Journal

Pixies and Pins and Needles

Rosemaling


Pixies and Pins and Needles

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You may be familiar with the story of the pixies and the bottles of pins and needles. I have grown up with versions of these stories AND with pixies, which you see here. The Girls (as they were affectionately referred to in the family) placed a pixie in each cottage, so the story goes, to watch over the house. The pixie was placed at the highest point, to ensure that it missed nothing.

In visiting cottages last summer, I found no original pixies. In the 1990s Mildred noticed the interest in this tradition and the shortage of original pixies. She found a mold for a pixie and began to cast them in plaster and paint them herself. This figure is reminiscent of a character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, I think.

I include a couple of photos of the pixies that I grew up with. The sooty old chap came, I believe, from the beach cottage on Channel Drive. (The story of this cottage is another whole story of the work the Girls did during the Great Depression.) The interior of this cottage was originally finished in a glazed knotty pine paneling. After it was damaged by a fire, the Girls were so intent on restoring this look that they spent weeks trying to scrub and sand off the smoke discoloration. When that wasn’t satisfactory, Mildred went in and lightly whitewashed the paneling and proceeded to hand-paint all the knots back! This fellow came home about that time, still sooty from the fire. Possibly the Girls then were of the opinion that he had been through enough….? He did his job though, as no one was injured in the fire and the cottage withstood the fire and remained for many years after. Eventually, lacking pixie protection, it was bought and torn down to make way for the very contemporary house that stands on the site today.

The tradition of the bottles of pins and needles got its start in old English lore. A bottle of ‘nine new needles and nine new pins (to which the Girls added nine new nails “just for good measure”) was set, points downward, in the hearth to ward off any bad spirits who might try to enter the house through the ground. I saw two of these bottles in cottages last July and keep my eyes open for them with each visit. The one that is pictured here includes a little poem with a rose illustration. We will never know what said the poem says, however, as it is firmly set in the hearth of the studio the Girls built for Nicholas Firfires.

I buried a bottle in the center of the garden of my Pine Street Cottages project at its rededication in 1989, just for good measure!!

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Rosemaling

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Rosemaling is a Scandinavian and Northern European decorative painting, most often associated with Norway. Trays, pine chests, armoires, and dressers are frequently found in antique shops with this lovely soft, often floral painting, prettily faded over the years.

Aunt Mildred was trained in fine arts, beginning her studies at what is now UCLA and finishing at what is now UCSB. She worked for several years in Los Angeles for Barker Brothers furniture, with other painters. The fashion then was decorative painting; flowers, scrolls, garlands, and figures on all manner of furniture and even in whole dressing rooms and bathrooms of the wealthy. I even heard a rumor that Mildred rosemaled a grand piano! She told of painting theatre sets and “anything anyone wanted designed and painted.”

After several years, she heard of a program for students, under the guidance of the National Geographic Society, to sail to China, India and Singapore. She applied, and even though she was no longer a student, was accepted. She asked for leave from her job. When her request was denied, she resigned and packed her bags.

She spoke of that trip in glowing terms, and knowing her zest for life and adventure, I only wish she had kept a diary!! I have two parasols she brought back from that trip, leaning in the corner of my loft right now.

When she returned, she decided to settle back in Santa Barbara to be closer to her family – maybe in the house built by her father on Micheltorena Street (which still stands). We think that her first studio was in El Paseo. Any further information on that would be gratefully received. In 1930 Harriet, my grandfather Bert and their father began construction on what we always called ‘The Shop’ on Coast Village Road. (It was altered along the way to accommodate the tea room that was being run across the street by an Englishwoman, who ran her business in this English cottage building and lived above it, in the back.) Mildred used the other part of the building as her design studio. (More on the Tea Room another time.)

I have included here photos of some of the rosemaled pieces that my mother and I have. Given how long she did this, both in her original studio in El Paseo and then at The Shop, there are certainly a good number of pieces still surviving. One Moody Cottage owner found a magazine basket in a shop in Santa Barbara and bought it, after noticing the Moody Studio sticker on the bottom!! Many people have asked about Mildred’s rosemaling, knowing that she also painted decorations inside many of the cottages. Some even remain today. “A pinch of salt”…”Upsy-daisy”… Apparently, designing the cottages and decorating the interiors was not enough; Mildred needed to write the captions too!

, If you have or know of any of Mildred’s pieces, please let me know, as I would like to photograph and document the wide range of her work. In one of her oral histories she said that she did “an awful lot of coffee tables.” I’ve never seen one!!

— MGH

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