or Real Folk Art: The Story of Mingei
Second Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic
at Alfred University
October 26, 1999
I was very young when I first met Bernard
Leach, a rather famous potter from England, here at Alfred in 1949
when Charles Harder brought him to the United States for his first
visit, to work with us graduate students for a month.
I was still young several years later when I brought Leach, Shoji
Hamada, the most famous Japanese potter, and Soetsu Yanagi, the
well known exponent of Zen Buddhism and a writer on folk art, to
Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles where I was teaching in 1952.
Youth has its advantages but experience isn't one of them. Neither
I or my colleagues knew what folk art was except perhaps early American
In the 50 years since then the ceramic and other
artists have come to understand and appreciate what Hamada and Leach
called "mingei" -- art of the unknown or anonymous craftsman
-- meaning one who has grown up in his craft day by day but is not
known for it and who lives in a community where almost everyone
practices the same craft.
Leach was the so-called father of studio pottery.
This was a new idea at the turn of the century when artist-craftsmen
mostly worked in factories. A studio potter was one who worked in
his own shop on one of a kind pieces. Leach, a Brit who grew up
in China, was studying pottery in Japan when he met Shoji Hamada,
an intellectual who was a painter and a potter but who was also
a graduate of Kyoto Ceramic Institute, a kind of ceramic engineering
Hamada went to England in 1920 to help Leach establish
a pottery at St. Ives, Cornwall, stayed three years and came back
to Japan to build his own pottery in Mashiko, a village north of
Tokyo with a rather recent ceramic tradition. Hamada didn't want
to be bound by too much tradition.
Most important to Hamada and Leach was the fact
that they lived the work they did every day, that their lives and
their art were of a piece, one and the same. To artists today this
is not a new notion, then it was.
Hamada never used the term art; rather it was his
work, his daily life, the same as growing white radishes or chrysanthemums
for tempera. The fact that he was selling pots for thousands of
dollars was separate in his mind, totally forgotten; the money was
only a means to keep working. Both Leach and Hamada lived long lives
and became extraordinarily famous for their work. They changed and
enlarged the lives of many artists the world over. Hamada died in
1978, Leach in 1979.
True folk arts have been with us since the beginning
of time. Man made his clothes, decorated dwellings, painted and
carved on rocks, made ritual objects, cook pots and burial urns,
tomb figures, etc. Many of those communal arts existed for hundreds
of years, some are excavated and put in museums, and some are still
Most folk art is communal, often one piece was
made by several persons, and whole villages may do the same kind
of work. Occasionally these common arts gave rise to uncommon persons
-- we know the names of some ancient Greek sculptors and painters
on pots, Egyptian hieroglyphics give us names of artists and writers,
Europe and China the same.
This is the dichotomy in the art of the unknown
craftsman, that eventually a superior artist becomes known above
all others. In our time this is especially true of the North American
Indian whose pottery tradition goes back at least 2000 years. Communities
of Indians living together exist in the USA primarily in the 19
pueblos of the Southwest. Of course pottery is still a folk art
in many other areas of the world such as India, Africa, and China.
But the art of the American Indian has become sophisticated enough
to turn up personalities such as "Old Nampeyo of Hano,"
the first Indian potter to be known by name in the 1800s -- even
if no one knew her first name! And Maria Martinez, the most famous
of all Indian potters, and Lucy M. Lewis, perhaps the most inventive.
Today more American Indians are forging new paths
from the communal traditions. And the enormous influence of Shoji
Hamada and Bernard Leach in their own countries has begun to subside
-- many young people don't even know their names (to me this is
tragic) -- but new and better ceramic art is being forged from the
paths they initially created.
Now I'll show you those paths ... slides please.
Hamada the pseudo folk artist, Maria and Lucy the real ones.
copyright 1999, The Schein-Joseph International
Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University