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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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"Great Things are done when Men and Mountains Meet" --- William Blake

In 1994, broken-hearted following my breakup with Catherine, I packed up my life in America (where it still sits in boxes in Kelly's garage in Alexandria, Va.) and went back to India. At the time I had no desire to do any batik and was much more interested in resurrecting my Retinal Blowjob Lightshow and working in London. Apart from a month's visa run to Thailand, I was to spend a full year in India, basing myself at Tara's Guesthouse and gradually putting myself back together again. It felt very much like a resurrection-or even a reinvention of Jonathan. I bought a bike and made thrilling trips up to Himachal Pradesh and beyond. I also took the bike down to the Kumba Mela in Allahabad, the huge and incredible gathering of India's holy men and onto Goa for Christmas. Best of all, shortly before I flew back to work in London, I paid for a 70year lease on a beautiful house with land in Ayarpani, at the foot of Binsar Sanctuary mountain, 25 kms from Almora. I could see the snowpeak of Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in India from my house. I had a home once more.

For the next three years, I lived between London and Ayarpani, getting heavily involved in the club, music and theater scene in London with the Lightshow (I actually did 183 shows in the first year) and escaping to India whenever it all became too much for me. I did projected visuals for two productions of a new musical about William Hogarth and did the same for a theater piece about Frida Kahlo at the Edinburgh Festival. I heard a little too much techno dance music. And I opened my own club, Planet Jazz, where I put on live jazz groups alongside psychedelic lightshows, experimental DJs and sushi. It failed spectacularly. But slowly the focus of my life shifted and I spent most of my time in India. For a couple of years, I ran the Ayarpani house as an illegal guesthouse until the labours of domesticity lost their appeal. On the night of December 31st 1999, I held a Millennium Party at my house in the Himalayas. I projected images all over the outside of the house, let off fireworks on the roof and had fourteen guests to stay. Every year I managed to get up to the nearby Himalayan snowpeaks to trek high in the Foothills. The mountains along the Tibetan border only fifty miles from my house, have never lost their mystical, almost hypnotic appeal for me.

It was only in late 1999 that I set up a studio again and went back to batik painting. I had needed a long break and came back to the process refreshed, with a need to record my new life in some way. Of course I painted the mountains first but soon found that they lost their power when reduced to a 5'x3' piece of cloth. I had more success with my portraits of Indian neighbours. The locals showed complete indifference to my work at first but slowly began to come to hang out on my wall and watch me. Mostly they were thrilled to see portraits of themselves, for generally Indians love to be recorded, painted or photographed, even if they'll never see the results.

I set my studio up outside on the porch on the top floor of the house amidst the early blossoms of the fruit trees. All my visitors eventually moved on leaving me to my work; Batik, as it always had done, became my focus, my meditation and my salvation.

But that kind of peace was not to last for long. On May 12th, on a trip down to town on my bike, a cowboy taxi driver backed into the road without looking and hit me broadside. I was thrown off the bike and fell down two terraces to land hard on the stone flagstone floor of a chaishop below. I heard the bones of my left elbow crack on impact and my life was to take an abrupt change. After a trip to Almora hospital where they put a cast on my arm but due to the complexity of the break, could do nothing more for me, I packed up the contents of the house into twenty-three large metal trunks and locked the house up securely. Than Singh would look after everything while I was away. I went down to Delhi and a week later found myself in St Mary's Hospital, London. My smashed elbow was wired and screwed together in an operation on the first day.

That same day, my sister Kate called from Hastings to say that our mother, Joy, who was 84 and had been ill with crippling osteoporosis for years, had died after a hernia operation. It was very hard to have come so far and to be so near and not to have been able to see her when she died. Her funeral, a week later, was a very unhappy occasion and I had had to leave the crematorium in tears. But her death did leave her flat in Hastings empty at a time when I desperately needed somewhere quiet to recover and live and start the year of treatment that was to follow. After a dreamlike trip to the States to maintain my Green card and to sell some of my latest work, I went back to Hastings by the sea on England's south coast and settled in there for the next year.

This past year has been a strange one. I hadn't really lived in Britain since 1970 and just because I was born there, didn't make it any more familiar. My day to day life was defined and structured by doctors, hospital appointments and a further operation on my elbow. Committed to getting the use of my arm back, I undertook every therapy, treatment and exercise suggested to me. But fifteen months after the accident, I am having to learn to live with a painful partial disability. Quite what limits that my damaged arm will impose on me, I don't yet know.

But my handicap hasn't affected my batik work---or if it has, my paintings seem to have benefited. Perhaps my close brush with death and a definite sense of my own mortality have added some sense of urgency to my paintings. I set up a studio on my mother's dining room table and went back to work at the start of 2001. My first British batiks were not a labour of love and in fact took sheer British grit to actually complete. I painted Hastings Pier, jutting precariously out into the North Sea and the repetitive abstract patterns that the old wooden groynes made on the pebble beach. I painted an almost life-size portrait of my late Mother, which I laboured unhappily over for weeks. I did a series of batik paintings of the weathered groynes like ancient standing stones or even African sculptures, which I found at Pett Levels, a little way up the coast. But I was working without great pleasure and each piece became an ordeal to finish.

In June, I looked back at the work that I had done in India the year before and saw some potential in portraiture that I had not seen before. I started a new series of portraits of Indian friends and neighbours, which I found both very challenging and enjoyable to execute. Three of them were large-scale portraits while another was more a study in alienation, a painting of Mann Singh, a local whose descent into depression and psychosis I had watched for years. I did a good deal of careful under-dyeing before applying the final dyes, which seemed to bring a luminosity to the skin tones. All the pieces were tremendously complex and took an intense and focused concentration to complete accurately. My colours were much better and I realised that I had pushed my batik technique through to another level. Most importantly, the whole process gave me great pleasure, more than I had felt with my batik work for about 10 years.

I went straight back to work and finished the next Indian series in a record-breaking three weeks. All these batiks depended upon careful under-dyeing to achieve a luminosity of colour. My six new portraits were almost Chuck Close-like in their size and detail and were once again my neighbours from the Kumaon Foothills. Most successful I think was my painting of Than Singh from whom I had leased my house. He is squatting in the old chaishop at the front of my house, smoking a chillum and wearing mirrored sunglasses that reflect an abstract world from his eyes. Another painting,"Man in a Red Turban", is entirely focused on the landscape of an elderly Indian's not entirely pleasant face and I found myself sometimes lost in the map of another person's life. All in all, the latest series gave me huge pleasure to paint and, rare for me, I liked the finished results. I can see some glaring flaws in the work of course, but I felt that I was still pushing at the limits of this process and, most importantly, that at fifty-seven, my best work might still be to come. And that seems to be a divinely optimistic note to end this chapter on.

This new work can be seen in the Gallery section of this Confessions website.

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