(Sit back, this is a long one!)
One of my quilts is hanging in the residence of the US Ambassador in Dakar, Senegal. I loaned "Buttons & Bows" to the Art in Embassies program, which is administered by the State Department. Last summer Ambassador and Mrs. Roth selected it to hang in their home. That got my name on "the list." When plans were made to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the program, the State Department sent me an invitation to a reception hosted by Secretary of State and Mrs. Colin Powell on May 17th.
Is this cool or what?! While I do gad about the country rubbing thimbles with quilters once a month, I just couldn't see justifying the expense of flying to Washington D.C. for a 2-hour cocktail party. (Maybe if I drank…)
Much as I would have liked to have met Colin Powell, I RSVP'd that I was really honored to be asked but that I just couldn't swing it.
About 10 days later, Steve brought in the mail and said there was something I might want to take a look at.
Yeah, I think so! And just in case you're wondering, when the return address just says "The White House" in gold lettering, it's really hard to open!
I don't care what your politics are, an invitation from the First Lady to visit the White House is like touching history. I couldn't stop giggling and doing the Happy Dance. I decided that when something this special falls in your lap, you pick it up, pack your bags, and go!
We entered through the gate at the East Entrance. Notice the dress-up purse and matching "toe pinchers?" Now if I could just remember how to walk like a girl.
After passing through security we went through several non-descript rooms and entered a hallway with two rooms on either side. Following the crowd ahead of me, I entered the room on the left. Beautiful fresh-cut flowers were on a table in the center of the room, and on the walls were portraits of First Ladies. Everyone was snapping pictures and posing by the paintings. I passed someone my camera and had my picture taken by Eleanor Roosevelt.
It wasn't until I was just about ready to leave that I noticed the door between Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan was the ladies room! I felt like I was in a Wheel of Fortune "before & after" puzzle: First Ladies-Ladies Room. Not wanting to miss ANYTHING, I explored that too!
Check out the presidential seal on the paper hand towels!
The room on the other side was the Mens' Room, excuse me, the "Gentlemen's Anti-Room." It looked like a library. You should see the "official" White House historical tour for pictures without me, plus interesting facts: The Ladies Room is really called the Vermeil Room.
Once everybody stopped playing around in the bathrooms we were ushered upstairs.
Everybody was so polite. Every single person I saw welcomed me to the White House. It was very cool. Just past the top of the stairs was a large foyer with a table of juices and pastry. (The paper cocktail napkins had the same seal of the president as the hand towels in the ladies room. I brought one of those home, too.)
To the left was a string sextet!
This room opened onto the Entrance and Cross Halls past the columns. The doorway you see flanked by flags and the great seal above the door was the "Blue Room."
And it's oval. We were allowed to just wander around and mingle. Every room had incredible flower arrangements.
There were famous paintings and lots of stuff to look at. I didn't know what any of it was, but I'm easily impressed. Look at these curtains!
And yes, it was pretty cool to look at the White House lawn from the INSIDE.
All the rooms we were allowed enter were connected to each other. (See the floor plan.) It was also possible to access them from the large hallway. From the Blue Room I went into the Red Room.
That's Dolly Madison hanging on the wall. (I learned that later.) I also found the carpet very appealing.
I think my favorite room was the Green Room. (That might be Ben Franklin above the flowers.)
It was just so elegant.
I may have been the only person photographing the dangly things on the drapes!
After a while, we were ushered into the East Room. After everyone was seated they told us to turn off our cell phones. It sounded like an electronic symphony when all 300 people powered down their phones. Group giggle.
Mrs. Bush was introduced and we all stood and applauded. She gave a lovely speech. She's a very good speaker—incredibly poised and yet down-to-earth at the same time. Very engaging.
Afterwards everyone wanted to meet her, but there were no plans for a receiving line. People just followed her. She kind of got stuck between the Red Room and the State Dining room, surrounded by people who wanted to meet her. She stayed for quite some time talking with people, but I was never able to get close enough. I'm sure the plan was for her to leave, but there just wasn't a path for her to exit. Finally she was taken into the Red Room with a small number of people. The military personnel stood at each doorway keeping everyone else out.
I asked if it was possible to get in line for the next "wave" in to the Red Room but they were really trying to keep people away and not let any more in. So, I chatted with the "guards" for a while instead. They were really sweet. After that I started wandering away and they called me over and whispered that if I wanted to see the President's helicopter land I should go into the Blue Room.
Well, I dashed over there then moved to the Green Room where I had a window all to myself, and there it was coming down onto the lawn right outside the window! (Very loud!) We waited for quite some time, cameras at the ready, waiting for the President to step off the helicopter. First one door opened, then the other. Still no President. It must have been five minutes and then I saw a figure in a suit walking briskly to towards the helicopter. (See him?) Well, President Bush wasn't ARRIVING, he was DEPARTING! Duh!
After the helicopter took off, things started to clear out a little. Mrs. Bush was still occupied in the Red Room and they weren't letting anybody in, so I walked down to the East Room and made a few calls on my cell phone. ("Hi, honey! I'm calling from the WHITE HOUSE!! Ever hear of the East Room? Well, I'm IN it!) When I couldn't think of anybody else to call, I wandered back through the Green Room (nobody there) and then into the Blue Room. It was empty too. Then somebody closed the doors to the Green Room and the Grand Hall! (I was once locked in the cutting room for a short time back when QNM sold fabric, and that was most fun. I was getting hopeful…)
No such luck. I continued to the other side of the room to the entrance to the Red Room, which was still blocked off by security people. With the other two doors closed, there was no place else to go, so I asked if Mrs. Bush was having a receiving line after all and she WAS! But, no I couldn't join the line! I was so disappointed. Here I was, the only one left in the adjoining rooms. Everyone else had gone. I'm 10 feet away from meeting the First Lady.
I tried to look as pathetic as possible and asked if I could start a second line, in case there was some slim chance they would change their minds and let just one more person meet her, sort of like flying "stand-by." The woman laughed and told me I had to ask one of the uniformed people. I repeated my request to a young woman in a white dress uniform. As she was forming the N of "NO!" her tall, very handsome, incredibly buff colleague came over, flashed me a winning smile and intoned that I could, indeed, join the line. I would be the VERY LAST ONE. He looked just like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun." So what if I was old enough to be his mother. Provided he had older siblings.
I joined the line and chatted with my own personal "guard" at the end of the line until it was my turn. I gave my name to one of Mrs. Bush's aids. She took my camera and introduced me to Ann Johnson, director of the Art in Embassies program, who in turn introduced me to the First Lady. I handed her my business card with the picture of St. Basil's Cathedral on it and said, "This is a picture of one of my quilts." Mrs. Bush said, "That's a QUILT?!" (In a good way.)
We shook hands and then my mind went completely blank.
Evidently we had our picture taken together, and I left. Thankfully I remembered my camera and didn't trip on the way out. All and all it was a huge success! I feel so honored to have met the First Lady. It was really very nice of her to stretch her 15 minute appearance into well over an hour, taking time to acknowledge so many people.
In the afternoon I attended a panel discussion at the State Department entitled "Art as Diplomacy: 21st Century Challenges" presented by the Art in Embassies Program and the Center for Arts and Culture. (When I gave my name at the desk to check in, the fellow behind the desk said "Ami Simms---I get your newsletter!" I almost fell over! It was Robert Soppelsa, the curator who put together the exhibit for Senegal with my quilt in it. I had no idea he was a subscriber.)
The panel discussion was very interesting. Panelists spoke on how art can actually help in the diplomatic process to initiate conversation, focus on shared problems (and possible solutions), and help to present a more balanced view of American culture overseas. Ambassadors, diplomats, presidential appointees, gallery directors, and artists shared their opinions and experiences regarding the importance of art in cultural exchange. Heady stuff. There were so many accomplished people.
Most of the artists that I met were painters. There were a few sculptors, too, but only one other quilter, Tina Brewer, from Pittsburgh. (At least that I met.) One of the most surprising things throughout the whole day was that everyone was as giddy about being invited to the White House and to the State Department as I was. We were all pinching ourselves: are we really here? And, with all the talent in the room, there was no ego. Nobody was snooty or snobby. I rubbed elbows with people who sell their art for tens of thousands of dollars and have pieces hanging in big museums and everybody was really down to earth.
When the panel discussion was over, we proceeded upstairs to the Benjamin Franklin Room for the 40th Anniversary Book Reception and Dedication and I got to meet…
…(from right to left) Ann Johnson, Director of Art in Embassies Program; Colin Powell, Secretary of State, Mrs. Powell, General Williams, and Mrs. Williams.
After the receiving line disbanded we were allowed to wander around in that first room we entered. On display was a desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote part of the Declaration of Independence.
And the desk upon which the Treaty of Paris was signed.
In the Benjamin Franklin dining room musicians played as we sampled the most delicious food. My personal favorite? Baked potato slices about an inch thick. A shallow scoop of potato had been removed and it its place was a dollop of sour cream, topped with caviar! (Red and black, of course!) Special thanks to Theodore Waddell who took this picture of the goings-on. If you look VERY carefully, you can see me way over by the window talking with somebody. (Look hard.)
I also visited the ladies room and must say the hand towels rivaled those at the White House.
The Secretary of State gave a wonderful speech…
…and Ann Johnson gave the concluding remarks. After she thanked us for coming and again reiterated that the art we loaned is really an important diplomatic tool, she urged us to "continue painting, and sculpting, and making beautiful quilts." I don't think I could have smiled any bigger. Wow!
To see "non-quilter" type tours of the White House, check out: