Estonian Handicrafts: Surviving the Soviet Occupation

The small shops in Estonia are filled with colorful handmade textile art – colorful, knitted mittens, fine lacy shawls, vibrant striped skirts and bolts of woven cloth and fanciful, felted hats. Wandering the artists’ guilds, studios and shops in 2017, it’s hard to imagine the conditions its craftspeople endured during the country’s fifty-year Soviet occupation when all art had to be produced and sold in Soviet collectives under the restrictions of Soviet censored themes. That Estonian handicraft tradition survived the occupation is due in no small part to the persistence of its craftswomen. Check out my Global Comment story here.

Tallinn Music Week

Music in Estonia isn’t limited to celebrations of its strong tradition of choral music. The capitol city of Tallinn puts on Tallinn Music Week, a weeklong festival in March/April showcasing all forms of contemporary music, the arts, theatre, food and architecture using the city’s bookstores, bike shops, art galleries, bakeries, tech incubators, home decoration stores and shopping centers as venues. It’s a full-on sensory experience, an opportunity to explore Tallinn’s nooks and crannies and much of it is free to the public. Read about my experience here.

A Message From Van Gogh

seascape-jpg__800x600_q85_crop
View of the Sea at Scheveningen

During my recent week in Amsterdam I wandered through five museums; four in Amsterdam and one in de Hague. I had a vague understanding of the Dutch painters, but seeing their work up close in Dutch museums is completely breathtaking.

b8579dd10698565ccc9bae0aafa2478b

Dutch master and Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Willem van Gogh has an entire Amsterdam museum built in 1973 devoted to his works and that of his contemporaries conveniently located a 10 minute walk from my houseboat accommodation.

In 2002 thieves scaled the Van Gogh Museum wall, smashed a window, evaded the security system and stole two works of art including View of the Sea at Scheveningen, one of only two Dutch seascapes painted by Van Gogh. While the thieves were caught in 2004, the paintings were never recovered until the news broke of their recovery while I was in Amsterdam. According to Smithsonian.com the theft was linked to the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples. This wasn’t the first time a Van Gogh museum theft occurred. In 1991 twenty paintings were stolen from the museum and recovered 35 minutes later in an abandoned car.

I attempted to sketch the mural side of the Van Gogh Museum when I was there and gave up feeling not at all up to the task. Returning home a quote from Van Gogh popped up on my Facebook feed; a message I wished he would have delivered in that moment of intimidation that discouraged me from pressing on with my drawing.

“If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter”, then by all means paint….and that voice will be silenced.”

 

Key West’s Gypsy Chickens

They’re everywhere strutting among the tourists and locals; crowing, pecking at bugs, and scratching in the landscape. Key West takes free range chickens literally. And in Mallory Square, their famous shopping and sunset attraction, the town’s 2000-3000 feral chickens fully appreciate that they’re protected by local ordinance.

DSC02855

Given the community’s isolation early settlers brought domestic chickens with them for meat and eggs. In the 1860s when Cubans began moving to Key West, drawn by the tobacco and cigar industry that once dominated the town’s economy, they brought “Cubalayas”, their cockfighting chickens. As improved transportation infrastructure connected the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida, Key West residents no longer needed to raise their own chickens and many were released. By 1970 the town outlawed cockfighting and the Cubalayas were left to fend for themselves. The small lean chickens called Gypsy Chickens that currently wander the streets of Key West are the result of interbred domestic and Cubayala cockfighting fowl.

IMAG0004

They’re the subject of artists; the towns many art galleries feature chicken inspired paintings and sculpture. Chicken themed key chains and coasters can be found in tourist trinket shops. Even an entire business, Funky Chicken Store, features the local chickens. They’re valued for keeping the local cockroach and scorpion population under control. However, they also tear up gardens and crow in the early hours and periodically, fed-up residents try to convince the city council to amend the local ordinance and fines that forbids cruelty to the Gypsy Chickens.

Cruelty apparently doesn’t including humane trapping. Problem chicken can be trapped and taken to the Key West Wildlife Center. From there they get transported to farms in central and north Florida where their aggressive behavior is valued – they’re ideally suited to pest control.

 

 

Paris: Two Guidebooks; Two Times

I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.

It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.

I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Paris Sketching

It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.

Bocce Ball Paris

In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.

20150514_164023

And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.

When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.

20150517_160456_Richtone(HDR)

It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.

 

I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.

As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.

20151019_190716_LLS20151019_183614_LLS

In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.