Thursday, April 30, 2009


Fresco from painted town of Treviso, Italy

The master painters of the Renaissance took the art of the fresco to a level of perfection that may never be surpassed. During that era, large walls in cathedrals and other buildings served as the canvases for frescoes – and they still do. Michelangelo' s painting on the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine chapel is perhaps the best known example of this type of work. A fresco is actually a painting that has not been painted on a wall, but into it. The painting is finished while the plaster is still wet, a technique that is called “l'ora del santo” or “the hour of the saint.” Therefore the painting and the wall become one. Because a fresco is part of the wall on which it is painted, it is subject to all the environmental factors that cause walls to deteriorate with the passage of time. This is one of the features of frescoes that make them so unique and special. The cracks, crevices and other signs of wear that occur within the fresco reflect the hardships the environment has imposed on the work – much as our own exteriors provide a living testament to the hardships and struggles of our lives. I am proud of each wrinkle on my face. They are the result of what I have given and endured throughout my life: I have earned them.

My rendition of a Giotto fresco. This is buon fresco.

As you may have guessed by now, I have created frescoes of my own during my life in art. For some, I have used the technique of masters like Botticelli, Giotto and Masaccio – “buon fresco.” In buon fresco (good or true fresco), the paints are mixed with lime water, and the plaster is painted while it is still wet. I find this difficult to do well since I am forced to work a lot faster than I would otherwise. To overcome this problem, I have sometimes created my work using “secco fresco.” This is a modification of the fresco technique in which dried plaster is dampened to simulate fresh, wet plaster before it is painted. Although creating frescoes a secco is easier than the classic technique, it is also a bit less durable. Since most of us do not live in one place long enough to own a fresco and watch it age, it occurred to me several years ago that it might be nice to make frescoes portable. I decided to create frescoes that could be transported to any new surrounding. Using the secco fresco technique, I began creating smaller frescoes I call “fresgos” – my term for “frescoes to go.” A few of these are pictured below.

Secco fresco, wet into dry

Another one of my fresgoes, an example of secco fresco

In 2006, I traveled to the ancient village of Serraville, Italy to study fresco making with Alma Ortolan. Ms. Ortolan reconstructed the paintings on the Royal Balcony of “La Fenice,” the opera house in Venice, after a fire there. She is renowned in the art world for teaching ancient fresco painting techniques as well as for her conservation and restoration projects. The village of Serraville, located about an hour's drive north of Venice, is one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen.

Serraville, Italy

The entire village is made of stone. I stayed in a centuries-old stone palazzo and was awestruck by the magnificent frescoes that adorned the exterior walls of buildings in Serraville and the surrounding villages.

Fresco making is by far the most challenging art I have ever learned. At Serraville, the grueling schedule of slaking and mixing lime and mortar every day from 8:00 AM ‘til 8:00 PM made this one of the most labor-intensive techniques I have ever used. I have studied and taught bas-relief, basketry, stained glass, anatomical sculpture and many other techniques; none come close to the amount of labor required for frescoes. Nevertheless, under Ms. Ortolan’s guidance, I began to master the art.

Alma Ortolan giving demonstration

By the time I left Italy, terms such as arriccio, entonico, entonicino and giornata were permanently added to my artistic vocabulary. When I returned home, I was determined to build a large, portable fresco. This fresco was not to be for sale, but was to be a study incorporating all that I had learned in Italy. It was also to be buon fresco not secco fresco. The Renaissance artists always worked buon fresco. After learning under the guidance of Ms. Ortolan, I was inspired to work in the true technique of the masters. I kept a detailed account of my project. Started on February 6, 2006 and completed on September 12, 2006, I titled it "Nina's Angels." It is 3½ feet wide, 6 feet high, and includes 12 “giornato,” which means I created it in 12 separate sections over 12 days.

Nina's Angels -- love, strength and wisdom

For those who are interested, a day-to-day account of the creation of this fresco may be found soon by clicking on the link entitled “fresco project. I haven't figured out how to create these types of links yet. I'm new at blogging and will soon have all the kinks ironed out. I hope. If you are interested in learning still more about making frescoes, I recommend Wet Wall Tattoos, a book by North Carolina artist Ben Long. Mr. Long creates large frescos in France as well as at his home in Asheville. Alma Ortolan is a wonderful teacher. I learned an amazing amount from her fresco class. But I learned even more by experimenting when I got home. In my opinion, this is the ONLY way to absorb new knowledge permanently – learn and then do!

Here I am applying sand and limestone

Giornata, day 12

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Cameron's quilt

St. Louis is a wonderful place to live – especially if you are lucky enough to live outside the city near a lake. Our family lived in Lake St. Louis for five years. Lake St. Louis was one of those “new towns,” sort of like Reston, Virginia. I had always wanted to live in a planned community with shopping, schools, etc. close at hand. For us, Lake St. Louis was that town. And each of those places could be reached by boat. I had never expected to live like that!

Closeup of center block

There was an inexpensive country club for the residents with parties each month. There was a golf course in the development as well, and most residents golfed. There were clubs and activities for the kids. But, there was a downside to living in one of these developments: on the surface, all the residents seemed pretty much alike. There was little diversity. All the families had similar incomes. All had similar interests. Everyone seemed to think alike. You might ask, “What’s wrong with that?" Well, in my opinion, a lot!

I grew up in another kind of “planned” community – a low-income housing project, to be exact. People who lived there were from many ethnic backgrounds. There were a lot of Italians, but there were also Poles, Greeks, Romanians, and Irish. Names like Damatios, Diggiocobee, Alizia, Padula and McBride call up a world of warm, often hilarious memories for me. These people all lived, to some extent, like their ancestors. Families from each ethnic group brought their own traditions, foods, and ways of doing things. It made the neighborhood an infinitely interesting place in which to live. We walked everywhere. We socialized across cultures when we shopped together at the two grocery stores or when we met at the pastry cart that came around daily. It was as though we were one huge, unusual family – and everyone looked after one another.

Last remaining house in Westlawn

Now, only one gray building remains. It stands like a shabby monument in the center of a grassy field, looking very much as though left over from some ancient civilization. Seeing the paint peeling away and windows broken, who could possibly imagine the vibrant lives that once were lived there. On a cold day one February, I found myself standing in front of that lonely building, heart aching, memories flooding my consciousness. I turned my head as if listening for the sounds and voices of a time long ago. What the wind and place no longer held, I could hear in the depths of my memory as echoes from my childhood. All the precious souls who once occupied this project were now with me again as though no time had passed. I was once again a child, transported to my beloved Westlawn.

First quilt of flower baskets

Culturally, Lake St. Louis was exactly the opposite of Westlawn. And the longer we lived in Lake St. Louis, the more I longed for the diversity and “connectedness” of my Westlawn childhood. One day I decided to try to create some of that connectedness in Lake St. Louis. I decided to start a quilt club. I love quilts, but didn't have the time to make them. So, I decided to recruit 12 members from the Lake St. Louis community, one for each month of the year. We met once a month, rotating our meeting site among the members’ houses. At each meeting, we were given our quilting instructions for the month by our host.

Closeup of one of the blocks

I started the ball rolling by having everyone come to my home. “Flower baskets” was the theme for my quilt. I gave each woman a pattern and a square of white material that she was to applique. The finished squares were to be returned to me at the following month’s meeting, and all the squares would go into my quilt. At that meeting, we would then get our instructions from that month’s host for her quilt. I have started quilt clubs like this in every town I’ve lived in and have many beautiful quilts to show for it.

Another block from basket quilt

Everyone who joined the club was excited and participated all year. By the end of the year, each member of the club had 12 lovely squares to work with. But none of us knew how to quilt them together.

Block from Italian women quilt

Finally, I heard about a woman named Mrs. Jolsen who pieced quilts together for customers. I called her, and she invited me to her house in the rural countryside outside of Wentsville, Missouri. The road to her house was a meandering lane with cows roaming in the nearby pastures. As I approached, I noticed that her house was surrounded by several other buildings – a farm. Mrs. Jolsen and I became friends. Although I visited her many times, and even though we were about the same age, she always insisted that I refer to her as “Mrs. Jolsen.” She had the kind of formality a country woman of frontier days might have had. She always wore a hairnet and a flowered dress. Her home always smelled of freshly baked bread. And she always looked as though she was waiting for the men to come in from the fields for lunch. The work that Mrs. Jolsen did for me and for the other members of our club was always impeccable and reasonably priced.

Italian women quilt

In the end, I didn't achieve the village atmosphere I was longing for. But the other members of the club and I were able to rise above the anonymity of modern life at least one time each each month – and once in a while, I touched, ever so briefly, that magic sense of connection I remembered from my childhood.

Another block from Italian women quilt

I still long for my village. Perhaps that is why I travel to Italy as often as money allows. And perhaps that is why I have chosen to have a booth on the Roanoke Farmers’ Market. The atmosphere reminds me of that village feel – and there is certainly a broad diversity of personalities to be found there.

Farmers Market in Roanoke Virginia

New quilt in the making - my hobbies

A quilt with blocks of all my hobbies would cover several king size beds!

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Sunday, April 26, 2009


A superb example of Bonnie's polychrome pottery


My love of Native American culture led me to study with the Hopi Indians. I never met the most important influence in my knowledge of Hopi art. Her name was Nampeyo. She was born around 1860 at First Mesa, Arizona and became a potter early in life. Eventually, she produced unique pottery designs that were universally acknowledged to be far more beautiful than the designs typically found in Hopi pottery at that time. Her husband, Lesou, brought her many of the designs she adopted. He found these on shards of prehistoric pottery he dug up while working as part of a crew at Sikyatki, an ancient archaeological site. Nampeyo and Lesou used these forgotten designs exclusively on their pottery. Today, their descendants carry on their style of pottery design and production.

I traveled to ISOMATA, the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, to study with my Hopi teachers. The school is located in California’s San Jacinto Mountains which rise from the desert to an elevation of 10,835 feet. Bonnie Shamie Nampeyo, a great-granddaughter of Nampeyo and Lesou, was my principle teacher in the art and technology of polychrome pottery. Her husband, Earnest Chapella, assisted her as did several members of their family who had traveled from Polacca, Arizona to Idyllwild. (Earnest is also known for his hand-carved wooden kachinas).

Earnest Chapella carving a kachina

Having spent my entire life immersed in the arts, it surprised me when Bonnie insisted that our pottery designs conform to the ancient patterns Nampeyo and Lesou had rediscovered. I have always made a point to use my own designs for anything I create. I could not understand why we were limited to someone else's designs in our pottery. When I asked, the answer was simple – “tradition."

Bonnie, a classmate, and I designing our polychrome pottery

Burnishing pottery

We used clay that had been gathered from the same Sityatki site where Lesou found the ancient designs. It was a dense, red-colored clay that was gathered from a narrow ledge in the canyon by the mesa. We carefully sculpted pots in the same shape that had been created by the Hopi ancestors for generations. Once the clay had dried for a few days, we burnished it with petrified rock. The burnishing had to be done carefully to avoid cracking the fragile pot. We then shaped a yucca brush with our mouths by chewing it to a point and used it to apply a stain made of iron ore and beeplant. For the final step, we took our pottery for the sacred firing.

Bonnie forming yucca brush tip

Applying iron ore and beeplant stain


At ISOMATA, we fired our pottery in a traditional Hopi sheep dung kiln. In an area outside of our classroom, Earnest delivered several truckloads of sheep dung. The members of the class were told that we were to break the sheep dung into small flat pieces with a spade until we had enough to build our kiln. I wondered why we were using sheep dung instead of pony dung, which was much more plentiful. I was given the same answer as before – "tradition." It is a tradition that the Hopi have followed for as long as anyone can remember. We spent hours laboriously building the kiln, layer upon layer, until it was about 2 feet high.

Breaking sheep dung for the kiln

We then placed our precious pottery inside for the day-long firing. Of all the days at ISOMATA, the day of the firing was my favorite.

Firing pottery in the kiln

While we waited, all the Hopis gathered around the kiln and told stories. I asked one elderly man if he was sorry that technology had usurped the ancient art of storytelling. His answer surprised me. He said that he was very sorry that the tape recorder had not yet been invented when the Hopi legends were sung by people like his great-grandmother. He remembers her singing a strange song. The song told of things that already had happened and were to come. She sang of the atom bomb before it was invented. She sang of Spider Woman and of how one day she would weave her web around the entire planet.

Dreamcatcher, a symbolic representation of the Spider Woman's web

When I took this class many years ago, computers were much less powerful than they are now. I never would have guessed then that there could be such a thing as today’s world wide web. Is the modern internet the Spider Woman’s web that the old man’s great grandmother sang about? He said she sang of many other amazing things but that the family did not remember all the words now. Even though he heard bits of it in his mind, he longed to hear the lilting, chanting premonitions of things to come that she sang so long ago.

Finally, after many, many stories, our kiln was cool enough for us to reclaim our treasures. Everything emerged from the kiln perfectly fired. I sold some of my work from the class when I came home, but kept a few choice pieces. I also bought one of Bonnie's lovely polychrome bowls. She signed it with the legendary corn sheaf.

Removing pottery from the sheep dung kiln

I became close to Bonnie and her family over the years. Even though there were many of the tribe who refused to have their pictures taken – saying that to do so would take part of their soul – Bonnie, Earnest and their children readily agreed to have their picture taken with me. She told me to consider them family.

Earnest, Bonnie and children

In my book, She Who Whispers, I included two stories depicting Hopi life. One I titled Nampeyo and the other Sityakti. I also have sculpted numerous Hopi women with pots.

Click here to view She Who Whispers on Etsy site

For anyone interested in reading about Nampeyo and seeing her incredible pottery, I recommend the book Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery. This book was compiled by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico and is available from the University of New Mexico Press, ISBN 0-8263-0388-9.

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Friday, April 24, 2009


Eleven-circuit Labyrinth I created for my laundry room floor


Labyrinths have always intrigued me. I spent many long months researching ancient labyrinths for my book, Layers. Here are excerpts from a story in Layers, “Lady of the Labyrinth.” One of the four short stories that comprise Layers, “Lady of the Labyrinth” is also the title of the poem that opens the story.


Her soul cries out for the sacred walk. For the pilgrimage.
As she moves through the narrow passage toward
the center, she opens her heart for the journey.

The discipline of the steps, gently placed on the path, one
after the other, footprints to understanding, slowly begin
to reveal gifts of the spirit.

With each step, she sheds layer after layer of unresolved
pain. As her body moves inward, her quiet mind opens,
surrendering the passioned images.
There is an emptying, challenging, yet ever allowing, ever
centering and finally, a release.

The sacred labyrinth of times long past calls her to begin
her spiral. To weave together the psyche and the soul.

She emerges from her sojourn with a keener eye and a
lightened heart.

Labyrinth at Unity Church in Roanoke, Virginia


"I still don't see exactly what a labyrinth is supposed to do for you."

"Most people say they can feel an energy building as they walk. They feel as though their problems are being resolved. They experience a sense of freedom. It's supposed to balance the two hemispheres of the brain, which in turn creates a healing. I sort of thought you would walk it that day when you were here. Why didn't you?"

Nick thought for a moment, and then in his usual manner, avoided her question and asked two more in return. "What is supposed to happen after you reach the center? How do you feel exiting the labyrinth?"

"Some people feel as though a tremendous burden has been lifted."

"Really?" Nick thought about that for a moment and then added. "You also said the labyrinth unravels puzzles and is a sacred container of magic."

"Yes. It is supposed to be a vehicle for new awareness. Energy and space are organized into a pattern like ones found in nature. It can be likened to either a spiral or a meandering pattern. We are guided like water flows. It's amazing that no one questioned its uses sooner. You remember, it took Jean Artress, the canon at Grace Cathedral, to actually go to Chartres, France and rediscover that ancient labyrinth on the floor."

"Vicki, you told me she has encouraged people all over the country to make labyrinths of their own for groups to walk. Why couldn't you be content with making one of your own? I don't see why we had to come all the way over here to France so you could walk the Chartres Labyirinth."

"Because I want to discover for myself what its original purpose was. I can't be satisfied with our current day assessments. I want to know why they were built and on what principal. There are so many speculations but we have yet to find an answer. There has to be one. Besides, I feel extremely drawn to Chartres. It has one of the few remaining 11 circle labyrinths in the world. Most of the labyrinths in Europe are 7 circuits. I want to experience Chartres!”

from “Lady of the Labyrinth” in the book Layers by Cheryl Dolby

I created the 11-circuit labyrinth pictured above in my laundry room at Woodloft. I used opalescent green stained glass and mirror. It is six feet in circumference and took me about four months of working almost daily to complete. I added white linoleum around it and decorated the laundry room with some of my original artwork.

Light switch created by using stoneware clay and embellishments plus one of my original faces.

Ariadne thread keeper. I used a plain old-fashioned thread holder and added one of my clay faces with embellishments.

Then, becoming obsessed it seems, I decided to add a labyrinth to my garden at Woodloft. There was only room for 7 circuits in this one. The construction was a fiasco. After much analysis, I decided to use flagstone and sand. First, I placed brick spacers around the perimeter of the labyrinth. Then, I poured the sand around the area as a support for the flagstone. I broke the flagstone into interesting shapes that would fit within the confines of the circle. As I began placing the flagstone on the sand, I realized I had used far too much sand for the foundation. I spent many long days sweeping up and rebagging the excess sand. For a while it looked like the Woodloft labyrinth was located at some sunny beach instead of at its mountain home. When I had finally swept enough of the sand away to provide a flat surface, I cut mirror tile into interesting shapes and placed them in and around the entire labyrinth. As you walk, the path glistens.

My son, Charlie, and friend, Gary, prepare the area.

Too much sand!

Almost finished labyrinth

My summer project this year will involve decorating two large female mannequins with pieces of mirror and stained glass. (I started this project a long time ago, but for some reason, have neglected it until now). I will then position them either side of an arched trellis near the labyrinth, and finish by placing a flower pot on each mannequin’s head. Flowers will look great trailing down from the pots. Can't wait ‘til the weather warms up so I can get this creation going!

Close-up of mannequin halfway finished

Mannequin as she started.

I hope to have this project finished before summer is over I have procrastinated long enough! I know they will make excellent 'Goddess Guards to the Path of Serenity' I will be sure to show you the before and after pictures when they are completely finished.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009



An old box was among several items that I bought at an estate sale several years ago. When I opened the tattered, antique container, I found newspaper clippings, old letters, and keys – fragments of a family’s life. I learned a great deal about these people by the simple mementos someone had hidden away. More than just satisfying my idle curiosity about a family, this discovery inspired me to create a series of objets d’art named "Sepias."

To create my Sepias, I started with an old photograph, preferably one of the sepia-tinted photographs so common in the 1800’s. Then, I made a pouch for the photo using an antique-looking fabric. Within each pouch I placed other items, often antiques themselves, depicting a life I imagined the woman in the photograph might have lived. The items acted as a catalyst to jolt my intuition into action. Then, I wrote a vignette from the woman’s life as I imagined it from my study of her photograph. This, too, was placed in the pouch.

When I started this series, I thought it would be fun to offer sequels to my readers. I told them I intended to send the next episode in each woman’s life as the stories unfolded to me. However, I stopped creating the series after only 2 of the first 3 sold. I couldn't sell the last one for some reason even though I personally loved the story of Jessica Whaltman. She is still up for grabs if anyone is interested. If I sell her, I'll probably be inspired to continue the series, but I'm not so sure about the sequels.

Here, I'm including the story of an Italian-looking woman from one of my original Sepias. I called this woman Benedetta.



My darling Benedetta,

I looked up your name in the dictionary today and found that Benedetta means blessed. Your parents must have known even when you were an infant how truly blessed they were, for you are, my dear one, truly a blessing.

Our chance meeting in Perugia two years ago, when I was attending university there, changed my life completely. I would like to have slowed time to a halt that year so that I could remain in your presence forever, but, as you know, my career called me back to the new world, even though my own Italian heritage beckoned me to stay in the old country with you. I would never have guessed that a vast ocean would keep me from the happiness that I had finally found.

Enough about my sorrows, dear one. Please be so kind as to tell me how your life has been going. Has your father found more workers for his food distribution business? I was amazed when I saw all those huge drums of cheese he keeps stored in his warehouse. And those kegs of wine! Is your mama still making that wonderful gnocci that I couldn't get enough of? How lucky you have been to grow up in such an atmosphere. There is no race, even if I do say so myself, quite as wonderful as the Italians. I guess it is the importance that they give to the family that makes them that way. Of course, that was our problem, wasn't it? Your parents will never allow you to leave Italy. We both know that. We also know that you, sweet Benedetta, would never be able, no matter how much you love, to leave them either.

It is with a heavy heart and hand that I must continue this letter. I must tell you of a choice I have made which left me with many a sleepless night. I have become engaged to my law partner's daughter. We are to be wed in June. Her name is Keely O'Sullivan. She is very Irish, with a temper much like her father. I fear that I will never find the happiness with her that we shared during our year together, but somehow I know that life must go on and our separate worlds will never allow us to be together. I can only hope and pray, dear one, that you will find contentment and peace of mind and someone to share your life with in this sometimes strange world we live in.

Please forgive me if I have deceived you in any way. You know that it would never be my intention to hurt you if I could avoid doing so. I will keep your garter and the few pearls from the strand we broke that night. They will remind me of my broken heart I guess.

I must admit something to you in closing, my darling girl. I still love you and always will.

Your Sebastian



This is the story of my poor orphan sepia that never sold.


Dear Diary,

As sure as my name is Jesica Marabel Waltman, I swear what I am about to write to you, dear diary, is positively true. Being a 16-year-old girl from a little town like this in West Virginia, who will believe me anyway other than you diary. No one believes kids my age anymore. The problem is, I can't even tell anyone about what I found for fear of getting everyone in this town up in arms.

I followed the meanderin little path past the out house today for a simple stroll. It was a beautiful spring day and I finished all my chores and decided to take my sketch book down to the river to do a little drawin. I noticed something at the corner of it that drew my eye in that direction. I didn't want to put my hand in all that jungle weedy underbrush but I just had to see what it was. It took me a full 30 minutes just to dig it out, and when I did, I even cut my hand on the dang thing. It was a small trunk. Not the kind that I've seen the rich people load around with all the fancy latches on it, but a ragged looking thing that looked like something someone had purposely buried. Now is when it gets exciting. There was a real key inside the keyhole and it was just beggin me to open it. I did and found the most exciting treasures I have ever seen.

The first thing I pulled out was this strange kind of purse. It was actually made of feathers! I can't imagine what anyone would use it for. I opened it and there seemed to be bits of tobacco left inside. This purse rolled into a little pouch that looked like it could be hidden away in a pocket somewhere. I started wondering if it could have been carried by one of the trappers that used to travel this way. Next, I pulled out some foreign looking coins and a few pieces of sassafras that looked like someone had chewed them to bits. But now it really gets exciting. There was a picture inside of an old bearded man. This man looks exactly like the one people used to talk about in these parts. He looks like the man who held up all the banks up in Charleston. Rumor was that he drifted into town from Missouri somewhere. They said he got away with loads of money and gold! Now, here is where the problem begins. I found that gold in this trunk! I have decided to tell no one about it and keep it hidden right where I found it. Lord knows, diary, how I have been aching to break away from this place. I am so sick of these coal mines and all the blasted accidents. I have inhaled so much coal dust that my whole insides must be black! I am going to make my escape very soon diary. I don't know where I am going diary but I am leaving soon. Anywhere has to be better than here. I will write to you again soon as I get to where I am going.


I'm showing here the contents of Jessica's pouch which includes (left to right): An old feather purse, picture of trapper, key for trunk and piece of bark. As you can imagine, these items go well with the story and are quite unique, especially the feather purse. (which may also be valuable.)

If anyone is interested in purchasing her, you can e-mail me at . The price is $78.00 plus $5.00 shipping. I accept Master Card, American Express, Visa, and Discover cards or checks. I never have any of the items I collect appraised. I have a feeling the feather pouch is worth a lot of money. If my hunch is correct and you find out that it is, please enjoy your windfall.

I have just finished two additional Sepias. Tess and Adeline..yep..I'm at it again. These are absolutely addictive although time consuming.

Tess (from the Roaring 20's-she is a very spirited gal).

The beadwork on the front is extremely old and most likely from that era. Inside the purse I have placed a pearl necklace and hair net, shown on the left.
Click here to view Tess at my Etsy shop

Adeline is a schoolmarm from the 1800's
Click here to view Adeline at my etsy shop

Contents from Adeline's purse include a very ancient-looking
leather sewing pouch and leather curlers used way back when.

I promised to have the story of my experience with the Hopi Indian tribe today but I was not happy with my scanned images. This was an incredible encounter and deserves pictures equal to it. I'll proceed with that story soon!

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