A window on home-grown art and real Christmas cheer

Hand-painted wreaths by artist Donna Miniere greet customers at Jon's Cleaners in Orlando, Dec. 20, 2013.

Hand-painted wreaths by artist Donna Miniere greet customers at Jon’s Cleaners in Orlando, Dec. 20, 2013.

Round red berries nestled in holly. Jolly elves and jaunty snowmen. In a time when most Christmas decorations bristle with made-in-China tinsel, some small businesses cling to a homemade holiday spirit with hand-painted windows.

I once watched Donna Miniere, a master of the art, at work at Jon’s Cleaners on East Michigan Street in Orlando. Clad in a red shirt and paint-smeared white overalls, she was dabbing thick paint on the wreaths adorning Jon’s glass doors.

It was great to see Miniere’s handiwork again this year at Jon’s, where owner Jon Scholtens said she’s been painting holiday windows for about 15 years.

When we talked a few years ago, Miniere recalled childhood memories from nearby Blankner Elementary, where she and other children painted snow scenes on the windows at the back of the school.

A painted snowman, seen from inside Christo's Cafe on Edgewater Drive in Orlando's College Park.

A painted snowman, seen from inside Christo’s Cafe on Edgewater Drive in Orlando’s College Park.

Brushing on the tempera paint felt like “unbelievable freedom,” Miniere said.

Later, after majoring in environmental studies at Rollins College, she returned to her childhood love of art and became a professional portrait painter.

Many years ago now, when a transient artist began some holiday windows at a business on south Orange and didn’t finish the job, Miniere stepped in to help out, and she’s been painting holiday storefronts ever since.

She sticks to the basics – holly garlands, poinsettias, candy canes, and wreaths – with with some traditional variations for individual shops. As she brushes on the paint, she likes to go as the spirit moves her, working without stencils or patterns.

Miniere has left her signature on her paintings at Jon’s and at Michigan Jewelers next door, but some other painters have left their window artistry unsigned.

Beefy-Reindeer

Beefy King's holiday scenes include a jaunty reindeer and fox.

Beefy King’s holiday scenes include a jaunty reindeer and fox.

But the paintings they’ve made – including bright candles at LaBelle Furs (one of Orlando’s oldest businesses), smiling snowmen at Christo’s Café in College Park, and a veritable village of creatures at Beefy King on Bumby – carry on a seasonal tradition that Americans have enjoyed for decades.

I love these painted figures, full of energy and fun. As Miniere noted, it’s such a shame when folks have “had art schooled out of them.” Sometimes people will tell you that they can’t draw a straight line. Don’t worry about that. If you want to draw a straight line, get out your ruler. Straight lines aren’t what art is about, as Miniere said: “There aren’t too many of them in nature.”

Windows at Beefy King, where Orlandoans have fortified themselves during Christmas shopping for more than 40 years.

Windows at Beefy King, where Orlandoans have fortified themselves during Christmas shopping for more than 40 years.

For some of us, this time of year can feel a little heavy, full of reminders of times gone and loved ones we won’t see again, and of how crazy and rushed the season feels.

But it’s hard to feel blue when you’re munching on Beefy spuds and looking through windows where elves gambol amid wacky reindeer. Here’s to our small businesses and the gifts they bring us, now and all year long.

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Magic Carpets Made of Steel

Florence Dickinson George Dickinson Joy Dickinson Sligh Blvd Train StationMy family are railroad people, no strangers to the Orlando passenger station on Sligh Boulevard. After the traveler among us has climbed up into the train, we wave at the long windows sliding by, vanishing into the horizon. Sometimes we go there just to take photos.

Much has changed since the station debuted with a roaring big celebration back in the Roaring ’20s, but the old Spanish Mission station, designated a city landmark in 1977, has remained a working part of America’s railroad heritage, and its new role as a SunRail station has given it a brighter future.

When Atlantic Coast Line officials planned the station in the mid-1920s, they sent architect A.M. Griffin to California to study the Spanish missions in cities such as Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano. With its twin bell towers, arches, and tile roof, the station became the Atlantic Coast Line’s very Pacific Coast-style gift to Orlando. It survives as the sole Mission-style station in Florida.

Built at a cost of nearly $500,000, the depot opened in January 1927 with elaborate ceremonies brimming with railroad executives and Orlando dignitaries. The interior overflowed with potted palms and flowers. The Lions Club quartet sang, two bands played, and exuberant speakers hailed a “new era of progress and expansion.”

 The arched letters that spell Orlando were designed by the station’s architects in the 1920s. One of the station’s finest features remains the curved rendering of the word “Orlando” over the entrance facing the trains. It doesn’t hurt that the city’s name is pretty in itself. The folks who picked it back in 1857 must have known it had more marketing potential than its predecessors, Fort Gatlin and Jernigan.

I also love the colonnade of arches that extends out from the station. There our family would wait in the 1950s and ’60s for visitors from western Pennsylvania, our particular slice of up North. Among them were my Northern grandparents, Florence and George Dickinson, always decked out in their best: For her, hat (with silk flower), gloves, corset, suit, stockings, high-heeled pumps, serious purse and the little suitcase called a train case. Granddad wore a snappy fedora, starched dress shirt, double-breasted suit, pocket handkerchief, polished shoes.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

You dressed for travel then. It was an occasion. And my Granddad Dickinson wouldn’t have traveled any other way except by train. He was an engineer for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie line. Not too many years after he wore his double-breasted suit to visit Florida, he would depart this world at the throttle of his engine during heavy snow, the victim of a heart attack. His last act was to stop the train safely. The railroad gave my grandmother a gold watch to honor that.

Granddad would be happy to know that people are still traveling to Orlando by rail, on trains that bear names from his era – the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star – names that still trail a hint of adventure. And he would be happy about the survival of a station where thousands of travelers  – old, young, rich, poor, black, white – have come and gone over the years, as they rode their father’s magic carpets made of steel.

 

The Marvelous Richard Halliburton

Channeling Halliburton In one of my favorite childhood photos, a friend and I are playing dress up. She’s princess-elegant in a long dress, but I’m swathed in a scarf and shorts, a smiling child with a too-curly perm trying to channel some Indian elephant boy out of Kipling. Now I think perhaps I was channeling my inner Richard Halliburton. Although once a renowned emblem of travel adventure, my Halliburton has nothing to do with the aluminum travel cases of that name, or with the multinational Halliburton Corp. He has to do with the worlds he opened for me and many other children through his Complete Book of Marvels.  First published in 1941, it has long been out of print but still rates stellar reviews on Amazon.com. “My favorite book of all time,” notes one, in a thought echoed by others.

Richard Halliburton's Book of MarvelsHalliburton’s Marvels  educated generations of young Americans about geography, history, and culture, as the Wikipedia article on him notes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Halliburton)

Reading Halliburton never felt like “education,” though. It was like diving into magical adventures, and Halliburton did literally dive in – to the Panama Canal, to a pool by the moonlit Taj Mahal, where great white lotus blossoms drifted on the water. He rode elephants and perched on the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction. And he took along his young readers in friendly prose that never condescended.

To see the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids or even the Golden Gate Bridge – these were goals outside my family’s experience. For us, moving from Pennsylvania to Florida was a magical as it got – and nothing to be sneezed at. Travel, beyond family visits, was something other people did.

And, in truth, Halliburton’s kind of adventurous travel was beyond most of us. When I read him as a child, I didn’t realize he had already died. His last adventure began in March 1939, when he and a crew set out from Hong Kong on a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, to sail across the Pacific. Instead, they vanished, and Halliburton was declared dead in October 1939. He was 39 years old.

I had always thought of him as my own private childhood passion – me and my inner elephant boy – and was shocked and pleased to discover, in 2001, a magazine article by the literary icon Susan Sontag, titled “Homage to Halliburton.”

She had loved him too. And his sad end, she noted, could not taint the “lessons of pluck and avidity” that she and I and so many others drew from reading him.

Sontag’s essay helped me see that Halliburton’s most important gift was opening for us not only the world of travel but the idea of being a writer. “What is a writer but a mental traveler?” she asks. “When I acknowledge to myself that I’m interested in everything, what am I saying but that I want to travel everywhere. Like Richard Halliburton.”

What indeed.

halliburton

To Old Florida and Beyond

Joy Wallace Dickinson (left) with grandparents Bill and Alice Wallace and the truck for the family's new business, the B&D Market in Winter Park.

Joy Wallace Dickinson (left) about 1950 with grandparents Bill and Alice Wallace and the truck for the family’s new business, the B&D Market in Winter Park.

Welcome! If your memories or interests include sandy beaches, orange blossoms, and all that’s old and “real” Florida, I hope you’ll find this a fun, interesting spot to perch every so often in your travels across the vast, astonishing worldwide web.

I love writing about Central Florida’s past, and my heart remains there, even when I wander. Right now, I’ve wandered on a visit to California, where I once lived.

I’ve been reunited with three dear women friends to celebrated friendships forged more than 50 years ago, at Orlando’s Howard Junior High School. My ties to one of these friends, Debbie Staton Cook, reach back to a bond forged between our families in the 1940s when her uncle, Ted Staton, sold my grandparents the house in which I now live.

We four have talked a lot about how our youth in Orlando shaped our lives: about the teachers who inspired us, about good times at the Central Florida Fair, playing records at Bill Baer’s on Orange Avenue, about trips to the beach, about listening to our teacher read us The Lion’s Paw in elementary school. And yes, we’ve probably talked, too, about the pumpernickel rolls at Ronnie’s restaurant.

I carry my Central Florida past with me wherever I wander.

Joy Dickinson's 2012 painting of Orlando's Spanish Mission Train Station used a vintage postcard for inspiration.

Joy Dickinson’s 2012 painting of Orlando’s Spanish Mission Train Station used a vintage postcard for inspiration. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

I admire folks whose roots go deep into Florida’s sand, and I cherish too my heritage as one whose family came from the North, from the steel country of Pennsylvania. My father and grandparents traveled in my granddad’s woodie station wagon, but my mother and I journeyed by train and arrived at the Sligh Boulevard station. Modeled on the missions of California, this 1920s station remains my most-loved Orlando building.

Especially for my grandfather, Bill Wallace, Orlando was truly a city of dreams. Back in Pennsylvania when I was a small child, he often asked me, “Now, where are you going to go to college?” And I would respond with the much-rehearsed, “University of Florida.” In the end, my college was Florida State, but it was all the same to him. It was in Florida, his final and best-loved home. May we never forget its history, including the parts that may be difficult to embrace and understand.

Vintage roadside signs, including the iconic jaws at Orlando's Gatorland, are among the topics that inspire Joy in Florida. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

Vintage roadside signs, including the iconic jaws at Orlando’s Gatorland, are among the topics that inspire Joy in Florida. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

In this space, my goal is to embrace my name (not always easy) and focus on what’s joyful in Florida and beyond. We’ll probably venture into wide-ranging subjects including travel as a single, older woman; books, especially cozy mysteries; Florida-related art and pop culture; vintage roadside signs and other uses of typography; Orlando’s historic Lake Eola Park; the other sunshine state, California, so like and so different from Florida; writing tips and inspiration; and the occasional historic or family recipe. And maybe even coffee. This is one writer who is fueled by coffee. Let’s have a cup. I’m so happy you’re here.