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One Woman's Drive Helped Build Museum

August 29, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

LA JOLLA — Enter the world of Martha Longenecker and discover the simple beauty of handmade objects: a richly burnished early American wooden platter (circa 1700), the functional craftsmanship of Lapland sleds, a darkly lacquered Korean chest built of paper, or a modern quilt made from color Xerox images on cloth.

Longenecker, a professor of fine art at San Diego State University, is the founder, director and guiding force behind the wildly successful museum of world folk arts, Mingei International. Longenecker, 66, speaks with a quiet enthusiasm for the museum and its work that is as infectious as a smile.

The common denominator in all items exhibited at the Mingei is that they are made by hand. Longenecker ran her hand over an almost-translucent ceramic jar.

"When you pick up something that has been made by hand, you can love the integrity of it," she said. "There's some special energy you get from handling an object that has been beautifully made by someone."

Longenecker, a ceramist, was inspired to build a folk arts museum by the late Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese scholar who, 60 years ago, feared that industrialization was destroying his nation's folk arts. Mingei is a word coined by Yanagi, combining the Japanese words for people (min) and art (gei). Today "mingei" is recognized in the art world as meaning "arts of the people."

The founder of Japan's Mingei Assn. to promote folk arts and of Japan's first folk arts museum, Yanagi saw that many articles produced by individuals in pre-industrialized times had a beauty rarely equaled by modern artists. His theory on the reason for this linked the nature of the beauty of objects to man's expression through "head, heart and hand."

"It's important that man not only make but continue to use objects that are an expression of the total human being--mind, body and soul. It's all energy, you know," Longenecker said.

Longenecker harnessed her own considerable energy to start the Mingei--it is not officially connected with the Mingei Assn. of Japan--when she was approached in 1977 by a member of University Towne Centre's community committee, who was offering space for a museum. The center's developer, Ernest Hahn Inc., had set aside a building for community use.

Longenecker had incorporated Mingei International in 1974 and had presented several exhibits and lectures in various locations. But it had no home.

The shopping center offered almost 6,000 square feet of space for $1 a year for 20 years if the Mingei would build and operate its museum within the shell. The museum opened in 1978 with an exhibit on "Folk Toys of the World."

"I would have waited longer to build a museum had this magnificent offer not occurred," said Longenecker, who studied at the Mingei Assn. of Japan in the 1960s.

Galvanized by the once-in-a-lifetime proposal, Longenecker and her board of directors raised the necessary $104,000 in six months. Longenecker, who receives a nominal honorarium, works as a volunteer director.

Today the museum, which was recently accredited by the American Assn. of Museums, has an annual budget of $301,000, five full-time staff members, a list of 200 volunteers and 100 docents. While Longenecker believes in the beauty of handmade objects, she doesn't live in the Dark Ages. She saw to it that the museum purchased an IBM computer to aid in its administration and video recorders and large-screen television sets for viewing cassettes associated with exhibits.

Money and the need for benefactors are still problems. Longenecker must share installation duties for the three annual shows with guest curators, professional installers and volunteers. As a scholar, she prefers to document all shows, but that is expensive. The Mingei has produced beautifully researched and illustrated catalogues for such exhibits as "Paper Innovations" on the history of paper and "Ethiopia, Folk Art of a Hidden Empire." But many shows are not documented.

For the previous exhibit on contemporary terra cottas of India, the museum brought over eight artisans and two translators to work for four months. A videotaped record of the exhibit was produced to go with the catalogue, which was produced by the government of India.

The Mingei's current exhibit, "Two Hundred and Ten Years Without End--Early American and Contemporary Arts of the People," however, has no catalogue. Yet it may be the most concise practical statement of the museum's purpose--to further understanding of world folk arts.

The exhibit bridges close to 300 years of the "essential arts of the people," from Early American to contemporary California artisans. Individual exhibits speak far more eloquently than words of the beauties of line, form and color inherent in such functional handmade objects as wooden shovels, iron tools, drinking mugs and weather vanes.

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