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Culture Report: The Overlooked Women of Midcentury Crafts Movements

The Mingei’s latest off-site exhibition celebrates the way midcentury crafting merged art and design, plus this weekend’s tap-dancing flash mob and more.

Mingei Crafting Opportunity
The Mingei’s “Crafting Opportunity” exhibition at the Central Library / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

In the middle of the 20th century in American art, abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and the great pop artists like Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg reigned supreme. Fine art was a man’s domain.

The Mingei, which has long championed craft in addition to fine art, just opened a brand new exhibition at the Central Library downtown. Presenting works culled exclusively from its permanent collection, “Crafting Opportunity” is a curated installation of design, furniture and textiles.

“I really wanted to bring out as much as I could — with our own collection — this idea of this being a movement that was open to women, when so many careers were just not as welcoming, in the arts in particular,” said curator Barbara Hanson Forsyth, “especially fine arts in the midcentury era, like abstract expressionist and pop art. Those were really closed off to women, very kind of macho, masculine movements. And women had a really hard time participating in them.”

Mingei Barbara Hanson Forsyth
Mingei curator Barbara Hanson Forsyth / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

This domestic design and crafting movement hit America when it was primed and ready for such a renaissance, said Forsyth, with housing and domestic spending on the rise, plus a renewed influx to higher education spurred by the GI bill.

“The housing boom post-war created a lot of demand, so there was a lot of opportunity to make a living, because there was a need to furnish all these homes,” said Forsyth. “And because the homes themselves were these tract homes — this was when the tract home came into being — people wanted to distinguish their homes with unique pieces.”

Post-war optimism not only thrust art and design into the middle class, it also provided a market for the types of pieces women had been already making.

“They’re oftentimes designing for the domestic sphere, and that was maybe less threatening,” Forsyth speculated.

When piecing together the exhibition, Forsyth noticed the prevalence of creative marriages. In one case, textile designer Berta Wright enlisted her husband, a trained chemist, to help make dyes and test fabrics to keep up with demand for her work.

Ellamarie Woolley
“Untitled” by Ellamarie Woolley / Photo courtesy of Mingei International Museum

In another, Ellamarie Woolley often worked with her husband, Jackson. Of the vividly colored sun mosaic acquired by the museum, Forsyth said, “She’s the only one who signed it, but he still might have worked on it. They’re a quintessential San Diego design couple.”

And, of course, there’s Ray and Charles Eames. Ray Eames’ fame was largely overshadowed by that of her husband during their working lives as well as posthumously, but their creativity and business came from an equitable partnership, with credit attributed to the pair rather than individuals. The Mingei’s exhibition includes several Ray and Charles Eames pieces, including one of their hallmark molded-wood chairs (“That chair was an absolute collaboration,” said Forsyth), and some design-based children’s toys.

Forsyth pointed out that Ray Eames is beginning to see the recognition she deserves. “But … people hear Charles and Ray Eames and they think men. It’s that simple.”

Ray and Charles Eames
A Ray and Charles Eames chair / Photo courtesy of Mingei International Museum

Forsyth pointed to the existence of some experimentation and counterculture departures from the movement’s functional origins, including a Marcia Lewis cape and clasp (“Maybe more Burning Man aesthetic than midcentury,” said Forsyth), and a Beatrice Wood sculpture, “The Superior Masculine Mind,” which makes a feminist and Dadaist statement with a male figure standing on a woman.

“On the one hand you do have these really functional pieces, but then you also had — starting in the ‘60s or maybe even a little earlier — is this movement that was coming out of the universities, with people feeling too constrained by making functional pieces and are really pushing, exploiting the medium to make art,” said Forsyth. “And in turn the pieces could appeal to a broader market than the edgier art. You can imagine a middle-class buyer just buying for their home.”

Mingei Douglas Deeds
A Douglas Deeds beer can chair is on display as part of The Mingei’s “Crafting Opportunity” exhibition at the Central Library. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

“Crafting Opportunity” is the newest exhibition from the Mingei during the major transformation of its Balboa Park home, which has displaced the organization since December. Several locations around the city, including Arts District Liberty Station and now the Central Library’s art gallery, have provided a home for exhibitions during the renovation.

It’s a silver lining. Getting the work of the museum out into the community is also one of the hopes for its transformation, too: Admission to the main floor will be free when the renovated museum opens in mid-2020.

  • Museums by the Yard” is an associated lunchtime lecture at the Central Library hosted by the Mingei on May 30, and focuses on textile designers of the era.

Coming of Age, Tap Flash Mobs and More News for the Culture Crowd

  • MOPA screens “Alive Inside” on Friday as part of the five-week Coming of Age Film Festival, dedicated to “promoting, reinforcing and celebrating power of aging.” This week’s film delves into how music can work with dementia patients.
  • When I read this piece about Balboa Park’s disrepair by California columnist Joe Mathews, I was torn between concern and Who does this big-city, out-of-town reporter think he is? Balboa Park is pretty and I won’t stand for this! And then back to concern again.
San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park
The San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Closing Soon

Food, Etc.

  • On Sunday at Balboa Park, the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages will host an Ethnic Food Fair. Sounds like some December Nights food potential without all the crowds.
  • Lucky Escondido. This new gelato cafe embraces extremely local farm-to-gelato-cup philosophy, pulling ingredients from farms within a pretty small radius. (Edible)
  • I almost didn’t include this roundup of the best San Diego patio dining spots because it includes one of my favorite hidden gems (and my go-to bring-the-out-of-towner pick), Caroline’s by the Sea, which is practically inside Scripps Institute of Oceanography and riiiiight on the beach. (Pacific)
  • I’ve tried these Dark Horse “coffee bags” before and felt super cool. And then extremely caffeinated. (Edible)
Dark Horse Coffee
Dark Horse Coffee Roasters’ coffee bag / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

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