One hundred and twenty years ago, in the summer of 1893, newspapers across the country were reporting on a grand spectacle of an event taking place in a big city. That big city was Chicago and the event was the Columbian Exposition also known as the World’s Fair.
For six months, from May – October, the reception gates welcomed visitors to the downtown Chicago lakefront staging area that was a marvel in size, scale and execution.
A staggering 25% of Americans attended the Fair in those six months, and Ms. Jeannie is excited to report that one such visitor was her great great grandmother, Martha.
Martha traveled from Iowa to Illinois, armed with a summer’s worth of knowledge about the Fair thanks to the frequent reporting of her local newspaper, the Vinton Eagle who kept it’s readers up to date on all aspects of the Exposition from logistics to exhibits, history to happenings.
That year, the Fair commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America and celebrated the latest advances in industry and technology occuring throughout the world. It was an exciting place to be, not only as an eyewitness to progress, but also for all the hope and possibility that hung in the air as our nation quickly approached the dawning of a new century.
No doubt, Martha was caught up in the fever and wonder of such marvelous new sights like the first Ferris wheel, the first automatic dishwasher, the introduction of food novelties like gum and ready made pancake mix and the debut of the zipper.
Also in the sewing category came a new piece of machinery, which drew delight to many attendees, especially among the ladies, Martha included. Debuting at the fair was the first on-site embroidery machine that could embroider names and initials on fabric while you waited.
Martha was so enamored with this “instant gratification” concept that she purchased a colorful souvenir handkerchief…
And had her name embroidered in the corner…
If you look closely, you’ll notice there is no “s” on the end of Edwards – whether that was accidental or limited due to a specific amount of allowable letters, Ms. Jeannie will never actually know. But she loves that this handkerchief carries a personal touch of her great great grandmother at an event that was so creative and inspiring.
The handkerchief itself is in wonderful condition. The silk fabric so delicate yet bright with its vivid colors and detailed drawing of the fairgrounds. The embroidery looks like it was sewn yesterday, instead of over a century ago. Ms. Jeannie wonders if Martha ever wore it or used it in any way or if it remained stored away as a special reminder of a special trip.
Martha was a sewer herself, so maybe she just appreciated the fact that a machine could now produce something as equally lovely and delicate as initials without having to do it by hand.
At the time of the Fair, Martha was 47 years old, she had been married for 29 years, and had birthed 11 babies. Waiting for her back at home in Iowa, in addition to her own kids (the youngest which was aged six) were 10 grandchildren all under the age of 7.
Ms. Jeannie bets that Martha saw her fair share of mending projects involved with that large brood! It’s no wonder that she amazed by this speedy embroidery machine. Imagine how fast all those sewing projects would go if she had one of these machines of her very own!
So maybe this handkerchief represents a time-saving industrial novelty, or maybe it represents a fun travel adventure or perhaps just a stunning flight of fancy from one sewer to another… either way, Ms. Jeannie is thrilled that it has stayed in her family and survived intact for 120 years. That’s a true marvel in keeping with the theme of the World’s Fair itself!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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
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/
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.
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