply decorated with abstract blossoms, one uniquely on the corner of the vase and the other in relief on a black background.

16. Hawaiian calabash bowl, Koa wood, height
12 inches, diameter 171/2 inches, 19th century.
Gift of Mr and Mrs George Lazarnick
The museum stresses that it is not an institution focused on Japanese folk art but of folk art from around the world. The collection is diverse and is very strong in Indian items. Longenecker has curated six exhibitions focusing on Indian folk art alone, including one devoted to Mithila paintings and sculpture from northern Bihar. Another sensational show was "Forms of Mother EarthContemporary Terra-cottas of India", exhibiting three hundred terracotta items made throughout the Indian subcontinent. This event coincided with the 1985-1986 Festival of India held in the United States, where the Mingei Museum was the only venue for this terracotta exhibition. Eight potters from India held ongoing exhibitions within the museum confines, making small votive images, terracotta pots and large architectural sculptures, including a magnificent six-foot tall Aiyanar horse made by the potter/priest Palaniappan (17). The exhibition successfully demonstrated the thousands of years relationship between man and clay, investigating the social , historical, religious and artistic heritage of this craft.

With many of the exhibitions a full colour hardbound catalogue is published. In 1995, an important exhibit was put together entitled "Kindred Spirits: The Eloquence of Function in American Shaker and Japanese Arts of Daily Life", showing the kinship between American Shaker and Japanese crafts. The two cultures unknowingly share the Mingei aesthetic creating objects with beauty of form and function, the exhibits illustrating the universal human bond of creating utilitarian handmade objects of body, mind and soul. This catalogue was awarded first prize in the American Association of Museum's competition for the design of exhibition catalogues.

18. Melanesian helmet mask (kavat) from
the Baining people of the Gazelle Peninsula,
New Britain, length 13 1/2 feet, 20th century.
Gift of Mr and Mrs Richard Helmstetter 

Masks are another medium that unite all human cultures. There seem to be as many variations on the mask theme as there are variations in people themselves. On the heels of "Kindred Spirits" another ambitious exhibition was installed, "Masks of the World-Our Other Faces". This exhibition, partly funded by the City of San Diego, exhibited both old and new masks from over twenty countries worldwide. One mask that is particularly spectacular and part of the Mingei Museum's permanent collection is a kavat helmet mask (131/2 feet long) created by the Baining people from the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain (18). This mask was made specifically for the night-time fire dance and crafted from painted bark cloth stretched over a cane frame, a technique unique to this culture.

Another non-Japanese Mingei item is a beautiful example of the Hawaiian calabash given by the collector of Japanese art, George Lazarnick. This meticulously carved bowl (16), reminiscent of a large Tibetan "singing bowl", is made of one solid piece of Koa wood (12 inches high by 171/2 inches in diameter) displaying the well configured grain. The simplicity of the form lends itself perfectly to the drama of the natural grain.

17. Indian Aiyanar clay horse created
at the museum by Palaniappan,
height 6 feet

With a growing collection and ambitious exhibition projects, the Mingei Museum soon outgrew the shopping mall home. The City of San Diego recognised the importance to the community of this cultural organisation and offered a newly reconstructed building adjacent to two of San Diego's major cultural institutions: the Museum of Art and the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. Due to seismic retrofitting, the city rebuilt this eighty-year old building to the tune of US$10.5 million. The building had to be rebuilt from the foundation up, saving the exterior Spanish-Moorish architectural details in keeping with the rest of the surrounding Spanish baroque buildings. This reconstruction allowed for the creation of additional space. Now the Mingei Museum has 41,000 square feet with 18,000 of that as exhibition space. This is quite a leap from the 6000 square feet they had at the mall where 4500 of that was dedicated to exhibition spaces. The collection was stored in a variety of places all around the city. Now the museum has a secure state-of-the-art temperature controlled storage area within the museum structure.

The exhibition space is grand and generous. The main entrance floor contains an auditorium and four large galleries that can be tailored to accommodate a large exhibition space or segmented for smaller collections. In addition to the lower galleries (19) is an enlarged gift store area with literature and folk art available for purchase. The upstairs area contains four galleries as well as a multimedia centre. The upstairs galleries are dedicated to the display of the permanent collection. The exhibition space can be described as light and airy with blonde hardwood floors and white grid-work ceiling, slightly Japanese in sensibility but American in proportions. The interior space is kept simple so that one does not really notice it, but immediately gravitates to the items on display, drawing the viewer from one object to the next.

The completion of the interior was no small task. The city only provided the shell of the building, the museum had to raise US$7.5 million to finish the interior. The Mingei has prided itself on running an "in the black" institution. Over a two-year period the Mingei raised the funds to complete the interior in time for the inaugural exhibition in August 1996, appropriately named "American Expressions of Liberty: Art of the People, by the People, for the People". This fund-raising effort was uniquely done without a development director, by dedicated board members raising money from private individuals.

20. Table and chairs from the studio of George Nakashima in the
Martha Longenecker-Roth Founder's Gallery

The pride of the museum is the Martha Longenecker-Roth Founder's Gallery (20), a room encapsulating the Mingei movement up to this day. Amazingly this is created in the simplest of ways. An alcove to the main exhibition room on the second floor with windows viewing the eucalyptus treetops of the park, contains a table, chairs, lights and three enlarged photographs of the three founders of the Mingei movement: Yanagi, Hamada and Kawai. By the generous acquisitions contribution of Niki de Saint Phalle (born 1930), a contemporary sculptress, the museum was able to acquire the centre-piece to this room. The museum specially commissioned the table (14 feet long) from the New Hope, Pennsylvania furniture studios of George Nakashima (1905-1990). The tabletop is constructed of two matching pieces of black walnut with rosewood butterfly joints. This table was individually made to accompany ten original Nakashima chairs acquired from the Fisher family chapel in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Nakashima is well-known as an American designer of Japanese descent making fine natural furniture, with his streamlined forms and organic shapes displaying the beauty of the wood itself. He is also author of the book on his works, The Soul of a Tree. Mira (born 1942), the daughter of Nakashima, designed the table for the chairs. She felt that two more chairs were needed, so she contributed two additional chairs from the family collection to the museum. These chairs are known as the Conoid chair, an original Nakashima design first executed in 1969, constructed of walnut with hickory spindles. This room is not a cordoned off display for only the eyes to enjoy. It is a room to be used, chairs to be sat on, allowing for the tactile appreciation of the art.

The pair of hanging lamps above the table are also significant. They are by one of Japan's leading industrial designers, Sori Yanagi (born 1915). He is the son of the leader of the Mingei movement and current president of the Mingei-kan in Tokyo. His contribution to this very special room illuminates the continuing heritage of the Mingei movement from one generation to the next.

19. American cigar store Indians temporarily
on display in the lower exhibition galleries,
Mingei International Museum.

Surrounding this room are cases displaying the works of the artists who were the main instructors of the movement: Hamada, Kawal, Shimaoka, Arihiko and Serizawa. Proudly on display in this room is a very special painting mounted as a hanging scroll (21) with the background Sanskrit character by Serizawa and the superimposed calligraphy by Soetsu Yanagi, reading "First of all-just six letters". This is a reference to the Buddhist phrase, Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu, which may be translated as "Yield your will to the Buddha".

The Mingei International Museum is a direct descendant of the idea that Yanagi had some seventy years ago. This institution accomplishes the goal of appreciating, exhibiting and teaching the international language of art. Mingei is a type of folk art that is created not only in Japan but emerges from the human spirit regardless of national and ethnic boundaries. This museum was created by artists and individuals who speak this language. They have donated their own works, as well as artifacts from other cultures that particularly spoke to them, creating a gift for the present and an endowment for future generations.

21. Collaborative calligraphy
scroll by Keisuke Serizawa
and Soetsu Yanagi. Gift
of Martha Longenecker

You may like to visit the
Mingei International Museum web site