Cocktails and A Movie: Discussing Censorship, Bar Nuts and Breen on the Set of Casablanca

 

This week’s post has us traveling all the way back to a cosmopolitan city in exotic 1940’s North Africa thanks to a lovely invitation from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. This weekend, October 13th – 15th marks the date of the Great Breening Blogathon featuring Joseph Breen, an influential, but seldom remembered figure in filmmaking during the glamorous days of old Hollywood.

Joseph Breen (1888-1965)

Joseph was the enforcer behind the Production Code Administration, set up during the 1930’s, which acted as a morality censor for all film scripts, scenes, and storylines in the motion picture industry. Bolstered by his own Catholic beliefs and the bishops who originally wrote the code, Joseph was not interested in seeing sexy, sensual imagery on the big screen and the PCA wasn’t interested in exposing such immorality to the American movie-going public.  The thought of being subjected to plotlines involving extra-marital affairs, obscene language, excessive violence or varying degrees of nudity were offensive. Family friendly, American made films were not the place for such suggestive behavior according to Joseph and the PCA.

With line by line lists of cant-do’s and won’t-permits attached to each script that the PCA reviewed, screenwriters and directors were challenged with creative ways to express character’s motives and actions while also keeping their plots plausible and compelling. How do you portray magnetic chemistry without showing a steamy, passionate kiss? How do you elude to compromising situations without showing corrupt scandals? How do you make your central location not look or sound like the most unethical, debaucherous place in the world yet still convey to watchers that shady dealings are happening right and left? And ultimately, how do you tell one of the most romantic and dramatic love stories of all time without showing anyone caught up in the physical throes of passion?

The answer is Casablanca.

Many noteworthy movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood were questioned by Joseph and the PCA. The Outlaw (Howard’s Hughes 1943 western) showed too much of Jane Russell’s cleavage; the “damn” in Rhett Butler’s famous “Frankly  my dear, I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With the Wind was flagged for unnecessary profanity; and the fact that Casablanca’s Ilsa was married at the time she first met Rick was altogether too salacious for the PCA to greenlight.  All three movies managed to overcome these sticky spots eventually, but not without some major behind-the-scenes defense tactics for creative license.

The PCA and Joseph’s staunch deployment of it was frustrating but important to movie studios because it balanced political correctness with the expectations of what movie audiences wanted to see.  What was considered entertaining and appropriate to movie-goers in mainstream America in the 1930’s and 1940’s was laughter, light-hearted romance, and noble sentiment.  So if movie studios wanted to sell tickets, they had to comply with what watchers wanted to see. And the PCA was there to make sure that decorum and good manners reigned supreme as far as what was being showcased on the big screen.

On the morality level, Casablanca in particular, seemed like it was doomed from the beginning. It was set primarily in a bar, Rick’s Cafe Americain, where alcohol continuously flowed. It was fueled by desperation with characters willing to do anything and everything to garner exit visas to leave the country. It contained a smoldering, forbidden romance, murder and contempt for government officials.  All major issues when it came to the Production Code Administration.

The legendary ending of Casablanca

By the time the script came back from the PCA review office, it contained several red flags and numerous notations from Joseph Breen. No bed was ever to be shown in Rick’s apartment, (such an object would have signaled an intimate encounter with Ilsa).  The dubious character of Captain Renault (who was in charge of granting exit visas from Casablanca) was not allowed to verbally suggest or show that he was granting visas to women only in exchange for sex. And Rick and Ilsa’s fated love affair? Joseph found it highly immoral that Ilsa met and fell in love with Rick years before in Paris while she was  married to her husband Victor Lazlo. This long-simmering love business between Ilsa and Rick had to be cleaned up in order for the movie to go on. Even though sex does sell, in conservative 1940’s America these scandelous situations were considered way too over-the-top for the eyes and minds of mainstream movie-going audiences.

The smoldering attraction between Rick and Ilsa.

So how did Casablanca’s production team manage to get around such roadblocks and ultimately propel the film towards three Academy Award wins and iconic movie status? Through good writing and good direction and good acting. So much of the storyline that seemed PCA in-appropriate – the excessive drinking, seduction, womanizing and volatile emotions were so expertly staged and nuanced that the script eventually passed approval with Joseph Breen. Once Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa)  and Claude Rains (Captain Renault) delivered their performances there was no mistaking the precarious situations that the scriptwriters originally intended. Movie audiences still got the idea loud and clear even if wasn’t visually or audibly spelled out.

In today’s depict-anything-you-want movie plot experience, it seems so foreign to have such a morality cloud like Joseph Breen hovering over a film production. But I wonder if the beauty and ultimate success of Casablanca came in the act of being challenged to subtly hint at each impropriety. Perhaps that is what makes it timeless and still translatable in today’s cinematic scope. It leaves room for our own imaginations to sort out and further dissect the specifics of the relationships between characters.

I’m not a big fan of censoring art in any way. I think you lose the point of it then. I once lived in a town where plays were censored for language or risque content and it felt very limiting. Art is intended to provoke reaction and expand horizons so I’m not sure if Joseph Breen and I would have been on the same page in the philosophy department, but his impact on Casablanca was influential, so maybe his enforcement of the Production Code Administration ultimately helped the movie in the long-run.

For all the spicy current passing between Ilsa and Rick throughout the movie, there is not a lot of spicy food being passed around Rick’s cafe.  Originally I thought it would be fun to write a dinner and a movie post and feature some aromatic Moroccan food of the likes that would have been served at Rick’s. But apparently, the main thing on the menu at Cafe Americain, the bestseller of all bestsellers, was a cocktail or two or three or half a bottle. Champagne, bourbon, scotch, gin, whiskey are present in almost every scene. Alcohol swishes and swirls and sits in glasses while Rick broods, Captain Renault schemes and Ilsa seeks courage.  So in lieu of a traditional North African dinner, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are staying true to the spirit of Casablanca by serving up a food accompaniment with this post that pairs best with your favorite cocktail…Sweet Spiced Nuts circa 1967.

This recipe comes from the vintage cookbook, A World of Nut Recipes by Morton Gil Clark and features three ingredients essential to Moroccan cooking: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This is a super easy recipe to make for cocktail hour, parties or late night snacking. The flavors are subtle, accommodating and interesting and with nut season now in full swing, you have a variety of options to choose from. For this recipe, I used a variety of mixed nuts which included peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts but pecans, pistachios, macademias, etc all would make delicious alternatives as well.

Find this cookbook available in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

Sweet Spiced Nuts – Makes 1 Cup

1 cup nuts

1/4 cup fine granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8th teaspoon ground allspice

1/8th teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg (egg white part only)

Place the nuts in a small bowl and pour over them the slightly beaten whites of 1 egg. Mix so that all the nuts are evenly coated. In a separate bowl combine the sugar and spices and then toss with the nuts, mixing well again so that all the nuts are evenly coated. Spread seasoned nuts out into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes. If you prefer ultra-crunchy nuts bake them about 10-15 minutes longer, but keep your eye on them so they don’t burn. Once done, let them cool on the baking sheet until ready to serve. Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation.

Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation. And while you’re at it, raise a toast to Joseph Breen, who made his mark, for better or worse, on one of the world’s most beloved movies of all times. Here’s look’n at you, Joe!

To learn more about Joe Breen and his influence on old Hollywood, catch up with other blogathon related posts here. 

For more dinner and a movie posts from the Vintage Kitchen, pull up a chair here.

And last but not least, find 200 more pages of interesting nut-related recipes in the World of Nut Recipes cookbook available in the shop here.

MFK: The Street Artists and the Food Writer

There is a group of graffiti artists in our city called the Metal Fingers Krew. They make these spectacular giant wall murals of their initials all over town on the sides of industrial buildings. Every time I pass one I think of the food writer MFK Fisher who shared the same initials.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992)

The work of the Metal Fingers Krew is elaborately designed and really beautiful. They make their mark mostly on warehouses that are nondescript or in a state of shabbiness, so they add a bit of pizazz to the landscape with their color and their big 4-5 foot tall font faces.

MFK Fisher (1908-1992) made her mark on the 20th-century literary scene writing about food and how it looks and tastes and feels over the course of 30 books. Considered one of the most beautiful prose writers still to this day, she wrote her way through her own experiences… of men and marriages, of cross-continent moves, of motherhood and memories and of making food to eat.

The Metal Fingers Krew works like traditional graffiti artists – under the cover of night. One day you pass a blank brick building and the next day it is magically decorated. In a city that has a lot of murals but not a lot of graffiti, street art really stands out. The thing I notice most is not that this talented batch of artists defaced a building (which may or may not be exciting to the property owner) but that they’ve added a layer of creative flourish to what is otherwise a very linear and industrial part of town.

MFK Fisher also added her own flourish. Writing about food and life with such poetic, descriptive detail you can practically taste her words, she was famous for saying that she just wrote the facts of things.  But in doing so she also wrote the feelings of everything. Even the unglamorous sides of cooking… the dirt, the dishes, the heat, the nonsense, the dueling perspectives, the disasters.  Like when you are canning fruit in the summertime without air conditioning you get hot and sweaty. Or like when you pull butter and lettuce out of water from the spring house storage you get cold and shivery. That was all just part of the process of eating and experiencing, not an indelicate act or sensation that should go overlooked or unnoted because it was unattractive to talk about. Every bit was important.

The Metal Fingers Krew talks the same language in their own way too. They point your gaze at a typically unattractive building and make you look at the detailed beauty of it simply by adding a swatch of color. They call attention to the plain-Janes of a shed row, or the slow decay of a factory, or the burnout of a building left vacant in the same way that MFK Fisher draws attention to eating the everyday foods that we mostly take for granted.

I think MFK Fisher would have loved the passion behind the Metal Fingers Krew graffiti art just as much she liked describing her passion with food. They were two artists working in two different mediums but had the same initials and the same sole purpose of expressing oneself.

“One of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”  MFK Fisher

What do you think? Do you see other stories or other artists in the face of graffiti? If so, please share your comments below!

In the meantime, cheers to painters and food preparers and the perspectives they bring!

Lovers Who Can’t Quit: In Paris

Was all this so wonderful because it was brief and stolen?

Henry Miller wrote that line in a letter to Anais Nin on August 6th, 1932.  Janice MacLeod wrote that same line in her Paris journal on February 24th just a few years back. Eight decades ago Henry was talking about his love affair with a woman. More recently Janice was talking about her love affair with a city. Both refer to a passion that would and could never be quelled.

Janice!

Two years ago we had the pleasure of interviewing Janice here on the blog about her plans following the publication of her New York Times bestselling book Paris Letters.  When we left off with Janice back in March 2015, she was embarking on a new chapter in her life having just left Paris for Canada with her husband Christophe and a carefree sense of wild adventure in hand.  Calgary was clearly a whole different kettle of fish to tackle than France and Janice just wasn’t quite sure how it was all going to unfold now that she had left her dream city for a new frontier.

Newly arrived… A Paris Year

Fast forward two years and life in Canada for Janice produced a baby (Amelie!) and a new book (A Paris Year!).  Like a lover you can’t quit, Janice’s experiences in France ceased to be forgotten in her new surroundings.  The colors of the city, the  accordion lullabies, the memories of wine, cafes, neighborhood walks, market shopping and the speaking of a language she had almost mastered could never be set aside. Paris came to Canada in Janice’s suitcases, a secret house guest that absolutely refused to go home. Once an admirer always an admirer.

Paris Photography by Janice MacLeod

Lucky for us, Janice’s new book A Paris Year keeps the romance of her gorgeous adventure alive. Laid out like a day planner, A Paris Year tracks Janice’s whereabouts in the City of Light from January 1st to December 30th and includes her pretty paintings and feel-like-you-are-there photographs. Based on her actual journals kept while experiencing the city up-close and personal, Janice packs all sorts of interesting history, fun facts and traditions into the everyday observations that make up the charming lifestyle of French living.

Janice’s lively paintings of all things Parisian.

Part travel guide, part European history lesson, part art crawl and part early language primer, reading A Paris Year is as satisfying as hanging out with your best girl friend all afternoon. It’s interesting and vivacious and inspiring. There are funny moments like November 22nd when Janice truly thought she understood all the offerings on a French menu board only to realize it was written in English. There are sad moments (November 14th) which recognizes the anniversary of the 2015 Paris Attacks. And there are plenty of incredibly beautiful moments (February 2, March 4, May 11th, June 20th, practically the whole month of October, etc etc) that bring the heart of the city home to your doorstep.

There are new characters to meet like Antoine the Poet and Colin the ex-pat, both of whom offer intriguing little side stories that will leave you wondering and wanting.  And of course there all the famous French residents that you associate with the city – F.Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Madame Curie, Vincent Van Gogh, Colette, Edith Piaf, Gaston LeRoux, Sylvia Beach and the ever present star of the show, Ernest Hemingway. He weaves his way in and around Janice’s storytelling as she weaves her way in and around Paris, showing up every few pages in her thoughts and his haunts. The moveable feast still very much moving.

In Janice’s first book Paris Letters, she details step by step how she made the big leap from living an unfulfilling corporate life in California to living a creative life in Paris. That book was the story of an artist’s awakening to her true self. This book, A Paris Year is the full color party she threw to celebrate it. Paris Letters showed us how to make a big change. A Paris Year shows us how to enjoy it.

During some months in A Paris Year, Janice seeks out a specific color to photograph, as an hommage to Nichole Roberston’s book Paris in Color. During the month of May the shade in mind was green.

Janice’s story in both books has an interesting way of sticking around long after you read them. As a result of marinating in the visual artistry of A Paris Year I now walk around my own city looking at the sites before me with new eyes and a running dialogue on how I might best describe a building or a season, a person or a park.

Too pretty to end, the only thing I disliked about this book was that it actually had to end. I was super excited to receive an advance copy in the mail which I read just before leaving for Seattle and then re-read on the flight to Seattle and then once again when I returned back home. I loved it that much… three times over!  Like a daily devotional it offers the unique option of reading a page a day if you are looking for a quick shot of escapism, or you can read it cover to cover, as I did  or you can just pick up and read whatever page you want at random whenever the mood strikes. Janice made it so easy for us to experience her Paris.  Its a day planner and a day dream all wrapped up in one.

If you can’t afford the expense or the time to get to Paris personally this summer, don’t fret.  Spend a few hours with Janice in her book and you’ll feel like you’ve been there yourself. It may be a brief and stolen time, but as Henry Miller implies those are the most wonderful.

You can find Janice’s new book A Paris Year here. Her previous book, Paris Letters here and if you find yourself needing even more joie de vivre, subscribe to her Paris Letters mail service and receive a Parisian note from Janice via the postal service once a month.

The April 2016 edition of Paris Letters

Next time on the blog, we are tackling the city of Seattle and the search for Great-Grandma Mabel’s doughnut shop. Did we find it? Did we find it? Stay tuned!

The Week In Review: A Date With Julia, Washington DC and Finding A Lost Bird

Like the thrill and excitement of watching those horses speed around the track during the Kentucky Derby two Saturdays ago so was my trip racing around Washington D.C.. To follow-up from the post before this one, we did make it to D.C. just in time (with about 3 minutes to spare!) to meet up with friends, watch the Derby AND drink a mint julep. Perfect timing!

Always Dreaming! Photo courtesy of thedailybeast.com

If you missed the race Always Dreaming was the big Derby winner, leading the whole entire way from start to finish on a very muddy track. It was definitely a well deserved victory although I was really rooting for Patch the whole way, who wound up coming in 14th.  It appears as if no one else was dreaming about Always Dreaming as the first-to-line finisher in our blog contest either so the festivities continue on through the Preakness (this Saturday!) and into the Belmont (on June 10th).  Stay tuned this weekend to see if Always Dreaming wins part two of the Triple Crown!

Meanwhile, back in Washington the week fell in three parts…art, Julia and Virginia. The last time I spent more than a day in Washington D.C. I was 10 years old and visiting my oldest sister who lived and worked right in the heart of downtown. This time around I was staying on the Maryland side of the metro D.C. area.

With a view that began and ended each day like this…

Morning on the Potomac!

 

Evening on the Potomac!

it was hard to go wrong from the beginning. Add in the welcome committee…

quaking their way through news of the D.C. day… and it was lovely from day one.

Staying in such close proximity to the Capitol, I had mighty plans to see about 10 different sites throughout the city on this visit which included five museums, the Botanical Gardens, the Library of Congress, the Franciscan Monastery, the National Archives and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  I realize now on my return that this was totally ambitious, but I thought in my pre-trip planning days that if I was fast on my feet and spent only an hour or two at each place I might be able to fit it all in during a three day stretch. After all Charles Dickens did nickname this metropolis the City of Magnificent Intentions. Technically I was right on track.

Of course once I stepped through my first museum and saw all the intriguing things that lay ahead of me I realized that I would never be able to keep up with such a strict and rigorous time schedule. It only took me one museum to realize that Washington D.C. is best digested slow.

There is no room for frenzied pace setting or shy glances in this historic environment. From street to sky, everything in D.C. is fascinating whether you are walking on centuries old cobblestone in Alexandria or admiring architecture on Pennsylvania Avenue time is what you need plenty of in order to ingest the experiences of our past presidents.

This is the house where Lincoln died. It’s located right across the street from Ford Theater.

So that’s exactly what I did. I took some time. I abandoned my wish list of seeing everything fast, and focused on seeing a few things slowly. Highlights from the three museums I managed to get through are as follows…

At the National Portrait Gallery…

This famous portrait of Benjamin Franklin painted in 1785 hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Because I had seen this picture a zillion times in books and all over the internet I thought I’d pop by, say hi and be on my way. But Ben had other plans. He was a wise 79 years old when he sat for this painting. And you can tell Ben’s got things to say from the second you see him.

The artist, Joseph-Siffred Duplessis translated an expression in Ben’s face that reads “Hey there, I have some interesting stories for you. Stay for a minute and I’ll explain.” And so I did, lured in by a magic painting spell.  All the achievements he accomplished, the foresight he had, the contributions he made to the forming of our country, swirled around in those eyes and that smile, ready to break at any moment. He was captivating in all the right ways.

That experience with Benjamin Franklin reinforced the fact that I couldn’t zoom past everything and expect anything to have an impact. There was so much significance in the air around me that I was going to have to slow down in order to appreciate it all.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are both connected in the same building so you can cross over long hallways from the art museum to the portrait gallery in just a few steps. On the art museum side I found these favorites in the painting department…golden framed beauties covering two centuries  including a large scale John James Audubon bird painting from 1836…

Clockwise from top left: Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1875; Washington Sea Eagle by John James Audubon 1836-1839; Round Hill Road by John Henry Twachtman 1890-1900; Our Lady of Guadalupe by Pedro Antonio Fresquis 1780-1830

Downstairs on the ground floor I discovered colorful cafeteria art of the 1940’s…

which was from a series by Gertrude Goodrich titled Scenes from American Life (Beach) and which originally hung in the cafeteria of the city’s Social Security Building. I loved the bright colors and all the commotion going on – each figure in the painting has their own personality. Here are some up close snippets..

It really is a lively improvement from the food diagrams and nutrition charts found in most cafeterias today, don’t you think?

At the National Portrait Gallery – 

Just like my time spent with Ben, I was equally captivated by an exhibit called The Face of Battle: Americans at War from 9/11 to Now which featured intimate glimpses into soldier’s lives… black and white leisure portraits taken in camp, paintings of wounded soldiers in full uniform, photographs of deceased soldiers home-based bedrooms, a creative video piece of a casket returning stateside. As you can imagine it was really moving and very sad. One of the exhibits inside the exhibit was a 5,000+ piece collection of small wallet sized pencil drawings of American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. This installation was completely hand-drawn by the American artist, Emily Prince. It took up three walls of one gallery and from a distance looked like a big Scrabble board. This is a snippet of one wall…

And upon color inspection…

And an even closer view below. This is just one example of the thousands Emily has hand-drawn. The exhibit is titled American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not including the wounded, nor the Iraqis, nor the Afghans.  Read more about Emily and the project here.

We were visiting D.C. during the start of Police Week so uniformed men and women from all over the world were everywhere. At the airport, teams of officers six or eight to a group met flights as they came in containing passengers whose family had died protecting the country. The officers stood across from each other with arms raised in salute as people walked off each flight.  The officers recognized the families they were meeting either by Hero t-shirts or by camera phones recording the walk from the plane to the gate. It was bittersweet. Sad that people had died but wonderful that the military and our protective services were still honoring their contributions.

On a cheerier note…

at the Museum of American History…

a very special face was also on display. I was definitely determined not to leave Washington until I saw this lady and her famous kitchen…

Julia Child!

In an exhibit detailing the transformation of American food from the 1950’s to the 2000’s, Julia Child’s kitchen from her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts sat front and center.

It’s a little tricky to get good photos of it because the whole kitchen itself is sealed in. Small cut-outs covered in plexi-glass serve as viewing stations, so there is a little battle to be fought with glare from the plexi-glass and the fellow visitors who squish in to see. But you can get the idea of a 360 view (in parts!) from the following…

Everything in the kitchen is as Julia left it when she donated the entire room and all its contents to the Museum in 2001. It was full of surprising  little details including lots of cat art, a fridge full of magnets (she was was a fan of the King Arthur flour brand!), family photographs, a rubix cube tucked behind a telephone and all the little odds and ends that you can find in anybody’s kitchen famous or not. She had a junk drawer. She labeled things with masking tape and handwriting. She hung onto favorite pieces of equipment outdated or not.

As revered as Julia had become it is easy to see in this exhibit how normal and ordinary a person she actually was.  Her kitchen reflected that. It wasn’t photo-shoot ready. It wasn’t glamorous. Not everything had a place. Her cookbooks were used. Her counter tops were messy. But it was functional for the way she liked to cook. It was a fun play space for her and in turn it was a fun exhibit for me.  I think that is what still makes Julia Child so admired. She was an unpretentious lover of food and of cooking and her kitchen reiterates all that. The manner in which it is displayed there at the Smithsonian you can easily imagine that she just popped over into another room of the house, perhaps to fetch something for her husband Paul and that in any second she was going to come right back and get to cooking.  Aided by video monitors playing clips from her cooking shows around the exhibit, your imagination does not have to stretch far to picture her standing at the sink peeling potatoes or at the stove flipping omelettes.

There is a fun 5 minute video on youtube that explains how the museum staff takes care of her kitchen. It also gives you some up close behind-the-scenes info on specific items within the display.

Also in the History Museum was an interesting exhibit on the clothing worn by the First Ladies (mostly during inaugural balls or welcome receptions) and the china patterns that each selected for their White House term. The oldest in the collection of both dress and dish belongs, of course, to Martha Washington…

Clockwise from top: The entire display of china starting with Martha Washington and ending with Hilary Clinton. Bottom left: A dress Martha Washington wore from the 1780’s,  and the  banquet china pieces she and George used in their presidential mansions in  New York and Philadelphia.

Most of the china patterns were variations on a theme… gold bands/eagles/jewel tone colors, etc. but Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes commissioned an artist in the 1870’s to design a set of china that incorporated the flora and fauna of the United States. To this day, Lucy’s china pattern still remains the most creative of all the administrations.

That’s Lucy on the far left!

I may not have made it to the Botanical Gardens on this trip but to serious surprise and complete excitement equal to that of seeing Julia Child’s kitchen,  I stumbled into this big beauty in the gardens of the Natural History museum next door…

the passenger pigeon sculpture by Todd McGrain from the Lost Bird Project that we wrote about in 2013! She’s tucked inside a walled garden just off the street so I almost walked right by her. In the busy world of modern day urban life, she sits surrounded in the museum’s Bird Garden by flowers and real-life bird flocks flapping their wings here and there so she’s in a great spot. If you missed the post about the Lost Bird project and Todd’s mission to memorialize extinct birds catch up here.

Moving on from museums and spending time waterside in the fresh spring air, the charmer on top of our whole trip was spending half a day in Alexandria, Virginia. We had lunch on the wharf…

and then spent the afternoon walking around town in George Washington’s footsteps.

The first tenement house George and Martha built in 1797 for investment purposes.

Every street was cuter than the last. I definitely could have picked any one of those houses to live in. I even found my ideal car…

This is where George liked to eat!

We stopped into a local pub and met a local (imagine that!) who gave us a little verbal history tour through his town.

Murphy’s Pub

and we found the house where they filmed scenes from the PBS show Mercy Street…

So pretty! You can access Alexandria by car or ferry – both just a quick trip from D.C.. Like easily imagining Julia in her kitchen it is very easy to picture George and Martha Washington or Ben Franklin or any other early colonials walking down the historic streets. Everything is all brick and cobblestone, clapboard and flower boxes. History plaques make a self guided walking tour easy and your camera won’t stop clicking for all the pretty photo opportunities.

Since I didn’t make it to all the places on my original list that still leaves so much to do on future trips back to the D.C. area. I think you could live in this section of our country for two dozen years and still not see everything! But that’s what’s marvelous about Washington – it’s a never-ending series of new (old) places to discover upon every return.

Cheers to that! Or huzzah as our noble men Ben and George liked to say!

Mexican Folk Art: How Circumstances Affect Creativity

Oaxaca, Mexico has been in the news a lot this week because of the earthquake that struck the region on Tuesday. It measured 7.4 magnitude on the Richter scale and has damaged close to 1,000 homes in the area.

Ms. Jeannie was saddened to hear this news, because ever since discovering that the black clay pottery listed in her Etsy shop (pictured below) came from that area, she has been learning quite a lot about Oaxaca.

Mid-Century Black Clay Mexican Pottery from MsJeannieOlogy

This type of earthenware vessel, also called barro negro which means black clay, is handmade using ancient traditions indigenous to the Mexican culture in this area.

Primarily formed into utilitarian objects like jars and pots, Mexican artisans have been working with the black clay for centuries. And surprisingly, you can feel that somehow when you touch it.

In this close-up of the vessel you can see how smooth the texture is…

The only place in the world to find this black clay is in the rugged mountainous terrain of Oaxaca, which is located in the Central Valley area of Southwestern Mexico.

Map of Mexico

Since there are  are no navigable rivers in the region,  Oaxaca is an isolated community, which, while limiting at times, it is also the reason why the Mexican-Mayan culture,  languages and traditions have been able to survive.

In this fascinating and soothingly hypnotic video below, watch Oaxacan women demonstrate how they make tamales using  traditional methods.  Ms. Jeannie loves watching these kinds of videos because you not only get to see how regional food is prepared but you also see how local people dress,  interact and communicate with another. It’s like an 8 minute mini anthropology vacation to Mexico!

Ms. Jeannie really likes the cotton dresses and skirts these ladies are wearing too! They remind her of these, that she recently saw on Etsy.

Cotton Aline Skirt from ellainaboutique

Buttercream Triangle Sun Dress from SparrowCollective

There are also beautiful more traditional Mexican embroidery style clothing on Etsy too. Like these two examples. It’s folk art that you can wear!

Embroidered Party Maxi Dress by AidaCoronado

La Bandida Mexican Folk Art Top from mybonny

The movie Frida starring Selma Hayak and Alfred Molina also offers a beautifully cinematic look into the life of Mexico and it’s artisians, particularly folk artist Frida Kahlo. The movie came out in 2002, but if you missed it, here’s the trailer:

In 2008, a traveling exhibit of Frida’s work went on tour…

Ms. Jeannie went to the exhibit with her sister at the Philadelphia Art Museum. It featured about a quarter of Frida’s painting collection and her never seen before  personal photograph collection, which was a really intimate glimpse into her life.  Of course all her photos were in black in white but after viewing her paintings,  Ms. Jeannie could imagine all the colors of mid-century Mexico.

This is Ms. Jeannie’s favorite Frida Kahlo painting. She likes it for many reasons, but primarily because every time she looks at it she gets something different from it. Also, Ms. Jeannie has a black cat that looks just like this one!

Frida’s inspiration was really born out of a life of crippling health problems. Artistic achievement seemed to be one of the few ways she could emotionally and physically deal with her broken body. In expressing herself in that way, she had a positive effect on millions of other artists and collectors of her work.

To Ms. Jeannie, Frida Kahlo is a genuine example of making the best of your situation and focusing on your strengths instead of your weaknesses.

In that way she is similar to the clay artisians of Oaxaca. They may be  limited because of their location and their lifestyle but those very limits are actually their gifts. And that is what sets them apart from everyone else.

Mexican folk art is a personal favorite of Ms. Jeannie’s. She likes the bright color combinations and the symbolism behind the art.  She also likes how it acts as an emotional bridge between artist and audience in a demanding way that says “pay attention to me now.”

Ms. Jeannie especially likes the following:

Angel Retablo Tropical Alta from CristinaAcosta 

Christina provided some history behind retablos that was so fascinating. She thought it was rather lengthy in description, but Ms. Jeannie enjoyed it so much she included it all…

“Retablos (or altarpiece in Spanish) are a traditional sacred art form with roots that pre-date Christianity, with roots in the Mediterranean areas that include part of what is now Italy. The art form of the retablo first came to North America with the Spanish settlers and artisans that followed the Conquistadors to the North American continent to settle what is now Mexico and the United States.

There are two types of Retablos, the Santos and the Ex-Voto. The Santos style of retablo is either a Saint (from the Roman Catholic Christian tradition) or a member of the Holy Family. Similar in concept to the art form of the Byzantine and/or European Orthodox Catholic icon, the Santos is painted in accordance with strict liturgical rules that define how the central figure of Saint or Holy Family member is represented. The counterpoint to the Santos is the Ex-voto, a no-rules, personal vision that is created to commemorate a blessing received or when a prayer has been answered.

The Ex-voto retablo is the art form I focus on. I love it! This retablo art form gives me a way to connect with the religion of my childhood, without having to get into any personal struggles with a dogma that doesn’t always jibe with who I am now.

When I was a child, my abuelita (paternal grandmother), Catalina Maria Ortiz Acosta would tell me about the ancestors we shared. They were goldsmiths, soldiers and settlers who had first come to North America in the 1500’s, eventually settling in what are now the towns of Santa Fe, Taos and Abiquiu in New Mexico and Ortiz, Colorado. Though she was born in Los Angeles, she held her New Mexican roots close to her heart, importing New Mexican chilis to her home by the beach in Playa del Rey. (I updated her recipe for Red Chili Sauce, if you’d like to try it.)

I paint my retablos to express and explore my gratitude for the blessings of my life. My favorite subject is the Divine Feminine which I interpret as Madonna / Female Creator images. Because my Spanish/Mexican ancestors migrated to North America in the 1500’s, I also include American Indian symbols, as that heritage is sure to be part of my mix.

Along with the visual symbols of my work, the materials I use have personal meaning. My Ortiz ancestors where famous goldsmiths. Thin sheets of 22kt. gold leaf, copper and sterling silver glisten under and over layers of oil paint and evoke the presence of those ancestors. The antique ceramic tile mosaic is glazed with 24kt. Gold and is from a now shuttered ceramic factory in the same area of Southern California where I grew up. The wood panels are built by an artisan wood worker and mostly include re-worked lumber siding from razed timber mill buildings in Bend.

I finish each Retablo with a blessing, usually on the back of the image. In the old tradition of territorial New Mexico, the Retablo often became the spiritual focus in the home when travel was dangerous and people could not attend church. Centuries of isolation in New Mexico led to the unique form of the Ex-Voto often painted on tin, leather or wood panels.

Artists were commissioned to paint retablos that often became symbols of a family’s spiritual life. In that tradition I offer myself to paint commissions of a Retablo for you that commemorates your blessings.”     – Cristina Acosta

Side Note: To see more of Cristina’s  work or to get your house color coordinated by her (very cool!) visit her website 

Love Shrine Mexican Folk Art by calaverasycorazones

Mexican Folk Art Easter Egg from Latrouvaille

Frida Kahlo Art Print Poster by HeatherGallerArt

Tropical Accent Pillow from arribachica

Kimberly of arribachica was inspired by Mexican culture as a child living in Los Angeles and San Diego.  Frequent trips across the border, family cultural activities and her artistic folk artist grandmother fueled a passion to study art in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.

Side note: A portion of the proceeds from Kimberly’s exquisite pillows benefit two Mexican organizations that empower and support young children. Visit her blog for more information http://www.kimberlymaier.blogspot.com/

Vintage Tin Mexican Folk Art from Bittersweets13

Vintage Mexican Folk Art Bird from TimelessFindsVintage

Purple/Blue Folk Art Box from mimexart

Miriam of mimiexart had this to say about the inspiration behind her Mexican Folk Art Boxes.

I’m a Mexican artist and since I leave my Mexico first to go to the Caribbean now in England. It has been difficult to be far away from home, family, friends, my city and all my culture but for some great reason now I understand why Mexico is so rich country so to cure my nostalgia I started to take back my memories of colour, images, people, places and paint- as an artist- is my first tool to communicate to the world.. so this is how I started to make this little boxes and become no just a therapy for my heart is also helping people to have a piece of Mexican love-art in their home and sometimes just inspire people to create similar things.This boxes are made to keep love-secrets, treasuries, jewelry, letters……… anything that you want to be safe and away from wrong hands.”

Side note: In addition to hand-painted boxes, Miriam also makes earrings and adorned mesh market bags.  Stop by her website to learn more about this wonderfully talented artist, world traveler and teacher.

Vintage Wooden Virgin Mary Shadow Box from theVirginRose

And most importantly, Ms. Jeannie likes that folk art tells stories. Stories of it’s creators, stories of it’s history and stories of universal bonds that tie us all together.

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”  – Frida Kahlo