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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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Two weeks later, we were back in Ohio for the opening of my Batik Show at Alberini's Italian Family Restaurant. The restaurant turned out to be pretty impressive, absolutely huge and rather luxurious with a large banquet hall downstairs. Tom had put up my batiks on freestanding easels along the walls and in the center of the room. There was a very lavish bar and buffet and we arrived feeling a little self-consciously over-dressed. A pianist had been hired to play jazz tunes all day which I thought was a great touch. I must admit that the work looked fabulous, all individually framed and under glass . On Tom's instructions, I had brought a slide projector and a carousel of slides of my earlier work which we set up in a darkened alcove to the side. But I was surprised when Tom showed up a little later with a whole group of his friends, six or seven of them, all dressed in conservative matching pinstripe suits and wearing English brogue shoes. He introduced them as his "Sales Team" and although they were all extremely pleasant and friendly, my instincts told me that these guys didn't know a Picasso from a Michelangelo. Indeed they might even have thought both artists to be types of Sicilian spaghetti. I wasn't at all sure that any of this was going to further my career in any way. The sales team shuffled off into the back room and reemerged a bit later looking noticeably more alert and animated. Pretty soon they were spread out across the room greeting the first arrivals.

Tom had run large advertisements in the local paper using my old Florida "Artist with Ear" self-portrait as the illustration. On the first day, a lot of people passed through the show and Tom made a couple of sales. His team of salesmen kept disappearing into the back room and their spirits and energy stayed high although their art selling abilities and techniques were questionable. One gentleman ran the projector all afternoon and delivered a nonstop lecture on my batik. I overheard him telling potential customers that Batik was an ancient art originating in Egypt and that Cleopatra had been famous for her collection of batiked snakes. Another time he told his audience how I had learned my art from a famous Indian guru in Khatmandu and that it was a secret technique handed down over the centuries by Yoga masters to their initiates. Nobody seemed fazed by all of this nonsense and apparently accepted it all as gospel truth. But I began to wonder exactly who and what I had inadvertently become involved with. As the evening of the first day wore on and as I played my role as the "Greatest Batik Artist in the World" which is how Tom was promoting me, the sales team became more and more garrulous. They all seemed to be developing severe head colds, judging by the amount of sniffing and snuffling and nose blowing that was going on.

The following day went like the first. Tom's team were noticeably subdued when they first arrived and appeared to be nursing severe hangovers. But their energy picked up again at the same time as their head colds seemed to return. It was a generally mystifying weekend although a few good sales were made. I put it all down to my lack of familiarity with the inhabitants of deepest Ohio. For although I had spent time in Wichita and Chicago, I'd heard it said that the archetypal Mid-Westerners, the quintessential American Public, were to be found in Ohio. Tom and his team were never less than incredibly polite, thoughtful and helpful but were at the same time unworldly and even a little alien. They tried to sell my work in the same way that they might have sold shoes or cars or candy bars. The Oaktree Gallery ultimately turned out to be a complete dead end for me, both artistically and professionally but I wasn't to discover that for another year. Tom still had plans to open his gallery and was sure that there was a big market for my work in Ohio. So I decided to hang in with him for a bit longer. Catherine and I, feeling rather burnt out from a long weekend of rich Italian food and high octane Ohio air and energy, drove back down the now familiar highway to our little schoolhouse in the mountains.

Far from the madding crowd, back on Lobelia Rd, I was hard at work on my latest West Virginia batik series. In a temporary warming period during the cold winter, I managed to break the ice on my black dye bath outside and rescue two batiks that had been frozen solid in the ice for over two months. They didn't seem to have suffered from the experience and I took them off to the drycleaners to have the wax removed. I had settled into a winter routine in the country, working every day on my batiks and going out regularly with Phil our neighbour to collect, cut and stack firewood. Whatever else we lacked out in the mountains, it wasn't wood. I was a regular volunteer at the Family Refuge Center in Lewisburg, driving kids from their homes to events and group meetings at the Center, playing soccer once a week with the younger children and occasionally helping out around the Safe House itself. I remember one particularly tense afternoon when I was roped in to help a woman in Marlinton retrieve her possessions from her abusive husband's house in the country. Her husband was not supposed to be around during the afternoons but I was sweating as I helped the poor scared woman collect her clothes together and load them into the back of the Subaru. It wasn't only from the exertion of lifting bags and boxes either. Fortunately the abusive husband didn't show up and I survived to save another day. I really used to look forward to my days at the Family Refuge Center.

Phil decided to collect the maple syrup from the trees on his land this year and asked me to help him. I think that maple sugar is my favourite sweetener and that most people would agree with me. But collecting it was incredibly hard work. First we had to tap into the trunks of several hundred maple trees on the slopes above Phil's house. We did this by literally hammering spouts into the trunks of the trees and then hanging a bucket, each with a lid to protect the contents, on every spout. Phil set up oil drums all over the wooded hill to pour the collected sap into every morning. From there, the clear, almost tasteless sap ran through plastic tubes down to the little sugar shack where it was collected in an old bath. We had to cut a mountain of firewood for the syrup refining process. Years ago, planning on going into the business in a big way, Phil had invested in some rather superior equipment, a long series of stainless steel baths which were heated underneath by a wood fire. There was a small spout at the far end of the trays where finally the incredible refined syrup miraculously dripped out. We spent long happy afternoons in the little shack, hunched over the sweet steam, sipping syrup tea, each of us lost in his slightly stupefied thoughts. Shafts of brilliant sunlight fell through cracks in the walls making fantastic flickering patterns in the steam. Occasionally one of us would throw more wood on the fire. The light illuminated the piles of galvanized iron buckets and lids stacked along the walls. Friends would come by to sample the season's product which Phil, to my amusement, treated like pure liquid gold. I suddenly saw him as some kind of agrarian alchemist. Those slowly lengthening afternoons drifted by in a sweet smelling mist and, after awhile, we would all become strangely silent.

Now it was suddenly Fall in West Virginia and I swear I'd never seen such incredible colours as all the maple trees turned yellow and orange and brilliant reds on the hills around us. It really was breathtakingly beautiful and a challenge for any artist to try and capture on canvas or cloth. I took long walks around Lobelia among the trees, as if trying to store up all these amazing colours and images in my mind. I'm not a Christian and I've never believed in God but I do believe in Beauty. Autumn in West Virginia was as close to Heaven as I thought I'd ever come.

My exhibition at the Textile Museum was coming up in three weeks and I was racing to finish up my last pieces. I thought that I had a pretty good collection together as I took my last three batiks outside to submerge them in their final black dye bath. I was using the luggage pod off the top of the old VW bus as a dye vat. It was a good wide container, deep enough to take a good quantity of dye so that I could have several pieces in there at the same time, with a lid that I could close to keep the dye clean. It seemed a fitting use for the pod whose days of frantic cross country traveling were hopefully over. The batiks were all from West Virginia and were mainly scenes of rural life with a couple of the paintings of classic cars that I liked to do thrown in. I had also included some pieces from the town of Lewisburg, a rendering of the historic Old Stone Church and the town's two barber shops. I had tried to show a side of country life that was slowly becoming superseded by the fast moving late Twentieth Century, a holdover from an era which was patently doomed in the long run.

I spent the first week of November stretching all the batiks which was quite an undertaking in itself and I was delighted to have so much help and support from my friends and neighbours. I had all the batiks ready for Washington by the middle of the month. I hung and stacked them all around the schoolhouse to give a neighbourhood preview show before packing them up and driving them up to Washington. Friends trooped by to look at them one long day in mid-November and I sold one of them, a view of the Brownstown Road, to Betty who had a Wool shop in Marlinton. This sale financed the whole trip and the hanging operation in Washington, which was just as well as I was completely broke again. Carol had been working sporadically as a substitute teacher locally but we were still terribly poor. We used to describe ourselves as living way below the poverty line in Paradise.

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