Archive for the ‘Visual Arts’ Category

San Diego’s former Laurie Wohl is located in New York City

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Editor, San Diego Jewish World

I recently asked for your readers’ help in locating a high school classmate of mine, Laurie Phyllis Wohl, who lived in the Kensington neighborhood of San Diego and graduated Hoover High School in 1960.  I know her mother was active in Temple Beth Israel.

I found Laurie!  I asked the Wellesley College Alumni Group to forward my contact info and I got an email from her today.  So first, thank you for your offer of assistance in locating Laurie.

Second,  you and your readers may want to visit her professional website to see her magnificent work as a world renowned textile designer.  She has incorporated elements of her Jewish faith in some of her works and has a very impressive list of commissions and showings  around the world.  She graduated Sarah Lawrence College and Colombia Law School and lives in New York City with her husband, Stephen Schulhofer, a professor of law at NYU.   Some of your readers may remember Laurie and her parents from their years here in San Diego.

Thank you again for responding to my request.  This has been a wonderful day for me!

Linda Mohr Crogan

Women of the Hebrew Bible, Part 2: Jochebed

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Jochebed, (c) 2010, Sheila Orysiek


Determined to save the life of her infant son from Pharaoh’s edict to kill all the male infants among the Israelites, she wove a basket and sadly – but courageously – pushed it into the Nile River.  Without her action our story may never have been.

One of a series of seven women of the Hebrew Bible illustrating the moment in their lives when they were at pivotal point, contributed significantly to subsequent events and/or set a precedent in the history of our people.  — Sheila Orysiek

Orysiek is a freelance writer and artist based in San Diego.

Pen and ink series illustrates women of the Bible

August 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Sarah; Women of the Hebrew Bible – A Moment in Their Lives; Pen and Ink on Paper; 16 x 20; (c) Sheila Orysiek

SAN DIEGO (SDJW) — Sheila Orysiek of San Diego has put pen to paper to draw seven women of the Bible at pivotal times in their lives or when their actions “contributed significantly to subsequent events and/or set a precedent in the history of our people.”

For our readers’ enjoyment, San Diego Jewish World will present the drawings consecutively in issues over the next week (Shabbat excluded)

The first focuses on Sarah.

Writes the artist:

“Sarah, wife of Abraham, had accompanied him on all his journeys. She was present when the three Visitors promised that she would bear a son.   She helped Abraham as he hosted the Visitors and though she laughed at the idea of giving birth at her advanced age, she did indeed become the mother of Isaac and thus of Israel.”  

Preceding was a San Diego Jewish World staff report

Heirs of Baron Herzog sue Hungary to recover looted art

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WJC)–Heirs of the late Hungarian Jewish banker and art collector Baron Mor Lipot Herzog are suing the Hungarian government for the return of more than 40 paintings seized during World War II and estimated to be worth more than US$ 100 million. The case, filed in Washington DC, follows a failed battle in Hungarian courts.

Family members, who are also suing state-owned museums, say Hungary currently holds about 40 works, including paintings by El Greco. Herzog left the collection to his children when he died in 1934 before it was plundered by the Nazis. “What happened in the Holocaust was reprehensible,” Herzog’s great grandson, David de Csepel, said. “But what Hungary is doing is also egregious, knowing that this art belonged to our family.”

The family’s lawyer, Michael Shuster, told the ‘Los Angeles Times’ the legal action was “one of the largest – if not the largest – restitution claims ever filed in US courts by a single family against another nation”. 

The heirs won a small victory in 2000, when Budapest’s municipal court ruled that ten looted paintings, which were part of the Herzog collection, legally belonged to his grand-daughter Martha Nierenberg. However, in 2008, an appeals court overturned this ruling.

Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress

Adventures in San Diego Jewish History, August 20, 1954, Part 1

July 5, 2010 1 comment

Compiled by San Diego Jewish World staff

Community Census Gets Under Way This Week
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 1

Over 400 San Diego Jewish families were being interviewed this week by 40 trained census enumerators in the first Jewish population census ever attempted in our community.

Participating in the census are Marshall Zucker, chief supervisor and Abe Friedman, staff members. Supervisors for the enumerators are Mrs. Ruth Brav, Mrs. Reva Garvin, Mort Goldberg, Mrs. Martha Kellner, Allan Lame, Mrs. Dee Lasher, Mrs. Jeri Starr and Mrs. Dorothy Tucker.

Enumerators who will be contacting Jewish families are Phil Abrams, Mrs. Doroth Belkin, Mrs. Bea Berner, Bob Cohn, Mrs. Ruth Colt, Dr. David Edelson, Carl Friend, Harold Garvin, Norman Gelman, Mrs. William Goldfarb, Mrs. Muriel Goldhammer, Anne Greene, Maury Gross, Rhoda Jaffe, Mrs. Ruth Janowsky, Mrs. Ruth Kwint, Mrs. Laura Naiman, Charlotte Pearl, Mr. and Mrs. Al Pechman, Sam Rassin, Mrs. Edith Reder, Sidney Rose, Mrs. Audrey Sack, Mrs. Jean Schiller, Mrs. Ann Schloss, William Schwartz, Dr. and Mrs. Milton Schwartz, Martin Starr, Mrs. Evelyn Stolarsky, Mrs. Frances Strauss, Joseph Vure and Joe Weiss.

Undertaken by the San Diego Federation of Jewish Agencies in order to secure basic information to better serve the Jewish community, Jewish youth, the aged, and to better build our future communal life, the study will include material for the Jewish Social Service Agency, Hebrew Home for the Aged, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Community Relations Council, all constituent agencies of the Federation.

Questions on temple synagogue affiliation and Jewish education will be of great assistance to future planning for those institutions, while questions on membership in various Jewish organizations will be of assistance to those groups in planning their programs.

According to the chairmen, it is planned to finish the first phase of the study by August 30, tabulate and analyze the material, and then begin the second phase through the formation of committees to cary on the study using the material gathered in the census.

(Town and County Club discrimination)
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 1

The following resolution was passed at the last meeting held by the Jewish Community Relations Council:

“We recognize and are gravely concerned with the discriminatory practices of the Town and Country Club, and recommend that a committee be appointed to consider a course of action.

Secondly, that this committee investigate the membership practices of all social clubs in the City and County of San Diego.

Annual Meeting of Hebrew Home Set For Sunday, Aug. 29
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 1

Victor Schulman, president of the Hebrew Home for the Aged, announced that Sam Addleson and Mrs. William Moss are in charge of the Annual Meeting to be held Sunday, Aug. 29, at 2:00 p.m. at the Home.

Bids for construction of the new edifice will be discussed and authorized at this meeting.  Max Maisel, chairman of the Building Committee will give a progress report and answer questions concerning the new structure.  Plans and pictures will be on display.

The new Home for the Aged will be located on 54th St. between El Cajon Blvd and University Ave.  It will be designed according to the best advice obtainable from state and local welfare agencies concerned with problems of the aged.  The new institution will contain a large up-to-date kitchen, fully equipped with the latest facilities.  The food served, of course, will be strictly Kosher and under constant supervision by the proper authorities.

The grounds, covering 2 ½ acres will be beautifully landscaped with trees and walks to form pleasant surroundings. The climate in that area is considered to be the most healthful.  Large recreation rooms and proper medical equipment and facilities will make this Home for the Aged one of the most outstanding institutions in all of California.

The entire community is invited to attend. Refreshments will be served by the Ladies’ Auxiliary.

Lasker Lodge Offers Great Talen and Variety Show August 23rd
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 1

Monday night, August 23, at 9 p.m., at Temple Center, Lasker Lodge No. 370 B’nai B’rith will present Rick Ford, popular young San Diego MC and a top flight talent show. Rick, who has appeared on TV and the screen, claims tht this will be one of the finest collections of San Diego tlent shows ever to appear under one roof at one time. He will present an hour long show, and some of the acts scheduled to appear are “Smokey” Rogers; Mike (Bill’s son) Schwartz, Don Jacks, the Rick Ford dancers, the Cotton Pickers, the Hamilton Sisters and others.

The High Twelve Civic Luncheon (Masonic Order) have been extended a personal invitation to attend, and they will be the guests of honor for the evening.

The show is open to the public, and all B’nai B’rith lodges and chapters are particularly invited. There will be no charge for admission, and the program begins promptly at 9 p.m. Refreshments will be served after the show.


Great Lady To Visit San Diego in Nov.
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, pages 1, 8

Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt will speak in San Diego on the evening of November 11 at the Russ Auditorium under the auspices of the Jewish Community Center, according to Maury Novak and Henry Price, Co-Chairmen of the Program Committee

Mr. Jack Rittoff, chairman of the committee in charge of the event, announced that invitations for patrons and sponsors will go on sale during the month of September.

As former United States member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and American delegate to the UN General Assembly, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt has enjoyed rare opportunities to study the basic quarrels barring the way to the ultimate cooperation between the nations of Western Europe and America and the UISSR.

Characteristically, she has amassed a priceless fund of information untainted by preconceived notions and free of the mounting prejudice against people and forces still dedicated to the cause of world peace.

The widow of the great war President is far from convinced that there is no remaining basis for understanding between East and West. Having faced the discouraging and continuing conflict as it unfolded at UN meetings, she still believes that war is not inevitable, that wiser and calmer heads on both sides may yet resolve their differences and avert the catastrophe that is the only alternative of reconciliation.

Proceeds of the lecture will go towards community Center operation and building fund. Mr. Edward Breitbard is president of the Jewish Community Center of San Diego.

Polio Drive On
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 1

Spreckels Theatre chain will conduct an Emergency March of Dimes solicitation in all their theatres August 34 through 31.

Mrs. Saul Chenkin has been appointed chairman of this committee which will both make appeals from the stage and solicit funds from the audience during the evening showing.

Las Vegas Publisher Seriously Injured
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 1

BARSTOW, Calif. – Herman M. Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, was reported in serious condition in a traffic accident near Barstow Aug. 15.

Greenspun, under federal indictment for tending to incite the assassination of Sen. McCarthy (R-Wis.), suffered multiple fractures of the pelvis bone, internal injuries and cuts.

Letter to the Editor
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 4

Jewish Press
Dear Mack:

I wonder how much cultural equipment it really takes to be able to sit through and enjoy such “artistic” vilification as one is treated to in the lines uttered in that most “gratifying” of plays: “The Merchant of Venice” by the great Shakespeare, currently performed at the Globe Theatre.

I am now quoting Bernice Soule’s column,   “To See or Not To See”: “One of the most gratifying reactions to viewing Shakespeare is often the feeling of personal discovery, a very private, intimate emotion that Shakespeare is writing just for YOU; you find truths in his words that never existed until you unlocked their meanings.”

It seems hard to discover TRUTH in his words and unlock hidden MEANINGS.   It’s pure and simple anti-Semitism and it reeks of hate and no amount of “handling” and “interpretation” can change its popular concept.

Again I quote Bernice: “If I were sure that everyone would see it, I would say nothing so that the full force of the most pleasurable Globe experience of the year could come as a surprise.”

I can appreciate a live and let live attitude, particularly for the sake of “culture and art”, but if Shakespeare really “wrote for popular consumption in his day as do movie and television writers of today”, then we will agree that he was most successful in planting poisonous prejudices.  Well then, should one “await with most interest and trepidation” this great masterpiece of a prejudiced mind, I am sure that very few people will disagree that his portrayal of the Jew is false and an outright lie. Can one really be elated at the prospect of rehashing this ancient of prejudices and should one recommend it to attention.

“The Merchant of Venice” has not been very popular lately and is seldom shown in other communities, because it offends not only the Jew but also the fair minded and liberal non-Jew.  Caricatures of Shylock were used to very good advantage in Hitler Germany and, I am sure, those pictures were executed by the finest of German artists.  Yet, only the confirmed anti-Semite could view and enjoy them.  The fair minded person, be he Jew or Non-Jew, certainly didn’t admire their artistic and cultural qualities.

Apparently, Berenice doesn’t feel that all that Shakespeare wrote is holy for “The Twelfth Night” didn’t seem to move her at all. In fact, she thinks it “silly, dull” and “would like to pretend that Shakespeare never wrote it” and “Let’s just ignore this one.”  Ah, but “The Merchant of Venice,’ there is  masterpiece that moves you to “private and intimate emotions” and is written just for YOU.

Well, I hope next season, when another Shakespeare Festival rolls around that the Globe Theatre will relegate that part of Shakespeare to oblivion.

Sincerely yours,
William B. Schwartz

Editor’s Note: For an answer to Bill’s letter read “To See or Not To See”

To See or not To See
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 2

By Berenice Soule

(See “Letters to the Editor” on Editorial Page)

Dear Bill

While your letter was not addressed to me, I feel it is my responsibility o set the record straight. But first, my sincere thanks for taking the trouble to express your point of view.

Last week’s “To See or Not To See” was obviously misunderstood. At no time did I refer to “The Merchant of Venice” as “that most ‘gratifying’ of plays.”  Read in context the reader will find that the sentence beginning “one of the most gratifying” etc. referred to Shakespeare’s plays in general. Unquestionably, at this late date Shakespeare needs no champion; and surely, Bill, you do not wish to convey the impression that all his artistry must be condemned because we object to one character or one play.

As concerns his “planting poisonous prejudices” (quoting you, Bill) as he “wrote for popular consumption,” I quote George Morris Cohen Brandes (1842-1927), critic and historian—“From 1290 until the middle of the 17th century the Jews were entirely excluded from England.  Every prejudice against them was free to flourish unchecked. … Had he (Shakespeare) made a more undisguised effort to place himself at Shylock’s standpoint, the censorship, on the one hand, would have intervened, while, on the other hand, the public would  have been bewildered and alienated.” So actually Shakespeare was not “planting” anything; he held views and opinions considered normal for that era.

Brandes goes on to say that Shylock “appeared to Shakespeare’s contemporaries a comic personage”, but “in the humane view of a later age, Shylock appears as a scapegoat, a victim.”  It was from this “humane view” of the Globe’s Shylock that I derived my pleasurable surprise.”

Perhaps the error I made was in assuming that my readers needed no assurance that I find anti-Semitism in any form objectionable. As a matter of fact, before the festival repertoire was announced, two members of the executive committee asked for y opinion on the possible reaction to the offending play and I strongly advised against producing it. For that reason, I awaited it with “interest and trepidation.”  You ask, Bill, if one can “be elated at the prospect of rehashing this ancient of prejudices.” Trepidation was my word, not elation. To further clarify my use of the word, trepidation, and eliminate any further possibilities of misunderstanding, I quote from Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, “trepidation: a state of alarm, or trembling agitation; fear,” etc.

The Itch—One of the funniest plays to be written in a long time is “The Seven Year Itch” now showing at La Jolla Playhouse. A difficult play to do, a surprisingly good job is done in getting every possible laugh out of it.

Don Taylor in the lead role, as a summer bachelor with an opportunity to roam, is energetic and Kathleen (The Body) Hughes as “the girl”, is gorgeous to look at.

Capable in supporting roles are Willard Waterman, Catherine McLeod, and George Neise. Much of the laughter-derived action is dependent on the cleverly designed set by Bob Corrigan.

Comedy One-Act
—The University Players will present “Good Housekeeping” as a center-stage production on Aug. 26 and 28 in Lomaland Hall on the Cal. Western campus in Pt. Loma.  Curtain time is 8:15 p.m.

Edith and Murray Schwartz are playing the lead roles of a university president and his not-so-helpful little theatre group formed by Cal-Western under the direction of Dr. Russell W. Lembke.

A main-stage production of “Blythe Spirit” is now in rehearsal.

Movie Series—Cal-Western is also presenting a series of unusual motion pictures for the next four Friday evenings. “Wunder Von Naumberg,” striking camera work of the stone sculptures and “The Italian Straw Hat,” a 19th century farce will be shown Friday, August 20.

“Works of Calder” – Calder’s mobiles in terms of familiar forms with a commentary by Burgess Meredith; and “Theatrical and Social Dancing”, with Vernon and Irene Castle, Valentino, Ann Pavlova, Fred Astaire, Disney (National period dances) will be the attractions for Friday evening, August 27.

“Grass,” Paramount’s picture of nomadic Persian tribes, and “The Window Cleaner,” showing Manhattan and its people as seen by the window cleaner will be presented on Friday, September 3rd.

“Camille” starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, director by George Cukor will conclude the series on September 10th.

The programs will be presented in Lomaland Hall on the University campus at eight o’clock.

Admission tickets for the entire series may be purchased for $1.25 or tickets for a single showing at 35 cents.

‘The Vacant Lot’ Next at La Jolla Playhouse
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 2

A completely new play with new faces is scheduled for its world premiere and pre-New York showing when “The Vacant Lot” is produced at La Jolla Playhouse next week.

Based upon the activities of a group of teen-agers in one of the larger cities of the Southwestern part of the United States, “The Vacant Lot” is a combination of amusing, touching and exciting drama which producer John Swope thinks destines it for outstanding success.

Co-authored by Paul Streger and Berrilla Kerr, new faces among playwrights, the novel theme is handled with a fresh, deft and human touch.

The five young actors and actresses in the cast have shown great promise in their earlier professional appearances both in New York and in Hollywood.  Eliot Englehardt and Cindy Robins, the two girls in the cast, have both stage and TV credits in the East. Brett Halsey is under contract to Universal-International, Jeff Silver is well-known in TV, radio and on the stage, and Alan Dinehart III has been heard on radio and TV and has been in pictures for RKO Radio, 20th Century Fox and Universal-International.

Rehearsals for “The Vacant Lot” started last Sunday, two days earlier than on the usual rehearsal schedule.  Norman Lloyd, Playhouse director, is staging this premiere production and Robert Corrigan has designed the set.  “The Vacant Lot” opens Tuesday, August 24, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 5, the closing night of the current Playhouse season.

“Pops” Concert Set For Bowl Aug. 31st
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 2

Entertainment for the entire family –from the youngsters to the oldsters—is to be the theme of a “Pops” concert scheduled Aug. 31 in Balboa Park Bowl.

Popular music at its best, with conductor composer Meredith Willson directing the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, and the famed Spanish dancers, the Trianas, will highlight the evening’s performance.  There also will be surprise entertainment and gifts for the children.

The event, which will start at 8 p.m., is sponsored in support of the summer symphony series. 

Reservations for the “Pops” concert may be made at the Palmer Box Office, 640 Broadway7.

New Comedy at Capri
Southwestern Jewish Press, August 20, 1954, page 2

“Hobson’s Choice” a rollicking comedy starring Charles Laughton, opens at Burton Jones’ ultra modern air conditioned Capri Theatre Friday, August 20.  Laughton smirks, pouts, bug-eyes, quivers his wattles and generally golliwoggs as a Lanchashire bootmaker of the nineties, and a widower whose home is cared for by three marriageable daughters.  Besieged on all sides by hilarious problems of an amorous nature, he is wicked and funny and pitiful in :Hobson’s Choice.”


“Adventures in Jewish History” is sponsored by Inland Industries Group LP in memory of long-time San Diego Jewish community leader Marie (Mrs. Gabriel) Berg. Our “Adventures in San Diego Jewish History” series will be a regular feature until we run out of history.  To find stories on specific individuals or organizations, type their names in our search box.

‘Chagall’ proves to be an exciting work in progress

June 14, 2010 1 comment

By Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

SAN DIEGO–The 17th Annual Jewish Arts Festival, which runs from May 30th to June 21, spans the wide spectrum of the performing arts.  Malashock Dance and Hot P’Stromi brought together modern dance and Klezmer at the Lyceum Space Theatre in downtown San Diego.  I attended the performance on June 13th.

What better way to celebrate art than to bring together artists of different genres to celebrate the life of another artist?  John Malashock – founder and choreographer of Malashock Dance – and Yale Strom – violinist, composer, filmmaker, writer, playwright and photographer – combined their significant talents to produce their newest collaboration Chagall.

The Lyceum Space Theatre is a small venue (seating approximately 270) with a square stage jutting out into the audience on two sides.  Thus one is both near enough to feel close to the action, but far enough away to see the design concept as a whole.  Seats are in tiers, so for the most part sight lines are good.  Because of the proximity over zealous amplification can be avoided – for which this observer is grateful.

Strom brings his varied background plus a group of musicians playing Klezmer (and more) under the name:  Hot P’Stromi.   The program opened with several selections of Klezmer from parts of Eastern Europe, such as the vicinity where Chagall was born and spent his childhood, to Romania which is just across the river. 

Love it or not, and I do love it, it is impossible not to respond to Klezmer.   In some ways it is like American jazz – the musicians responding to one another, each in turn picking up the motif – adding, subtracting, clarifying and crafting a specific sound for a specific instrument.  Then, coming all together they go rollicking along.  But, Klezmer also can be winsome and even sad.  The audience reacted to both – some barely able to keep their seats.

John Malashock founded his modern dance company in 1988 and has been a significant presence in San Diego ever since.  His background is impressive and runs the gamut from film (dancing in Amadeus), television specials, choreographing for many other companies – both dance and opera -culminating in four Emmy awards.  He spoke to the audience briefly – but enjoyably – about the work being performed and his plans for it.

Chagall is still a work in progress and Malashock presented three scenes from what will eventually be a full length amalgam of dance, music and imagery.  The first scene was of the village Vitebsk, where Chagall was born in what is now Belarus, but was then Russia and at times Poland.  The second scene is his first significant love who introduces him to her friend who becomes the “love of his life.”  

Michael Mizerany, associate artistic director and senior dancer (with an impressive resume including two Lester Horton Dance Awards) was “Chagall” and brought to the role an understanding of how to portray a painter/artist through the art of dance/movement. 

It is difficult to understand why Chagall would reject his first love, Thea, (Lara Segura) for Bella (Christine Marshall).  But love is not mental – it is visceral and there is no accounting for it.  It is the one emotion we cannot place at the service of reason; however, I think I would enjoy seeing that explored a bit more.  Segura was a lovely Thea.  Costumed in a simple short white sheath she danced passionately while still innocent enough to introduce her friend to her lover.  Marshall, surely a fine dancer, didn’t quite tell me what Chagall saw in her to capture his heart – but perhaps that was not Malashock’s intent.  Or perhaps Chagall didn’t know.

Chagall’s physical love feeds his artistic vision.  He takes his brush and paints her in invisible images upon invisible canvasses.  Then, he uses his brush to explore her body – never vulgarly – but always seeking to understand her outline.  Maybe that is what he really needs.

The pas de deux (this is modern dance so perhaps I should say “dance for two”) is well done – but somehow didn’t convey the depth of passion that must have been there.  However, this is still a work in progress not only for the choreographer, but also for the dancers and they haven’t as yet internalized it.  It is certainly a good beginning.

Tribes premiered in 1996 and has the feeling and confidence of a complete work, completely conceived – much like a Mozart symphony.  It is a dance (again using Strom’s original music) which is described by Malashock as follows:  “….each dancer creates his/her own culture.  These fantastical “tribes” connect, collide, and ultimately share in a blending of the eternal spirit.”

It is always fascinating to see what Malashock does with the music; forming groups and then breaking them apart.  Each twosome or threesome dances to the same music at the same time, but completely differently – bringing to view other aspects of the music.  And each is valid and “true.”  I find myself saying “yes, that is how the music looks.”  He also never falls overly in love with his own invention – it is given, enjoyed and then he moves on, confident in his next vision.  The flow is natural, never contrived, and though one knows of the reality of the endless rehearsal which must have taken place, the movement is fresh, natural and seemingly – what a painter would call – a “happy accident.”

The dance flows from shape to shape, pausing for just a moment to allow the eye to capture it, but still keeping the seams between phrases invisible.  The entire body is used; hands and heads as important as legs and arms as important as spines and breath.  There were a couple of times, when the choreography allowed, I would have enjoyed seeing some eye contact betwixt the dancer and the observer – a living connection; “I am also dancing for you.” 

Dance critic Orysiek is based in San Diego.  She may be contacted at

San Diego’s Historic Places: Mingei International Museum

June 4, 2010 Leave a comment


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