Home > China, Donald H. Harrison, Japan, Visual Arts > San Diego’s Historic Places: Mingei International Museum

San Diego’s Historic Places: Mingei International Museum


Nakashima table at Mingei International Museum, Balboa Park

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO–Outside the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park stand two large, fanciful sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, an internationally celebrated sculptor who lived in La Jolla in the final
years of her life. One created in 1998 from glass, stones, mirrors and polyester, called “Poet and
Muse,” depicts a male poet with a female muse on his shoulders, his arms transforming into her legs.

The other, playfully called a “Nikigator,” is an elongated, exagerrated alligator made from similar materials and sitting on playground foam, a delightful magnet for preschoolers who can scamper through the Nikigator’s innards.

“Poet and Muse” is a tribute to the creative process that drives the folk artists and craftspeople whose works are on exhibit at the Mingei,whereas the “Niki-gator” matches the museum’s theme, which is celebration of artisans who turn everyday objects into works of art through their care and talent. Playground equipment could simply be functional, but not in Saint Phalle’s world. This piece, intended to be touched, caressed and climbed upon by tykes, is a stimulus for the young imagination.

Saint Phalle’s works are exhibited throughout the world, and especially in San Diego County. “Coming Together” is a large circular piece outside the downtown San Diego Convention Center; “Queen Califia’s Magic Circle” is in Kit Carson Park in Escondido, and” Sun God” is a prominent feature on the UCSD campus. Saint-Phalle also has an entire menagerie of imaginative, fanciful animals on permanent exhibit at the Jerusalem Zoo.

Inside Balboa Park’s re-created House of Charm, built in its original incarnation for the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition, the Mingei held a major restrospective of Saint Phalle’s work.  Following her death in 2002, what had been a planned as another exhibit for her at the Mingei’s smaller facility in Escondido, was transformed into a tribute to her life and works.

Saint-Phalle and the museum’s founder, Martha Longenecker, were close friends. Saint Phalle not only was represented in the museum’s collection, she became one of its important financial benefactors. One day, according to Martha Ehringer, the museum’s public relations director, Saint Phalle told Longenecker she wanted to purchase for the museum any piece it wanted. Thrilled, Longenecker suggested a grand piano. But Saint Phalle decided anyone with sufficient funds could make such a gift, she wanted something much finer, much more memorable. So she commissioned a long table suitable for board meetings to be made by Mira Nakashima at the Nakashima Woodshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and purchased 18 chairs fashioned by Mira’s father, the late master woodworker George Nakashima– two chairs to be placed at each end of the table, and seven along each side.

Doug Smalheer, a docent who taught U.S. history for 40 years, a majority of that time at San Diego’s Mesa College, is enamored of the table and chairs, and tells the story of Nakashima’s life and works with all the zest of one describing Washington crossing the Delaware, or Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Nakashima grew up in Seattle, Washington, and earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He went overseas to France, Japan, and India after graduation, becoming an admirer of Eastern thought and religion. Not long after he returned to the United States, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and as a Japanese-American he was resettled in a camp in Idaho, where he practiced carpentry before being permitted to relocate to the arts colony at New Hope, Pennsylvania, where his family still lives.

Smalheer explained that Nakashima believed that a tree was intended to be a tree — and that therefore artisans who must transform it to other uses should to the greatest extent possible honor the tree’s original purpose. If one follows the edge of the table from one end to the other, it is not in a straight line, but instead maintains the original contour of the tree. It flares at one end, where its roots might have begun, and it bulges slightly at the other, where its branches might have originated.

After being felled, the tree had been sliced lengthwise, but not entirely severed, so that its front and back could be laid side by side while still connected. These halves were reinforced by Nakashima in several places by wood patches described variously as “bow ties” or “butterflies.” Although he was not the first to use the technique, they were a trademark of Nakashima’s. Smalheer tells a story about a collector who ordered a table like Nakashima’s. The artisan emphasized its grain and its natural contours, but the patron was dissatisfied. He wouldn’t finalize the purchase until the artisan put in the butterfly patches.

The Nakashima conference table and chairs are found upstairs amid the museum’s permanent collection. Ehringer said the museum has collected many more works than it ever can display at one time, even with two museum locations–and this is especially true because exhibits from around the world are continually being rotated in and out of the museum.

Another exhibit from the permanent collection displays 56 Chinese hat boxes in what Ehringer describes as a Xanadu type setting. Uniforms were required of officials serving the Qing Dynasty — the last dynasty to rule China — and these uniforms included hats. Depending on the office, the hats were of different shapes, with all being adorned with badges of office.

Families saved the hats in their boxes through the rise of Sun Yat Sen, and Chiang Kai Shek. But after the Communists took control of the mainland–and especially during the Cultural Revolution — being proud that family members served the Imperial Household could bring suspicion, even censure, upon the owners of these hats. So the hats either were destroyed or hidden. But the boxes were kept, because they still had utilitarian purposes — things could be stored in them. And it was these boxes that were collected by exhibition designer Peter Cohen, and eventually donated to the Mingei.

Tables, chairs, hat boxes — these are every day objects, and yet those at the Mingei Museum are exquisite in their beauty. For a visit to the Mingei to be properly enjoyed, one should schedule enough time to survey the objects and savor their stories.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on examiner.com

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