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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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15. EXILE ON MAIN STREET : Triumphs and Tribulations on the Batik Trail

Our arrival back in Los Angeles Airport on the 1st February 2005 was less than auspicious. As we finally cleared a very security-minded Immigration, Beth felt the first onslaught of a nasty attack of giardia and had to sprint back through the airport to the nearest bathroom. I compounded matters by picking up the wrong bag at luggage collection and in one way or another, our exit was delayed. My own case of giardia came on 24 hours later when we were back at brother-in-law Marc's house in Colorado Springs. We had obviously picked the parasite up in Delhi as we came through- and it was to take us several months to get over it. Actually, we both lost 25 lbs in the process which was rather alarming. Eventually we felt better, our energy came back slowly but we both still find ourselves to be lactose-intolerant. So started our new assault on Fort Knox. Once again, health continued to be an issue for me during this whole period and I have suffered from regular migraines in spite of taking a regular assortment of drugs and medicines of all kinds, acupuncture and chiropractic. The period has been a process of learning to live and function as well as possible with constant headaches and that has not been easy.

But Beth and I were back in the States to try to sell our work and that mission has taken top priority. As soon as we were able, Beth and I went back into our back garden studio. Way back in the 70's when I lived in Ibiza, I had batiked checker boards which I'd made into bags and sold to the beach crowd in Happy Valley Boutique. With the help of Betty, our new seamstress and another unsung heroine of the Batik Trail, we improved on the bags, came up with Bag-Gammon as well as Bag O' Checkers sets and went into high production. We intended to do as many outdoor art shows as possible and needed some cheaper items to sell. In fact the bags sold only sporadically in art shows but we succeeded in selling them through the Society of Arts and Crafts Gallery in Boston. Everybody seemed to like the idea of the bags but they were terribly labour-intensive. If we ever got a really big order for them, I figured that we should partially silkscreen the bags with a checker board pattern and then decorate the borders with batik.

We worked in the studio until the end of April and then packed up the trusty Batik Bus, our Ford Econoline van, with work and drove East. As always, crossing the US was a fascinating experience though we kept to interstate highways this time. We stopped off in Ohio to visit my old friend Elliot and then cut south across the Ohio River into West Virginia to spend a few days there. This was an opportunity to work on my website and to plan a new site for Beth with our friend Lois. We set up a new section to my website, E-Mc2 (Evans-McCoy2- geddit?) where we could show the work that we were doing together, the new game boards and the cushion covers we had batiked in India. And I caught up with my old neighbour Greg who offered us his grandmother's house on Lobelia Road to live in. Greg was a local farmer who had won my heart years ago by taking a copy of "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac out of his back pocket and offering it to me on our first meeting. I had subsequently sold him my priceless LP record collection when I had finally gotten tired of carting it around the world with me. I had batiked the same house years before when I lived in the schoolhouse next door; it had beautiful surroundings but would need a lot of work to be habitable. We considered taking it on and added it to our list of possible options. It was kind of Greg to offer it to us but I privately believe that you can never go home again and that it's usually better to move on somewhere new.

After a few days catching up with my past, we headed north again up to Maryland just outside of Washington DC where we stayed with Beth's family and spent as much time as possible with Robin, Kevin and my new god-child, Irene. Kevin was already ill with kidney cancer and starting hospital treatment for the disease. We were able to drive him up to Baltimore for chemotherapy sessions but he got steadily worse and died in July 2006. He was a wonderful man and a great artist. I shall always miss him. Mid-May found us getting wet in our tent at the Bethesda Art Festival. Sales were not spectacular and the show, as they always do, left us exhausted. But I saw my old pal Dr Patch Adams a couple of days later and he bought my "Man in a Red Turban" batik from me which saved our finances somewhat. And then we were on the move again, driving up to Boston to drop off my six batiks for the group representational show, "Narrative Voice" at the World Batik Conference and Beth's batiks at a fabric shop in Lowell. We both liked Lowell a lot more than Boston and made a pilgrimage to Kerouac Park there as well as a driving out to Cape Ann to sit and look at the sea. We stayed with my old Ibiza friends, Alan and Priscilla Shapiro in Boston and the following day drove down to Wesleyan College in Connecticut for my god-son Zeb's graduation. Back in Maryland, we bounced around between friends and family for a couple of weeks before heading back up to Boston for the opening of my show at Wheelock College. It was a big Batik gathering. Among the participants was my old friend Rudolf Smend from Koln where I showed my work and taught classes o so long ago. Rosi Robinson and Fritz Donart from the Batik Guild were there of course and we finally got to meet Linda Kaun from Java whom I had emailed with for awhile and who was also showing her work with us. To coincide with the show, the India New England newspaper ran an article on Beth's and my life in India and the USA. But we were actually too poor to participate in the Batik Conference and instead sat the show at Wheelock College for the week, caught up with a lot of very old friends including Nic and Sue Johnson from my Oxford days and went up to Cape Ann again.

With the van packed up again, we were on the move again by mid-June and drove west to Buffalo and up into Canada to spend a day at Niagara Falls. Coming back into the States, we camped out by Lake Michigan. Actually Michigan state was quite a revelation, the land that time forgot and a fabulous shot of old Americana. We felt that we were on a short holiday and drove across Minnesota, through South Dakota and Wyoming via the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, camping out all the way. By July, we were doing outdoor art shows again. La Veta, Beth's old stomping ground, was fun and easy and we met a couple of great Native Americans there, Jeff Two Hawks and Raymond Redfeather, whose portraits I batiked later. I even got to go to my first rodeo in La Veta. Briargate Art Festival, at an up-market,very conservative mall outside Colorado Springs was a dismal experience, with no support from the show's organiser and an indifferent public more interested in half-price sales than our art. Although we didn't quite learn the lesson at the time, parking lots at malls are probably the worst places to do art shows. Generally we artists seem to be merely providing a bit of colour and a side show to mostly apathetic people who prefer to spend their cash at Sharper Image, Pottery Barn or Starbucks. Too often, I've ended up feeling like a performing monkey, forced to respond to a casual "Your work is beautiful!" with an insincere "Thank You" and a bitter smile. Come to think of it, I seem to remember once throwing stones at a German tourist who tried to photograph us hippies squatting in the dust at the outdoor Art Market in Ibiza back in the Seventies.......

Between shows, we worked hard in the studio on game boards and a new series of abstract scarves as well as on new paintings. Beth and I entered a show with a "Nine Patches" theme down in La Veta and batiked 9 cushions that hung together on a frame on the wall with a "Mountains are Mountains" painting on them. We even won second prize in that show. August found us at the Crested Butte Art Festival staying with old friends and winning the Best Fiber Art award. The show in Golden went even better. Beth had done this show since the Festival first started and her work was well-known there. We actually won both Best of Show and Best of Fiber. Next came an ill-fated Optical Reverb Gallery show. Good art venues are few and far between in Colorado Springs- as we found to our cost. Optical Reverb operated out of the Paragon Culinary School which opened up as a jazz club at weekends. Marc played bass in a group there every Friday and Saturday and through him, we met Jason, a young guy who ran the gallery there. We opened with our Indian work and a show entitled "Four Eyes on India" and closed it a bare two weeks later when Jason apparently had a run in with the management at Paragon and pulled the show down in a hurry. A total bust for us. This was definitely a low point and reaffirmed our suspicion that Colorado Springs was not a good art scene. In spite of a low key biker and a New Agey scene, the city is basically a militaristic, born-again Christian, Republican stronghold. Subsequent shows with Optical Reverb reaffirmed that for us. But we kept on trying. I batiked a portrait of four generations of women that I met in La Veta which came out pretty well but wasn't bought by the subjects of the picture. In November, Beth and I showed our work at the Red Brick Center in Aspen. We hung all our Indian work for this occasion and I must say that it really looked impressive. We also did local TV and radio interviews to advertise the show which were fun and good experiences for us.

Autumn slipped into Winter in the mountains and a huge storm brought an elm tree down in the garden which narrowly missed demolishing our studio. We entered work in two Christmas shows, one in the Sangre de Christo Arts Center in Pueblo and the other in Golden's Foothills Center. Our next Batik Bazaar show at the new Optical Reverb Gallery was set up under our tent and looked exotic and wonderful and we followed that with a show at Phantom Canyon Restaurant which also looked fantastic but didn't sell anything. New Year's Day 2006 brought the usual Brand New Ray of Hope. We were hard at work in the studio, experimenting with a series of abstract paintings, feeling that perhaps a different kind of work would be more appropriate for Colorado Springs. However, I've never been very comprehending of abstract art and generally my efforts in that direction have failed to convince me. Still, the results looked good and we eventually went onto paint a whole series of them for a later show in Pueblo.

At the start of February, we packed up the Batik Bus and headed South through New Mexico to Phoenix, AZ., passing by some of the most beautiful, wild and spectacular country that I'd seen in the USA. Highlights were a little town called Pie Town consisting solely of pie restaurants and an old west town called Magdalena which I had fantasies of settling down in. For some reason, since I was a teenager, I've had a fantasy of buying a small wooden house with a porch and a rocking chair and vanishing into a tiny obscure western town world. An odd scenario for a world traveller but it obviously has some comfort factor for me. In Phoenix, we went to stay with Beth's cousin Chris and his partner Chris and their two chow dogs. And went straight into action, setting up for our next Art Fair in Scottsdale. After three sultry days in the streets, we were ready for a break again and went south to Nogales where we crossed over into Mexico. This was my first visit but I hope that it will not be my last for I really loved the country. My Spanish came back to me quickly and I loved the people and the ease and slowness of the country. We cut across to the Sea of Cortez and down to San Carlos where we met up with some old friends of Beth's, Nancy and her family, who showed us the scene for a couple of days. But this was the awful RV world of Gringolandia and we soon set off on our own and drove up the coast to a funky little fishing village where we set up our tent on the beach and camped out for a few days. Our neighbours were a couple from Wyoming, Earp and Alan who were roughing it like us and fishing and skirt-chasing their way across Mexico. They were good old boys and very good fun and we sat out around big fires on the beach each night.

There now follows a short Fear and Loathing story so if you disapprove of drug and cactus tales, you should skip the following paragraph. Earp and Alan, in between lusting after the local women, lusted after some good grass to smoke and generally put a lot of energy into trying to track both down. Beth and I left them in the nearby town one afternoon, hot in pursuit of either, while we headed back to our camp by the sea. We were low on firewood for the night's fire so we managed to hack down some of the dead cactus that grew along the beach. We made a big pile of the cactus limbs and got a good fire blazing by dark. Earp came back but by 9pm, there was still no sign of young Alan. We began to be a little worried about him, that he'd been grabbed by the local cops or beaten up by somebody's angry husband. At last he appeared, running into camp, clutching a huge bag of grass in one hand but screaming out that we had to hide the cactus. According to Alan, cutting and burning cactus was a heinous crime in Mexico, punishable by at least a ten year jail sentence. Desperately, we dragged the remaining cactuses back into the brush next to us, even sweeping away the drag marks and our footprints when we were done. I stomped on the fire to try and put it out but it burned on relentlessly and accusingly for hours. That cactus burns just fine! And the big bag of grass, possession of which seemed to be the least of our crimes, somehow lost its glamour and the guys ended up throwing it all away in the morning as we all, in our paranoia, made plans to move on.

We drove inland to a beautiful little town called Alamos, recently discovered by rich gringos who had renovated its crumbling colonial buildings but were enjoying it privately behind high walls. We spent a couple of days exploring but somehow could never get beyond level one and eventually gave up and headed North again to a great campsite on the beach in Old Kino.There we spent great days walking along an endless beach and went out into the desert to look for old artifacts where we found a bunch of ancient pottery chards.

We could have stayed a lot longer by the sea in Mexico but the Batik trail called us again and we drove North back to Phoenix and then onto Palm Springs for the next show. By the end of the first week in March, we were in San Francisco, in heavy rain, visiting with my old friends, Simma and Jeffrey at their house in Novato. Bad weather limited much play on this trip but Beth and I got into San Francisco a couple of times to visit friends in Haight Ashbury and to walk in Golden Gate Park and Jeffrey took us up to Wilbur Hot Springs where we had a lovely weekend in the steamy sulfurous waters. On the way south back to Arizona for our next show in Tempe, we discovered the Salton Sea. A man-made inland salt sea, our first impressions were of stepping into an old episode of the Twilight Zone or of a decaying set from some long- forgotten horror movie. There was an old marina but no boats. Old-timers sat around small bars whispering and playing cards and neither of us felt very safe that first night as we slept out in the van on the beach. The following morning, in sunlight, the area actually had a certain charm but I couldn't help thinking that some of the beaten up trailers in the beat up old RV parks hid meth labs or worse. Mind you, when we arrived in Tucson and moved into the Prince of Tucson RV park for the next art show, the Salton Sea seemed relatively homely. This was our first real introduction to the world of RVs and their inhabitants, old folk who spent their winters living in absolutely fantastic $100,000 vehicles, real apartments on wheels, and who never seemed to venture outside of their RV parks. They had busy social lives there each day, like-minded contemporaries, pancake breakfasts, art classes, Bingo and evening cocktail hours in the parking lots. Our old van was sorely out of place and so were we, running off each day to the next show. Actually Tucson, a rather freaky city, was good to us though we had our only van mechanical problems of the trip, had to be towed to garages twice and ended up sleeping a night in a garage car park. We drove slowly up via Roosevelt Lake and Apache cliff dwellings to Phoenix once more to do the final show of the winter in Tempe. Chris and Chris were once again great hosts but their 2 chows never quite warmed to us in spite of endless entreaties and dog biscuits.

And so we settled back into Colorado Springs, the Land where Squirrels Run Free, for a long hot, wet summer. We went straight back into big batik production, endless abstract scarves and new paintings which kept us busy until our first show in Boulder in May. That was followed by the Denver People's Fair and a couple of talks and slideshows at local art groups which were actually good fun and quite profitable, opening up visions of a whole new circuit for us to peddle our wares. A show in a parking lot (we still hadn't learned that lesson!) in Kansas City the next weekend was much less fun though we were saved by winning a Best of Show award. We decided that these long hauls to do shows in faraway places were just not worth it and that there were plenty of bad shows in Colorado if that's what we were looking for. A show in Littleton came next with desperate sessions in the studio in between to keep our supply of scarves up. The art show in La Veta again was next and that was familiar and easy and good for us until a terrible hail and rain storm hit on the second morning and we had to pack up and run for it, suffering quite a bit of damage to our work. Masochistically one might say, we did another parking lot show in Briargate which was rained out on the second wet day. The next show in nearby Cuchara was luckily indoors and easy and profitable but the next one, at the Telluride Jazz Festival, was wet and muddy and in the end depressing. Had the surroundings not been amazing and had we not met some great people there, it would have been a complete wipeout. And the season ended up at the old gold mining town, now gambling hell, of Cripple Creek at 10,000 ft in the rain amidst chiming slot machines operated by mountain men, black-leathered bikers, dude cowboys and some desperate looking gamblers. No doubt Beth and I fitted in perfectly but I couldn't help thinking that this was a terribly hard way to go!

Hopefully we've learned our lesson doing all these outdoor art shows. I'm told that ten years ago they were way more profitable and way more fun. Today there's a show in every small town and the number of artists participating in every little show has grown from 30 to 300. At many art shows, there are booths selling mass-produced and imported "art" items with prices so low that we true artistes can't begin to compete. Costs to do each show have risen steadily too and each show asks for a nonreturnable "jury fee" just to have one's work considered. The big money is now made by the shows' organizers and not by the poor artist who is totally vulnerable to the vagaries of a largely uncaring and materialistic public and unpredictable weather. These outdoor art shows are definitely not for wimps, involving lots of driving, brutally hard work and slim profits. Perhaps Batik will never be a good art form to sell to middle America and perhaps Beth and I should go into the import business and start selling Indian bidhi bags and imported scarves at music festivals. We can still do a few good art shows and expose our batik art that way.

But for now, we both badly need a break and have reserved flights back to India at the end of September. We'll stop off in Washington DC and England on the way to reconnect with family and friends and then head back to our home in the Himalayas to lick our wounds, kick back and get some good walking in. Keep tuned to this e-channel for the next chapter in these ongoing adventures.

Colorado Springs, COLORADO August 2006

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