Martha Longenecker, who founded the Mingei International Museum that has a vast collection of ancient and current folk art in San Diego, was on a different path when she was an art student in the early 1950s at Claremont Graduate School. She was studying with a famed member of the California School of painters, Millard Sheets, and hoping for a career in fine art.
Then two potters — one Japanese and the other English — came to the school for a seminar and spoke of their devotion to real-world art that had use in daily life. Also taking part was the philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, who started the mingei folk art movement in Japan devoted to handmade objects that were exquisite and practical.
Longenecker was so enthralled with their mission that she gave up painting.
“Her life was very different as a result of knowing them,” said Sheets’ daughter, Carolyn Owen-Towle, who maintained a close relationship with Longenecker. “It was not just the work they made and how beautiful it was, but also their philosophy. It changed everything for her.”
Longenecker traveled to Japan to study pottery with nationally honored masters of the craft, and to other parts of the world to study and collect items of beauty that also had practical use.
“The pots were to eat from, the textiles were meant to be worn,” said Longenecker’s cousin, Ana Smythe. “This was not art that would just be put up on a wall and stay there.”
The museum Longenecker started in a shopping center and later moved to Balboa Park has more than 17,000 objects from 140 countries and holds exhibitions that bring in more than 100,000 visitors a year.
For Longenecker, giving honor and attention to handmade, one-off items — no matter if it was a pot, toy, eating utensil or chest made of stiff paper — was a spiritual pursuit.
“When you pick up something that has been made by hand, you can love the integrity of it,” she said in a 1986 Los Angeles Times interview. “There’s some special energy you get from handling an object that has been beautifully made by someone.”
Longenecker died Oct. 29 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla of complications from a stroke, said Smythe. She was 93.
She suffered the stroke at home in La Jolla three weeks before she died, while preparing to announce a foundation she was starting to further promote the mengei concept. “The last thing she was doing, literally, before the stroke,” Smythe said, “was sitting at a table in her dining room with a friend, stuffing envelopes to mail out.
“She was brilliant and stubborn and a visionary.”
Martha Williams Longenecker was born May 18, 1920, in Oklahoma City. She earned her undergraduate degree in art at UCLA before studying at what is now Claremont Graduate University. In 1955, Longenecker took a position at San Diego State, where she developed the school’s ceramics program. She taught there for 35 years.
She started the nonprofit Mingei International organization in the U.S. in 1974 to present lectures and exhibitions, and promote the tenets of the movement. “It’s important that man not only make but continue to use objects that are an expression of the total human being — mind, body and soul,” she said.
Three years later she was offered a 6,000-square-foot space in the new University Towne Centre shopping center for $1 a year to start a museum. It opened in 1978 with the exhibit “Folk Toys of the World.”
Though devoted to pre-industrial crafts, Longenecker was out front with the use of technology at the museum. It purchased a computer to aid in administration and used video recorders and large television screens to show programs to enhance exhibits. The museum moved in 1996 to a 41,000-square-foot space in Balboa Park.
Longenecker stepped down as director of the museum in 2005 but remained on the board. The new foundation she had hoped to start was to further promote mingei with traveling exhibitions and — in keeping with her use of modern tools — a presence on the Web.
She was preceded in death by two husbands and her two children.