Remembering Martha Longenecker, Artist, Mingei Museum Founder
November 4, 2013 1:23 p.m.
Martha Ehringer is a longtime volunteer and staff member at the Mingei International Museum.
Darlene Davies, arts supporter who taught at SDSU at the same time as Martha Longenecker.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Martha Longenecker, the founder of San Diego's Mingei international Museum died last week at the age of 93. Although she was an artist in her own right she will be remembered most for celebrating work of others. Mingei is a Japanese word that means art of the people. And the museum she created allowed all of us to look at everyday objects as the masterpieces they are. I'd like to introduce my guests, Martha Ehringer a long time volunteer and staff member at the Mingei museum. Martha, welcome to the program.
MARTHA EHRINGER: Thank you, Maureen. It's lovely to be here.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Darlene Davies is an art supporter who taught at SDSU at the same time Martha Longenecker did and Darlene, welcome to the program
DARLENE DAVIES: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me start out by asking you both what do you think led Martha Longenecker to this vision of seeing the beauty in what some people would think of as ordinary things prelims start with you, Martha.
MARTHA EHRINGER: Martha when she was in graduate school found out that (inaudible) who had coined the word Mingei was in Los Angeles trick she was at the Claremont graduate school. And he was speaking about Mingei and she went to hear him. And was immediately converted. And not only was she converted, the recognized in her something that they wanted to, they being the founders of Mingei who were there, that they wanted to make it stronger, and so they invited her to Japan. And early on, she went to Japan and just became part of that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In this artist seeing the beauty in ordinary things, and handmade craftsmanship. Was that something that Martha sort of educated everyone and to an extent?
DARLENE DAVIES: Oh my goodness, yes. What I want to say is that it took us 10 years from the time she was invited to Japan to get there. She used to talk about how when she came to San Diego State they recruited her she came in '55 to establish the ceramics program. And to supervise student teachers in art and that sort of thing. She talked about how once she came here all she was thinking about was how she could get a sabbatical and get to Japan. She would put in her application year after year to get to Japan. So it took 10 years for her to do that. But then she spent four months studying with these masters and I mean it was transformative. I won't say it completely changed because she already had a knowledge, a sensing of that, but being there and understanding. She completely understood. When she opened the Mingei, she was allowed to use that term because the Masters felt that she truly understood it. They would not have a lot of people to do that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a clip of her talking about that day exhibit featuring works out sculpture we have a clip of Martha Longenecker speaking on the K PBS show. Us about the museum about an exhibit featuring the works of sculpture Nikki (inaudible).
MARTHA LONGENECKER (RECORDED): She not only did sculptures monumental pieces, but she loved to make furniture. She said she was fascinated with making furniture, tables, chairs, benches and vases and lamps and since Mingei international is concerned with arts of the people throughout the world, useful things, it was really fun to take it to the extreme and have the work of this French artist.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Once again, the words of Martha Longnecker and I am wondering Martha, you eventually volunteered at the Museum. How did she encourage you to look at the works on display?
MARTHA EHRINGER: She encouraged me to look and I never thought of that before. She sat me down one day, she took me away from other people and said, the whole idea is to see the object, to let the object speak for itself. And it took a while. But I began to understand what she meant. And it truly is the essence of the object that we get.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: At the Mingei there are some objects, in most museums you go in and you will see a long description of what you are looking at, sometimes quite often at the Mingei there is no description.
MARTHA EHRINGER: Sometimes for years we didn't have labels till we got around to it and that might be three or four weeks after the show is open but truly, it was worth it to come in to see the objects. We are better now at labels and we do have a couple of McKee's chairs on exhibition right now which is kind of fun.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Darlene, for years Martha was teaching full-time and also trying to establish this museum. What was Martha Lake as a teacher?
DARLENE DAVIES: Martha loved mentoring and teaching. Martha was her happiest, her most excited when she was in the process of helping people to see, helping people to create, leading people, because Martha always knew where we were going. You thought you were discovering it, you wound up where she knew from the beginning you were going to be. And you know which students, mentors, colleagues, she felt that, and this is part of Mingei that there is an artist people (inaudible) that there are not just certain people who are artists with a capital A but everybody has artistic our ability inclination we and him that is a matter of being free to express it. The mind, the body, the spirit, the whole person. So I must tell you, she didn't have great respect for what she called high art. She believed that it belonged to all of us and she also believed there to need to be a name on a piece. I mean it was fine if somebody signed it, but if somebody did come it was from the people.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Martha, it strikes me that someone who was so passionate about and made out checks must have a hope filled but that was Martha opposed to buying manufactured takes customer
MARTHA EHRINGER: Martha had manufactured things usually by people whose names were things like Eams, So they were beautiful manufactured expressions. Again, of the whole person, body mind and spirit. And she certainly has a lot of things in her house that are handmade as well, that are one-of-a-kind objects of daily use. But, yes, she does have furniture that I think was manufactured by someone. And it is all harmonious and beautifully, as I say it is the expression of great, good talent.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Darlene, Martha was among a number of people, notable artists and an amazing group of people really who taught at SDSU at that time. Can you talk to us about where Martha fit into the artist community in San Diego?
DARLENE DAVIES: That is exactly what I was hoping you would let me talk about. She happened to be here at a time when we had a beyond extraordinary group of artists. And I've talked to the Dean here, Joyce This many times about this. I mean there's some is nothing to explain how you could bring together such an extraordinary group. And we have names like Paul Ingram. We had a Bigelow, John Dirks. I said to John, once, why do you think all these people came to this little southwestern corner of San Diego to this state college? And he said oh I think it was the weather. Then I asked (inaudible) Lee who was in television and he said well it may have been the weather but I think it was really the proximity to Mexico because Mexico had really a tremendous influence on the work of these people. If you think about people like Everett T Jackson who was a major regional artist whose work is imbued with the influence and this whole faculty, so busy, you know in all of its disciplines, they went down camping to Mexico. That is how they would spend their weekends. So they were all very busy. You have genes selected, we have George Sorenson we have murals here at the library we've uncovered. In studying with these people in the 1950s as a student listen now great John Baldessari was one of the great artists of the world who got his degree here. And to suggest the presence, imagine the energy of all of these talented artists.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Martha, I know that you were involved in helping to raise funds or providing funds for dimming a museum when Martha Longenecker came and and asked you for that I'm wondering was it a hard sell? Was it hard for Martha to get the money to make the Mingei museum here in San Diego?
MARTHA EHRINGER: From sort of watching from the outside? I found that Martha would throw ideas out into the ether, into the heavens. And whatever her need was was met and it was always met when it needed to be met. And she always managed to rent the museum in the black. Which is a tradition that continues. So, I'm sure that there probably was some effort, but my goodness she made it look effortless.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of a mentor would you say that Martha was to the people? Let me ask you, Martha, to the people who worked under her as the volunteers at the Museum. What did she imbue in all of you about the philosophy of the Mingei?
MARTHA EHRINGER: It really sort of was a spiritual experience. The last time I can remember talking to her about Mingei really seriously I kind of floated away. Because I felt so uplifted by the experience. She was also a fairly harsh taskmaster. She knew what she wanted as Darlene said to me earlier she understood it was just because it was the way it was supposed to be. There was no question and for some of us who were not quite as clever as she could be and interesting, challenge.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is this a lasting legacy that Martha Longenecker leaves for San Diego?
DARLENE DAVIES: Absolutely. Martha and I talked about this. When some people pass away you have a real sense they are gone but every person I mentioned this to has not expressed in any way that Martha has left. It was just like wow, her presence is just beyond description. When she was, drawing a pot, walking into a room whether she was elegantly dressed or dressed down to work at her heart.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you both so much for speaking about Martha Longenecker and her legacy to San Diego. Martha of course died last week at the age of 93. I've been speaking with Martha Ehringer and Darlene Davies thank you both so much. Be sure to watch KPBS evening edition at five again at 6:30 tonight on KPBS television join us again tomorrow for discussions on Midday Edition on KPBS FM. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.