Story featured in the May 1988 edition of "The China Decorator"


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 China Painting in a Time Capsule:
A Visit to Millie Jones' Studio


This morning as I sat in my china painting class I had the eeriest feeling that somehow I had been strangely transported back through time one hundred years or more. Here I was a sensible 41-year-old mother of three and college teacher, suddenly believing that I was in a time warp. As I sat in my familiar place in the unique studio of my teacher, Millie Jones, I wondered what had triggered this strange feeling today? With a new awareness I mentally retraced my steps of that morning.

Perhaps the feeling began on the way to class. I had driven slowly by the fabulous new basilica across the street from Millie's which is being completed next to the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano. That mission, famous for the mysterious return of the swallows each March 19th, is finally getting back a near replica of the wonderful old stone church lost in the earthquake of 1812. Was it the grandeur of the breathtaking new church or the silent strength of the old mission? Or did it occur as I drove toward class and crossed a time line instead of a railroad track. I felt myself to be back in an era of yesteryear.

As I entered the timeless world known as Los Rios, which is the heart of the historic district of San Juan Capistrano, California. I thought about this ancient street. I remembered that it is said to be the oldest street in all of California where people have continually lived. In fact, the adobe house right next to Millie Jones' property once belonged to Feliciano Rios, one of the first mission soldiers, whose relatives today continue to occupy the same tiny adobe. I reflected on the rich history of the area. Here beneath blue skies of spring where ocean breezes sweep the mind clean, it somehow seems important to reflect on one's heritage.

I recall now that I looked across the tiny lane, past the art studio to an absolutely immaculate Victorian style structure known as the O-Neill home which has been moved to its present site and restored to house the local historical society and museum.

My eye continued down the dusty lane and the clock seemed to turn back to 1794 when the little ramshackle neighborhood began, even then much as it is today. For hundreds of years before that however, it was part of the peaceful village of the Juaneno Indian tribe. In fact, as I thought of the Indians, I had looked the other way down the street to see if I could see the home of Millie's daughter. She is Jennifer Baldridge and she lives in a quaint wood-sided home that once belonged to Juaneno chief, Clarence Lobo. The Lobo family can trace their origins back to the days before the arrival of the Spanish explorers!

I remembered as I retraced that morning, that I had parked my car and walked into the tree- shaded lane. I had noticed the colorful morning glories creeping silently across sagging porches, the rich and muted crow of some distant rooster, and I had inhaled the scent of freshly mowed grass mixed with the familiar barnyard smells. I had smiled as I thought of the huge blonde Clydesdale-type horses named Duke and Dan which Millie and her handsome husband, Gil, so proudly keep in the large corral behind their home.

That reminded me of where I was headed. Art class. My attention quickly focused on the charming old one story early California style house on the corner. The signs in front of it once declared: "Carriage for hire." "Home of Delfina Olivares in the 1890's", and a more modern sign, "Porcelain Art Creations."

Enjoying my journey back in time I recalled how dreadful that property had been eight years ago, before Millie and Gil got the restoration spirit and purchased the three dilapidated old structures which rested on over an acre of property. Gil restored the front house and created such a charming art studio for Millie that it received the prestigious San Juan Beautiful award for excellence that year. It was also declared an historic site by the state of California. The house behind the front house was in such disrepair that it had to be raised. However, Gil was able to salvage much of the original material so that the house he built is really a replica of its former self. Today it is a charming blend of the old and the new and is the personal residence for Millie and Gil. Millie has added such touches as her won hand-painted tiles in the bathroom, which go beautifully with the lovely floral carpeting and her own hand-painted porcelain pieces. The third structure was an interesting old bathhouse, which had been moved onto the property in 1936. It had come from a famous old Hot Springs in the area. Now it is something of a gallery for the Jones' collection of memorabilia as well as an office for Gil's construction company.

I stared as I had realized that my little mental meanderings were about to make me late for class. I moved along more briskly and came to the picket gate in front of Porcelain Art Creation. I opened it. I passed a sleeping German Shephard, several idle chickens and then I silently slipped by the familiar sight of sleeping little Lacey Baldridge. At nine months of age, the tiny blonde granddaughter of Millie was fast asleep in her porch swing with her bottle still in her mouth.

Upon entering the studio, my eyes noticed the interior as they had never before. I saw gleaming tables filled with pristine white china. I noticed the old gramophone in the corner by the collection of antique dolls and then my eyes rested on the glistening surfaces of the private collection of antique porcelain which Millie has treasured and stored in specially lighted and secured cabinets which line the back walls of the studio. What a sight all of this was! And busy at work were my fellow classmates, many of who have been painting with Millie since she began in the 1960's. Many of the students are teachers themselves by now but they so enjoy the unique atmosphere at the Los Rios studio that they keep coming to class.

I remember taking my place. It was at that point that I had realized that I had been lost in time. I pulled myself to the present and examined the lovely lady gowned in a long-skirted Victorian dress reminiscent of the colorful past of early California. She is Millie Jones and she made all of this happen. I recalled the celebration last year of National Porcelain Art month so beautifully orchestrated. I remembered how all of the members of the Orange County Porcelain Artists climbed up into the huge hay wagon driven by Gil Jones and pulled by those big Belgium horses, Duke and Dan. We here quite a sight as Gil drove us through the historic streets of San Juan Capistrano. The tourists stopped and waved to us as we clopped by. What a memorable time, and all made possible through the quiet efforts of Millie Jones.

But it is more than the historic area, or the lace curtains at the windows or the occasional egg some forgetful chicken has mistakenly laid by the front door. Rather it is a special feeling. It is a feeling of peacefulness, reverence for nature, the past and a real appreciation for the beautiful. In five years I have never heard Millie say or do anything which was unkind. Each day she is filled with the joy of life. Today she was so excited about three new baby goats born in the little pen in the backyard.

Somehow it all seems so right. The past and the present locked together in this special place.

I could clearly see then why my flight into fantasy. It all just fits so well. Here we are enjoying an art form that dates back to early man. The Chinese perfected the production and decoration of hard paste porcelain between the 7th and the 14th centuries. Marco Polo explored China and brought back porcelain in 1295. It was the envy of European royalty. After four hundred years of attempts western man finally discovered the secrets of making porcelain. A German alchemist named Johann Bottger in 1715 was finally the person to master the secrets. After that, serious production and decoration of porcelain proliferated throughout Europe. Finally in the 1870's porcelain painting spread across the Atlantic to be a popular past time of the ladies of the 19th century.

Long before that time, however, those Indian women of the Los Rios area sat along the banks of the Trabuco Creek, which courses toward the Pacific Ocean behind Millie's studio. I could almost see them as they meticulously shaped eating vessels out of adobe clay and water and later, decorating them with paints and beads. Such a rich and colorful heritage from ancient man, to western man, beautifully preserved and protected here on Los Rios Street with Mr. and Mrs. Gil Jones. We hail the artists of Los Rios Street of the past and glory in being the Los Rios Artists of the present.





Story by Donna L. Friess

Featured in the May 1988 edition of "The China Decorator", this article so beautifully written by Donna Friess of San Juan Capistrano, Ca

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