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BATIK ART BY JONATHAN S. EVANS
Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

 

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SCHOOL DAYS

SCHOOL DAYS

 

 

My first experience with Batik was in an Oxfordshire school classroom in 1966. Peter, a fellow teacher, had spent two years teaching in Yogjakarta, Indonesia and had brought back some small pieces of batik with him. Probably they had been made for tourists and I wasn't too impressed by them. They were pictures of little houses and bamboo, a river crossed by a rickety wooden bridge, an old man carrying a huge bundle on his back. Some were patterned rather than representational with dark brown and dark blue colours. But they were all on cloth and the strange veined texture of the paintings intrigued me. Peter explained how the process worked and how the veined effect was achieved.

It seemed to be very simple. You started with a piece of white cotton cloth and used dyes and hot wax to paint your picture. The hot wax hardened on the cloth and repelled the cold water dyes when they came into contact. First you dyed the cloth a pale colour, then covered the parts of your drawing that you wanted that colour with hot wax and then went on to dye the cloth a darker colour. The wax kept the next dye from touching the earlier dyed cloth and by repeating this process a few times, you built up a multicoloured picture on your cotton. The veined effect was created by the cold brittle wax cracking and allowing the dye to slip down into the cracks and dye the cloth. It was an ancient ethnic craft, Peter told me, probably at least 2000 years old. You found different forms of it all over Asia and Africa. All you needed to make batiks were cloth, brushes, a hot plate, candles for wax and some cold water dyes.

 

I was teaching a class of thirty seven-year old kids at the time. This was only my second teaching job and as a completely untrained teacher with a degree in fine arts, I was continually looking around for new things to keep the children busy and happy. So we turned the classroom into a batik studio and quite fearlessly in retrospect, I turned the kids loose in there. They worked with scraps of old sheets from my house for cloth, school paint brushes, hot melted candle wax and a couple of buckets of cold dye. The class was a great success and there were no accidents that I remember, certainly none that were fatal. Soon I had the children bringing in old clothes to batik. I even batiked an old white shirt of mine with a cosmic eye centered in a pyramid, floating in a blue sky dotted with white clouds. You mustn't forget that these were the heady days of those long gone psychedelic late sixties. I persuaded a local dry cleaner to remove all the wax for me (although we could have ironed it off ourselves using a hot iron and old newspapers) and we spent a pleasant semester experimenting with different effects. Eventually another teacher complained about the heavy pall of smoke and the smell of hot wax hanging over my classroom, we moved onto potato cuts or origami and I forgot about batik for the time being.

 

My career in Batik didn't start until 1970 when sheer desperation and dire economic necessity drove me to pick up a waxy paint brush once more. I left England in that year following the quite amicable breakup of my nine-year marriage to Elspeth. She was a minister's daughter and came from the Scottish Border country while the last place I'd lived before Scotland had been East Africa. We'd met as students at Edinburgh University and were best friends for years without ever really sharing the same ideals or ambitions. As often happens with first early relationships, Elspeth and I grew slowly apart, both drifted into affairs with other people and before we realized what was happening, had taken long steps down different paths. She was a social worker with a strong commitment to service. I only knew what I didn't want to do and how I didn't want to live the rest of my life.

 

Then I had a fairly serious car accident, totaled our brand new car and damaged my left hand. I cut all the tendons to my fingers and it would be a year before I had full use of my hand again. Suddenly it felt like time for a radical change in my life. I handed in my notice at the school where I had been teaching special education to children with mental disabilities and stood poised at a crucial crossroads in my life. Eventually that particular posture would become terribly familiar to me.

 

I decided to visit my oldest friend Chris who lived on Ibiza, the second largest of the Spanish Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. Chris had really tried but had been unable to reconcile himself to married life in Edinburgh. One morning, without saying a word to anyone, he had left his house, wife and newly born daughter to go to work and had vanished into the magical hills and deep sky blue of Ibiza. He had never come back to Britain and had been writing to me about beautiful people, his life as a musician, full-moon parties, almond blossoms and a wonderful new lifestyle for the past two years.

 

I soon discovered that Chris' life was as strange and new as he'd described it and the island itself even more beautiful. I arrived at the tiny airport with a small hold-all of possessions and a crude map that Chris had sent me. It showed the road from the airport to San Jose and a little dotted track off that road which curled round and lead to Chris' house which was marked with a cross and the word finca. It was a bright, very hot day, I remember and having jumped in a taxi to San Jose, I soon realized that my directions were pitifully inadequate. The turn-off at kilometer 8 on my map didn't exist and in fact the road was dotted with turn-offs in both directions. So, sweating in the intense sun, I set off to explore and to try and find the house myself. Had it not been for a very kind Danish couple who rescued me in their Citroen car, my subsequent life in Ibiza might have existed only in a possible alternate dimension. They were really wonderful and spent the afternoon running me up and down dusty lanes and asking the local people for the house of Chris, the English musician. At dusk, they deposited me high on a hill at the end of a valley. It was well off the main road and I found myself standing in front of a huge crumbling old house, which was quite empty but was said to belong to foreigners. Inside the house, it was rather dirty and untidy with a sitar leaning against one wall in the entrada. I saw an apparently demented monkey tied to a long rope perched on the roof. The house had no electricity, I didn't know how to light the oil lamps that I found and by that time I was absolutely exhausted. So I fell down on the ramshackle sofa in the living room and soon went to sleep, trusting that somehow I had found the right house and that its owners would show up eventually. They did and came crashing into the house at three in the morning. My life in Ibiza had begun.

 

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