September 3, 2014

Little Treasures

Some parents can't part with special baby clothes. And they shouldn't, because some items like the English-smocked dresses at The Children's Corner of the Pink Geranium in Fort Myers are meant to be saved as heirlooms. Moms or grandparents buy the dress as a christening outfit, then when daughter is two or three years old the dress comes out of the closet to be enjoyed as an Easter or birthday frock. These extraordinary tiny works of wearable art at the Pink Geranium are hand sewn by Jane Reddington in the traditional English smocking method. The dress is made from one piece of cloth. The hem is deep, the sleeve is raglan. The design is generous. A child has to grow lots to outgrow it.

English smocking is an old sewing/pleating art that originally did what elastic does in today's garments. "Smocking was used in the waistband of a dress or skirt," explains Reddington. "and it was meant to be forgiving, to stretch. The tiny pleats breathed with the wearer. And that's what they do in these baby dresses. English smocking means that the pleats are on both sides of the fabric, not just the side facing out." Reddington has been making smocked dresses for 18 years and figures she's turned out more than 2,000 family treasures.

It takes the expert about 11 hours of meticulous handwork to complete a baby outfit. For material, she uses imperial broadcloth from Tennessee in a 65-percent cotton/35-percent polyester blend. This ensures cuddly comfort but means no ironing for mom. The dresses have French seams and tiny buttons but can go into the gentle cycle of the washer and dryer and come out pristine. Reddington does hats to match the dresses, too. Sizes for English smocked dresses range from six months to two-toddler. Price is $49.50. Reddington, who works in the Pink Geranium three days a week, says that customers who buy one dress often come back for another a few years later, and that the store routinely handles phone orders from all over the country. Word gets around.

But the Children's Corner of this intergenerational clothing shop offers more than quality smocked ensembles. The inventory excels in classic children's clothing and accessories by makers such as Bailey Boys and Little Traditions. Many of them are matching outfits one for sister, brother and infant. Absolutely adorable. Store owner Pam Belcher (a mom of three) also stocks the little Lilly Pulitzer line, shoes and whimsical play clothes that are finely detailed. Toys, books and layette supplies make The Children's Corner a wonderful place to shop for shower gifts, too.

One of my favorites is a delicate, white baby christening cap with tiny buttons that hold in place long, slender, white satin ribbons. There's also a button tuck in the back of the bonnet to give it shape along with some decorative stitching on the sides. Baby wears the cap on christening day. Then Mom puts it away. Many years later on precious daughter's wedding day, Mom brings out the cap, snips off the buttons and the sweet little bonnet unfolds into a white handkerchief that the bride carries as her "something old." In the case of a son, the mother of the groom presents the cap to her daughter-in-law-elect to carry down the aisle. There's a poem that comes with the cap relating in verse all this information. I swear to you, it's nothing for a woman to stand in the Pink Geranium and weep real tears when she reads it. Sales associate Donna Stuek hands her a tissue. Then the customer buys a bonnet and leaves smiling. And that's how an heirloom is born and a family tradition gets started. At a modest $18, the christening cap/wedding hanky is a lovely, sentimental investment in the next generation, and makes you realize how true it is that little things mean a lot.

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Carol and Wade Smith enjoy leafing through art and interior-design magazines such as Elle Decor, Art & Antiques and Metropolitan Home because they often come across pieces of furniture from their antiques galleries in Naples and Minneapolis that have made their way into the homes of the rich and famous. Recently, as they were turning the pages of Traditional Home, they saw a feature on Garrison Keillor's residence in St. Paul. "We spotted tables, chairs, bedroom furniture, all sorts of Asian things that Keillor"s decorator had chosen from our Minneapolis store," says Carol, noting that her youngest daughter, Vanessa, now manages that northern emporium, thus allowing the parents to move to Naples and establish a gallery on Third Street in the Plaza.

The Naples gallery is called C.W. Smith Imported Antiques. Its international collection includes outstanding vintage items from China, Tibet and Burma as well as China Trade and European Colonial antiques including British, Dutch and Portuguese furniture. The Smith's exquisite collection spans the 16th through 19th centuries and neolithic to Qing Dynasty artifacts dating from 7000 B.C. to 1911 A.D. The Naples store is celebrating two years in business this month, but the Minneapolis studio has been a respected fixture on the scene for more than 15 years.

"It was our intention to settle in Naples for some years," explains Carol, "especially since many of our northern friends and clients have homes here. When Wade retired from his 35-year career at Honeywell, we knew the time was right."

Carol and Vanessa still travel to Asia four times a year to buy for the two showrooms and to check on restoration work. All of the pieces in both galleries are selected by the Smiths from private homes and public bazaars. They refuse to buy long distance by phone or via Internet auctions.

Wade's Honeywell job first took the couple to exotic territory three decades ago. Once they were installed in Bombay (Wade covered the South Asian district), the couple began collecting antique furniture and artifacts. Soon friends began asking Carol to find things for them and decorate their homes, too. Then friends and relatives from America came to visit and asked Carol to send furniture when they returned home.

"I realized there was a viable business in what I was doing for pleasure for friends and friends of friends," says Carol. "When we came back to the States, I brought a container of things with me. That, plus things I edited from our own residence, became the basis for the original gallery in Minneapolis." Prices in the Naples gallery range from about $150 to about $26,000.

Because the Smiths lived in the Far East for so long, they were able to establish and maintain relationships with experts there. From the outset they determined to buy only quality objects. "Everything we sell has a history, and that is what we strive to pass on to our buyers," says Wade. "Actually, the story that goes along with the furniture or art can be the most fascinating part of the acquisition."

Because the C.W. Smith gallery deals in museum-quality items, its owners are fiercely protective of authenticity. "We do thermoluminescent testing to verify the date of our pieces and we don't restore or repair in the usual sense," explains Carol. "We employ Smithsonian Institution-trained experts who stabilize pieces. Generally, this means careful cleaning and polishing. If things need to go further, such as replacing a knob or a rung, then we include that in the provenance so the buyer is aware that such a process has taken place."

Is there anything that Carol and Wade bought for themselves in the Far East that they would never dream of parting with? "A red lacquer 18th-century British Colonial secretary," replies Carol. "It harmonizes with a traditional decorating scheme, and it goes with our soft contemporary decor here in Naples." Wade says he's partial to the couple's British Colonial rosewood bed with its ornate carving and posts for hanging mosquito netting.

***

Speaking of little things, lots of folks today are collecting fetishes. The dictionary definition of a fetish is an object of unreasonable regard and obsessive attention. But in Zuni Indian lore, a fetish is a diminutive stone animal carving considered to have magical powers. A fetish can be owned by an individual, a family or an entire tribe. The fetish is carried from place to place in a little pouch or pot and must be guarded, fed and cared for by the person responsible for this clan treasure.

Some fetishes are adorned with even tinier carved objects tied to their backs (a medicine pack is one) that are decorated with bits of coral, turquoise or other semiprecious stones. Collectors prize fetishes for their craftsmanship or the beauty of the stones (travertine, crystal, dolomite, amber, even fossilized walrus bone). Buyers are also attracted to fetishes by the stories attached to these mini-protectors and the fact that 100 fetishes would take up almost no room in a wall-hung display case.

To appreciate (and acquire) fetishes, serious collectors and the casually curious will want to experience a gallery on Sanibel Island called Aboriginals: Art of the First Person. This unique studio, owned by Susanne and Bill Waites, showcases many fine antique and contemporary fetishes as well as larger examples of art from West Africa, the American Southwest and Australia - masks, baskets, bark paintings, sculptures, silver jewelry, charms and the like.

Like so many gallery owners, the Waiteses became interested in tribal art when they lived in Australia for two years in the 1970s. Fascinated by what local artisans were expressing about their culture, the couple collected what appealed to them. The Waiteses traveled extensively (and still do) and began to notice common themes in the arts of West Africa, the Americas and Australia. This led to research, education and more collecting. Finally, their Chicago home couldn't hold any more. And when they moved to south Fort Myers 13 years ago, they established a gallery to indulge their hobby and share their expertise and their growing collections with new friends.

The Waiteses approach their inventory the way professional curators maintain museum collections. They love to share knowledge and often provide projects for area school children. The descriptive panels next to exhibited items provide detailed and extensive information about the art form, the artist and the culture it springs from. And the brochures they produce about their revolving exhibitions are worth keeping for their educational content. Additionally, the Waiteses are genuinely interested in other collectors-and they are great conversationalists. Chat them up at their gallery and you'll see.

As for the Zuni fetishes, the miniature stone animals are collected for all different reasons. Some acquire just one or a few kinds of animals. Others collect a single kind of stone. Others collect works by specific artists such as the brothers Wilson and Salvado Romero from the Cochiti pueblo.

Fetish animals represent human characteristics, and some people give fetishes as gifts to friends and family members who exemplify such traits. Here are a few to consider: The whale means power, the bear is strength. The crow represents boldness while the deer embodies the power of gentleness. The dolphin fetish stands for wisdom, and the frog invokes rain. The hawk has clarity of inner vision and the horse possesses healing powers. A lizard means renewal, a mole is the protector of crops and the swan represents loyalty and love. Surely, you know someone who'd like a fetish and the story behind it. Fetishes at the Aboriginals gallery range in price from about $15 to $600. Large cultural gift in a small artistic package.

C.W. Smith Imported Antiques

1170 Third Street South, Naples

213-0749

The Children's Corner at The Pink Geranium

Cypress Square

13451 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers

481-1677

Aboriginals: Art of the First Person

2340 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel

395-2200

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