Faux or Real Folk Art: The Story of Mingei

Susan Peterson

Second Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art 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 weather vanes.

image of Susan Peterson
Susan Peterson

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 school.

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.

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 practiced.

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.