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How Martha Longenecker brought Japan’s ‘art of the people’ to the world

The founder of the Mingei International Museum in San Diego was inspired by Japanese ceramicists to become a passionate champion of folk art. Works from her collection, including pieces by major Japanese, American and European potters and designers, are offered in our online sale from 22-29 June

In Japanese mingei  translates as ‘folk art’ or ‘art of the people’. The term was coined in 1926 by the founding father of the Japanese arts and crafts movement, the philosopher Sōetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), who saw beauty in ordinary and utilitarian objects created by nameless and unknown craftsmen, describing them as being ‘beyond beauty and ugliness’.

Martha Longenecker (1920-2013) was an artist, collector, educator and the founder of The Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Born in Oklahoma City and raised in California, she studied art at UCLA, and then at Claremont Graduate School, where she was tutored by the American painter Millard Sheets (1907-1989). After graduating, Longenecker set up her own ceramics studio in Claremont, and also embarked on her first research trip to Japan. She would return many times over the years, collecting mingei art and forging lasting relationships with Japanese artists.

Longenecker’s first contact with mingei came before she had made her first visit to Japan, during the summer of 1952. Sōetsu was on a world tour, accompanied by the Japanese potter Shōji Hamada (1894-1978) and the British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979), when the young Longenecker attended one of their lectures and pottery demonstrations.

She was enthralled, as much with the art as with the mingei philosophy, and ceramics quickly replaced painting as her primary pursuit. Explaining this passion in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Longenecker described the ‘special energy you get from handling an object that has been beautifully made by someone’.

In 1955 San Diego State University invited her to develop and lead the school’s ceramics syllabus, and she remained as a Professor of Art for the next 35 years. It was while on sabbatical from San Diego State that Longenecker took her first trip to Japan, working and studying with Shōji Hamada, whom she had met in America, and Tatsuzō Shimaoka (1919-2007), a mingei potter known for his use of ancient processes.

Inspired by her Japanese trips, Longenecker arranged exchanges, which saw Japanese mingei potters invited to exhibit and lecture in San Diego. In order to facilitate these exchanges and to broaden knowledge of Japanese folk art in the United States, Longenecker decided to set up a not-for-profit public art foundation, Mingei International, which was incorporated in 1974.

Four years later, and with an unprecedented gift of a 20-year leasehold provided by University Towne Centre and Ernest W. Hahn and Associates, Longenecker oversaw the design and construction of the first Mingei International Museum, which opened in San Diego on 5 May, 1978. Shōji Hamada had given his blessing to use the mingei name, believing Longenecker fully understood its meaning and importance.

The museum’s collection comprises 17,500 objects from 141 countries, expanding the mingei philosophy far beyond Japan and the United States. It includes textiles and masks from Mexico, bronzes and wood carvings from India, Chinese jewellery and Pre-Columbian pottery and textiles. In 1996, Longenecker oversaw the museum’s move to a 41,000-square-foot home on the Plaza de Panama in Balboa Park.

Martha Longenecker dedicated her long life to furthering knowledge of mingei art, declaring, ‘It is important that man not only make but continue to use objects that are an expression of the total human being — mind, body and soul’. Her commitment never wavered and, in October 2013, the month of her death, she announced the establishment of her most recent non-profit organisation, the Mingei Legacy Resource Foundation, which is committed to creating lasting cultural exchanges.

Martha Longenecker in Japan. Photo courtesy Martha Longenecker Estate

Martha Longenecker in Japan. Photo courtesy Martha Longenecker Estate

Longenecker’s work did not go unrecognised. She received a number of honours, including the Order of the Rising Sun, awarded to her by the Emperor of Japan for her contributions to transcultural artistic understanding.