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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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LIFE, LOVE, WAX & DYES IN THE YEAR OF THE MONKEY 2004: I've long contended that life is rather like trying to pin down a tarpaulin on a mountain top in a high wind. No sooner do you manage to pin down all four corners of the tarp, then one flies up. Pin that one down and up flies another. Even if you spread-eagle yourself right across the whole tarp, arms and legs desperately covering all four corners, one corner inevitably comes loose as soon as you relax for an instant. And that's exactly like life. The four corners of my restless tarpaulin represent the four essential elements of a truly happy existence: Love, Health, Wealth and Personal Satisfaction. Of course, you can be happy whilst missing one or even two of these elements. I've been perfectly happy without a penny in my pocket. I've been relatively happy alone and out of love and I've gotten by very well doing things I haven't really wanted to do, whilst madly in love and rolling in money. But take away two or more of these elements and you're in trouble- and if you lose your health, all the money and love in the world won't bring you much joy.

I could have subtitled this new chapter of Confessions "How to Fall Down the Himalayas without Quite Killing Yourself", for the year of the Monkey was often for me a year of health issues and accidents. And why I, as a Chinese monkey, had to have health problems (instead of having a year of fabulous fame and fortune, for instance) I have no idea. Perhaps I'm missing something crucial here? Perhaps it was my advancing age (I turned 60) or perhaps I'm just starting to lose the plot (does one actually realize when one starts becoming senile?). Maybe it was just time to beat myself up a bit again. Batik almost took second seat to Health in 2004, I definitely had to battle to maintain my normal focus in my work and that ain't right!

The year 2004 started in spectacular fashion. I married my beloved Beth McCoy on my birthday at Colorado Springs Courthouse at the end of January. It was a happy, moving and very simple affair and cost us all of $30. A few friends came to the ceremony and we all had a Vietnamese meal together afterwards. It was the best imaginable way to celebrate turning 60 and was a total commitment to this Nordic goddess and fellow batik artist that I'd met on-line only the year before. I've never felt any doubts about our complete compatibility and the longer we are together, the surer I am of that. In the past two years, we have rarely been separated for more than half an hour and it seems to me that we continue to be joined at the hip.

We packed up our studio in February and flew from Denver to Delhi, literally half way around the world. This must have been at least my tenth trip to India and my house in the Himalayas while it was Beth's first trip to Asia. She survived the initial craziness of Pahar Ganj and Old Delhi pretty well and fell in love with the Ayarpani house as soon as we got there. By March, she was settled into the country idyll, was baking bread on the wood stove daily and had learned to chase the marauding monkeys and langours off with rocks like the best and the rest of us. Her years in rural Colorado were a good training for our life in the foothills of the Himalayas with its lack of electricity, running water and its amazing mountains.

We got back into batik quickly; I soldiered on with my portraits of the locals while Beth painted a couple of large Indian-styled still lifes. In April, we took off on a two week trek with friends and went North to the corner of this vast country where India meets Nepal and Tibet. Spring had sprung but it was still wet. We followed an ancient path that lead ultimately to holy Mt. Kailash, north of us in Tibet, that had been used by travelers and goatherders for thousands of years. First we climbed high up to the Narayan Ashram, a Vivekananda center built in the last century. We then headed up the old stone path towards the Tibetan border which is still closed to foreigners from that direction, as far as we could go. It was actually a brutally hard walk, up and down steep mountains, into country that none of us had seen before. We covered 50 kilometers in two days which pretty much did us all in. On the forth day out, the clouds cleared and we saw incredible views of the Himalayas to the north and east of us. One day, I slipped on wet rocks and fell heavily, cracking a couple of ribs.

Back at the house, after a few days rest, Beth and I went back to work in the studio and in the big garden. Another walk was planned but I still had further to fall. Working in the vegetable patch one morning, I heard Beth's call to breakfast and stood up a little too suddenly in the sun. The blood must have left my head and I toppled backwards down two steep terraces, landing in a particularly vicious patch of nettles. Beth was just in time to see my feet flying off the terrace and was sure that I'd broken my neck. I remember nothing about the fall but my poor back reminded me of it for weeks afterwards.

For awhile, life went fairly smoothly. My back and ribs healed up slowly and both of us got back into our regular daily yoga exercises. We decided to focus on a new line of Batiks for home decoration under the joint name of E-Mc2 (geddit?) For several months we batiked cushion covers, pillow cases and lamps. This was fun and liberating for me after the intensity of portraiture and the total accuracy this kind of work demanded. We decided to get as far away from our normal representational work as possible and played around with Indian, African and Aboriginal themes, incorporating tribal motifs and ideas into our batiks. From there, I painted a couple of abstract batiks, both on Jazz themes, which were totally different from anything I'd ever done before and which can be seen in my Gallery. Beth's work kept evolving and became increasingly complex and beautiful.

But about this time, I started getting regular headaches which definitely cramped whatever style I might ever have had. They sapped my energy, distracted me from my work and still continue. Diagnosed as cluster migraines when we eventually got back to the States in 2005, they have neither known cause or cure but marred our domestic bliss and work throughout the year of the Monkey.

In spite of them however, we made quite a few wonderful walks and worked hard throughout the rest of the year. As a result of our doing about 150 loosely styled cushion covers, I think that I became much freer in my colours and my use of dyes. One portrait of a impeccable old Kumaon gentleman that we met in the mountains was rendered entirely in sepia tones. My portrait of our friend Anam, resting in a chai shop after a hard day's walking, is drenched in lemon-coloured sunlight with bright lilac shadows. I batiked a large picture of a typical orange Indian truck, festooned with Christmas lights and decorations and literally dripping with glitter and gods

One morning, on the way down to Almora town, Beth and I hit a bad patch of oil on the winding mountain road and came heavily off the Honda bike. Beth, who was carrying our laptop, managed to land on top of me luckily but I gashed my knee badly and that put me out of action again for awhile. Once again the Tarp flapped loose and once again I learned how, without good health, you haven't got much. The best I can say about that accident is that it could have been a whole lot worse.

At the start of the new year, Beth and I drove up to the next town Bageshwar to spend a really fun day at the yearly Mela, or Festival, there. Most of the Mela consists of the usual trashy plastic toy stalls and marginally edible food stands but there is always a really interesting carpet and rug market. I was happy to see my Tibetan friend Then Singh, whose portrait I had done the previous year. He lives higher up near to the Tibetan border and comes down to sell his carpets every year. He's lovely little guy, friendly and charming and I really must go and visit him in his village one day. There's also an enclosure where all the NGOs and alternative technology companies have stands and demonstrate their new energy sources and eco-friendly projects. Best of all, there's a fabulous Indian fair. There are hand-cranked Ferris wheels, ancient dodgems and a family circus. A jaded Magician puts on the same tired show at least 25 times a day, assisted by two equally cynical transvestite acolytes. But what I really love is the incredible Wall of Death! Constructed apparently entirely out of bamboo, the 25 ft. high circular walled enclosure shudders and shakes as 2 motor bikes and a car pick up speed below and then climb the walls, somehow maintaining their momentum on the centrifugal wall and somehow never quite hitting one another. The audience cluster around the top of the wall and hold out paper money to the drivers who zoom up higher to reach out and grab the cash and hold it in their mouths as they continue their suicidal orbits. It is truly an amazing and terrifying spectacle and one that would never ever be sanctioned outside of India. But now I come to think of it, the vehicles and their intrepid drivers are different every year. My guess is there's a high turnover rate in this profession and that the Tarpaulin flaps loose every night at the Bageshwar Mela.

Our last month at the Ayarpani house was spent finishing up a bunch of new work. We packed the house up at the end of January 2005 and heavily laden, took a car down to Delhi on my 61st birthday and our first wedding anniversary. By the start of February, we were back in America, feeling slightly shell-shocked. We're currently living in Beth's brother Marc's house in Colorado Springs, doing some new work in our studio there and gearing up to spend 2005 selling our work. In May, we'll load up the trusty Ford van, our Batik Bus, and head East to do the Bethesda Arts Festival and then go onto Boston where I'm showing some of my portraits at the International Batik Conference in June. We have set up joint batik shows for the rest of the year; making some money and establishing a market for our work here is a priority. We'll probably stay in the States until that happens and I'll keep y'all posted. O yes, and staying alive and kicking is a priority too. There's not much point in getting rich and famous if you don't live long enough to enjoy it!

"And it seems to me you live your life, Like a tarpaulin in the wind, Never knowing what to cling to When the storm sets in......." With apologies to Bernie Taupin

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