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Thursday, July 28, 2005 | The throw of the dice this week falls on “ordinary things made beautiful to use in daily life,” says Martha Ehringer, public relations director of the Mingei International Museum. Ehringer’s interest commenced with preserving quilts as an adolescent in Michigan. Today, her passion is budding as we walk the corridors of the museum, and she directs my attention to the origin and significance of the collections.
“It’s easy to talk about things you love,” said Ehringer.
If you live in San Diego, and have not been to the Mingei, then you need to know what it means. Mingei preserves the art of the people. Soetsu Yanagi adopted the concept, from the Japanese words, min (all people) and gei (art). He plucked the undiscovered craftsman out of the darkness, and brought light to pre-industrial objects of daily life.
The Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park (a second extension opened in Escondido) was founded by the supernatural prowess of Martha Longenecker and began as a vision she spawned while traveling the world on a sabbatical. Her story is of cinematic proportion and much too lengthy for a column. Last week, I spent an afternoon viewing extraordinary objects sheltered and forever protected by the Mingei: Kazuo Kadonaga’s “Elemental Materials in Contemporary Art” exhibition of molten glass sculptures, carved wood benches and bamboo.
Fifteen-foot bamboo sprawled one wall seemingly placed without reinforcement, and stacks of feather-light handmade paper juxtaposed against the block of compressed paper are ordinary things made beautiful. In the next wing, I slouched towards “The Art of Woodworking,” selected from the International Collection, and finally the suspended “Elemental Art of the Indonesian Archipelago,” architectural ornaments, mobiles, ritual masks and figures. I traced the map of the islands on the wall, and at that moment, I etched a travel log. The exhibits set off my wanderlust. That is what can happen in a museum of international collections.
Across the street, beyond the Niki De Saint Phalle statue, my eye turned on the Museum of Photographic Arts. At first glance, you meet the haunting eyes of the “Afghan Girl,” shot by Steve McCurry for National Geographic in 1985. Beyond her, you see his exhibition, “Photographs of Asia.” More wanderlust set in as I studied real scenes from everyday life made beautiful by its creator.
I learned of the Golden Rock in Kyaikto and how it is balanced in space by a single thread of hair from the Buddha’s head. I added that to my travel log, and from there I wandered through the blistering desert of Tora Bora and Kandahar, shot from a camera that captured the peace instead of the war. The documentary photographs of children too young to be old, and women huddled together against a murderous sandstorm take your awareness beyond the museum walls. I jotted down the names of the places I wanted to see: Tibet, Jodhpur, Kandze, Kham, the Jokhang Temple and Burma.
The Mingei exhibit flowed into McCurry’s exhibit, like chapter one and chapter two. The next wing of the museum elicited more visual fancy in “Snapshot Photographs,” taken from the private collections of John Neyenesch and Jim Nocito. The display clicks through ordinary scenes made beautiful from everyday life in the fab ’40s and postmodern ’50s. In one afternoon, I traveled the entire continent from the 12th century to present day in one pair of shoes.
On a recent Saturday night, Soaring Crow and I returned to the Mingei for the member’s reception celebrating “Ningyo, The Art of the Japanese Doll.” Within moments of entering the museum, I centered myself in front of the display cases, and met the Ningyo. Even if you’re a dude, the dolls may unearth some mysterious connection to the Japanese stories they represent. The museum was packed with well-traveled collectors and museum members engaged in exchanging stories about their travels, and again I felt my pulse burn for wanderlust.
The dolls in Japan bear the spirits of the sender. Each one conveys a legendary story, which is transmitted when the doll is presented to the receiver. This is the first exhibition in the United States, and it covers a two-and-a-half century period of Japanese life and culture. Eager for more, I stepped into the lecture hall to hear Alan Pate, curator and East Asian scholar, speak and show slides of the exhibition. This feast of higher education, international travel and history culminated with roaring applause because Pate is a witty entertaining scholar.
We left the museum lost in our own translations of the exhibitions. The art of visiting museums is that they make ordinary people imagine extraordinary things.
The Ningyo exhibit runs through Jan 8, 2006; www.mingei.org.
August is “Arouse your Art Interest month.” For more information, log onto the www.sdvisualarts.net/Arouse.htm.
Luellen Smiley is a freelance creative nonfiction writer, columnist and public relations consultant for Galerie D’ Art International in Solana Beach. Her weekly column appears in the Del Mar Times. She can be reached at