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

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ROOM AT THE TOP

 

Es Coll des Vens was a three hundred-year-old finca, perched on the top of the hill above Gwyn's old house. It was built up so high that it had views across the island to the sea on either side. We had three bedrooms, a studio, a big funky kitchen, a wine press room and a huge entrada room which opened out onto a crumbling porch. There was a cisterna for water and a great creeper doing its best to strangle the house. There were crumbling outbuildings, a goat shed carved out of the rock opposite and plenty of space for an outside studio to be set up. We even had land for a vegetable garden and enough outdoors for the kids to run as wild as they wanted. Poised as we were between two valleys, the rough road snaked up the hill on one side of the house and vanished down the other side to pass by Peter and Pat's and Bruce's house. It felt wonderful to be living there for we were closer to old friends than ever. We made a series of trips back to Valvidrera to bring the studio and our furniture over while still maintaining our business contacts in Barcelona. Marta, Marie Luz's oldest daughter left school and moved in with us at Es Coll des Vens that year and we had the feeling that the other children were only a few years behind.

This period turned out to be one of the most fruitful for me. Weather permitting, I generally worked outside. One of the old crumbling outbuildings housed an ancient wooden horse-drawn cart which served to hang my batik drying line on. The light was superb and it felt good to be outdoors all day for most of the year. I could even keep an eye on the goats from there too and often would work out there completely naked. The nearest I ever came to complete disaster was when I once reached out for hot wax with my tjanting and inadvertently pulled the wax pot over onto me. It had never happened before and has never happened since. I saw it falling towards my totally unprotected body as if in a slow motion dream and instinctively jumped sideways into a tall plastic garbage container full of bright red dye that stood beside me. I hit the dye just as the boiling wax hit my lower body. The cold dye probably saved my manhood and life for I escaped, with only slight burns and brilliantly dyed legs and thighs, to batik again.

In order to keep up with ever increasing orders for wrap-around skirts, I used to go out onto the big flat rock by the house every evening to do a quick sketch of the sunset. I would draw it on a skirt the next morning and have it batiked, cleaned of wax and straight into the shop within a few days. We felt a new immediacy about the work while working in a medium notoriously slow and laborious to realize. By this time, Gwyn's fortune was long gone and we found ourselves in friendly competition with Michael and Gene who were also turning out batik clothes as fast as they could. Competition is one of the prime tenants of commerce and although we would probably have scoffed at the idea way back then, I'm sure that the two rival batik studios spurred each other on to greater creative heights and to higher production levels. Wrap-around skirts were in that year. They were easy to sew, provided large canvases for our ideas and German tourists couldn't get enough of them. We tended to work in series, producing birds or landscapes or flower studies. There wasn't much difference in the work we produced for our skirts or for our wall hangings. Batik was a slow but original way to paint cloth and nobody else was doing anything like the work we were doing.

It was a miracle that Happy Valley wasn't closed down by the Spanish authorities within the first six months of its existence. There was definitely no other boutique like it in Ibiza at that time. Although there were perhaps a dozen people selling their clothes through the shop at the beginning, the number of people with clothes on consignment had risen to over one hundred and fifty within two years. We were a marginal operation to say the least. None of us had visas to live permanently in Spain nor permits to work there, no taxes were declared or paid, the shop kept odd, irregular hours and the people working in the shop changed continually. At one time there were twelve different people working in the shop during the week and Gwyn stuck a notice up on the wall saying "Please do not steal from us; this shop feeds a big family of hungry freaks". She was the manager of this anarchistic operation at the beginning and was later succeeded by Michael. Then everybody except me had a shot at running the shop. I've always known that I was no good as a salesman. Long before, when I was a student, I got a job selling the proverbial encyclopedias on commission and didn't manage to sell a single one. In fact the only time that it looked like a poor, old, rather simple couple were about to fall for the bait, I felt tremendous compassion for them and managed to talk them out of it before they signed the fatal contract. One morning when I reported to the office for work, the encyclopedia company was rolling up the carpets and literally doing a bunk.

 

But somehow the shop managed to survive the first season that it was open. Gwyn even gave Christmas dividends and we continued to sell the most original clothes in town. Happy Valley was one of the few boutiques to stay open all the year round but there were very few tourists during the cool wet months. We had to resort to selling eggs or cake or brown rice or corn. Sometimes the only sales for the whole day would be the four slices of Phillip's carob cake that we ate for lunch ourselves. I became a goat herder when we moved to Es Coll des Vens. I had six goats and even sold the yogurt that I made with their milk in the shop during the hard times. None of us got rich from the shop but a great number of people were kept alive through its business. A German company photographed the shop doors and started marketing Gene's painting as a beautiful poster. It was not unusual to come into Ibiza town to open the shop in the morning and to find Bill or Chris or some passing traveler sleeping on the table or on a pile of clothes on the floor. The list of those who had keys to the shop kept growing and in some respects, the shop served as a private, if not exactly elite, club for some of us.

The shop wasn't very spacious, you had to step down to enter it and it was crowded and full of hanging clothes like a Moroccan bazaar. There was an ancient Singer sewing machine and a communal notice board which usually advertised plane tickets to Bombay or Tangier, or esoteric art openings in Santa Eulalia.

One such opening was Marie Luz's and my latest Batik Exhibition at the "Owl and Pussycat" Bar and Gallery. It was a show of our best work yet and we both felt really good about it. Gwyn had the bright idea of unveiling Happy Valley's first clothes collection there with a fashion show and parade. Our preparations were pretty minimal for the most part. Clothes were hurriedly stitched together and all our beautiful friends were roped in as models. Gwyn and I were the comperes, she announcing in English while I did the Spanish speaking. None of us had ever done anything like this before and had no idea what to expect. The Show opened on a crowded Saturday night with Billie, a tall Afro-American lady who went on to a successful career as a model, wearing our red velvet "Tiger" skirt with a matching top and looking very wild in it. Our Scottish friend Irene, who was later so shockingly to be murdered in New York, wore our skirts as dresses and I somehow found a real Japanese lady called Echo to model my kimono. My dear English friend, Bill, had been preparing for his drag debut as Ms Crystal Clarity for at least three days, painting his nails, plucking his eyebrows, making up his eyes, washing his wig and shaving his legs endlessly. At the last moment, he left his pale blue batik dress behind at the shop, where he was living at the time and I remember driving back to Ibiza like a dangerous maniac to pick it up. Poor Bill was in such an excited state when his turn came that he practically ran through the bar and was only out there for about twenty seconds altogether. It all happened so fast that I don't believe that anyone realized that Ms Crystal was a man in drag. Somehow it all came together when it needed to and the "Owl and Pussycat" was packed. In their eagerness to make the show flow seamlessly, all the models rushed through their entrances and exits. Backstage was total chaos due to the many clothes changes that each model had to make. Nothing sold at all but we had our first little taste of the theater that is a part of the Fashion world and were thoroughly psyched up for another.

 

Our second show was planned more carefully, was much more elaborate and lasted for over five hours. Some might have said that it lasted far too long, for by the end, the moon had risen high, most of our tourist audience had left or fallen asleep -- and we still had the children's evening wear category to show! We held our Parade outside around the swimming pool at a holiday resort village called Cala Vadella near to San Jose. Gwyn once again made the announcements in English and I in Spanish but it was not until after the show that we realized that 95% of the audience was German and hadn't understood a word that either of us had said. This time we had live music and Gwyn sang and played her new harp. The other musicians who were supposed to play, refused to perform due to the inferior equipment we provided. The organization was tremendous however. Endless clothes were divided into endless categories like sportswear and evening dresses and we had a wonderful display of batik wrap-around skirts, winter cloaks and fantastic hats. We even featured a line of Minimalist swimsuits which was modeled by all of the kids from Happy Valley and most of the adults too. Sales once again were not too encouraging but we did all get to swim when the interminably long show was finally over.

We finally gave up our house in Valvidrera in 1976, just in time as the village itself had lost much of its charm and privacy and developers were already moving in to make a buck or two. It was very sad to see the area ruined and doubly sad that the Tibidabo tunnel project had run out of steam and money and remained unfinished (and still is in 1993).

 

But the shop itself continued to prosper even though Gwyn lost interest in it completely. She moved to nearby Formenterra Island to live in a little house on the beach with her two young kids and six peacocks. Somehow our semi-democratic decision making worked and we managed to keep the shop open through innumerable crises and managers and through some very hard times. I remember a particularly vicious and heavy power struggle being fought on the beach in Formenterra for even Family can have conflicts and disagreements. As long as she was paid a meager stipend each week, Gwyn was happy to let us run the shop and we went on to make and sell all kinds of new batik clothes. I don't remember who was the most prolific artist among us or who won the War of the Batik Wrap-Arounds. Eventually we all started batiking little panels for Laurence's highly commercial Afghan dresses and then dyeing cloth to match which worked out much more profitable and easy for everybody concerned. We made a lot of kimonos also with traditional Japanese birds and flowers and they were popular too. With such fierce competition between the growing number of boutiques, there was always a desperate search for new and original textiles and Happy Valley pioneered what eventually became commonplace around the island. We came up with the technique of boiling and bleaching the local cloths so that they lost some of their colours and then redyeing the material. Boiled cloth could afterwards be batiked or even tie-dyed. We would try anything to keep Happy Valley and its clothes looking different to the competition and open to the Public.

Gwyn finally sold the shop years ago but when I returned for a visit to Ibiza in 1988, Happy Valley was still open and appeared to be thriving. Only the clothes and the faces there had changed.

 

By 1976, Marie Luz and I were ensconced at Es Coll des Vens along with Marta aged sixteen, Maita aged fifteen and Helena, Marie Luz's beautiful niece, aged 17, from Madrid who had just left home and thrown in her lot with us. We also had four egg-laying ducks, six goats and an hysterical German Shepherd dog called Honey which I'd had since she was four weeks old. Honey thought that I was both her father and mother. I had made a fabulous vegetable garden beside the house too which was all set about with pomegranate trees. I would work in it every evening after finishing my batik and it gave me a lot of pleasure and eventually provided most of our vegetables. There were two clear growing seasons in Ibiza and I could think of few more agreeable ways of spending those long slow balmy evenings than poking around in my garden.

 

My friend Phillip had just bought six terraces right on top of the hill in front of our house and was planning to build a traditional finca up there. He had a really incredibly romantic vision, I thought. He and Ana had separated by this time and Marie Luz and I had driven up to Amsterdam in our new Dyane 6 car to pick him up when he got back from a trip to Australia and Bali. It transpired that he had met and fallen in love with a dazzlingly blond Catalan airline hostess called Maria in Bali en route. Eventually he brought her back to Ibiza to live with him. I became his peon on some days and worked closely with him in the early stages of his house project. His land, being so high up, had an unbelievable view. A road of sorts had to be built before the house could be started. We all worked to move rocks, pick up stones and clear the small brush for the road. That the house was finally built at all is a tribute to both his and Maria's energy, endurance and strength. That the house turned out to be both authentically Ibicencan and beautiful is a tribute to their fine sense of aesthetics. Later, photos that I took in the early stages of the construction were published in a book about contemporary and traditional Ibicencan house building.

Phillip and I grew very close and would tend our goatherd together but it was still a lot of work. Actually I can recommend goat herding as a tremendous character builder. Goats can be the most perverse creatures imaginable and I was pushed to the very limits of my self-control by their maddening behaviour. I used to hurl rocks at them in my frustration for they would often escape, destroy something I held dear such as the garden and then somehow just manage to stay out of my range. Had I owned a gun, I would probably have shot them on many occasions. But it was nice to have fresh milk and yogurt and cheese although I could have bought all of those at Pepe's tienda with far less effort. The fantasy was to be a self-sufficient Euro-Ibicenco farmer however and I guess the goats came with the territory.

Fortunately, at least in theory, we had the girls to help out around the 'farm' and were able to make a couple of trips to Northern Europe in 1976. One such trip was to Denmark with an invitation to exhibit our batik and to stay and work at Centrum on the island of Marienborg near Copenhagen. Centrum was the estate owned by the famous Danish writer and feminist philosopher Elsa Gress and her American painter husband. It was the site for a well-known summer school for theater every year. Unfortunately we arrived at the wrong time of year. It was mid-winter, bitterly cold and the little island was covered with snow. Elsa was brusque and semi-welcoming, had us hang our work in one of the massive barns by the house which served both as a gallery and a studio and obviously expected us to get straight to work there. It was so cold in our little unheated bedroom that our breath came out as steam and our hands and feet were totally numb- and that was while we were in bed. It was just a bit too Spartan for Marie Luz and I. We had to invent an ailing mother and flee from Centrum, something I've felt a little bit guilty about all these years.

We went to England to see my family who hadn't seen much of me over the years and who weren't to see much more of me for many years. But my brother did come and live in Bruce's house next door to us in Ibiza for a few months. Brother Phil is two years younger than I and a dedicated Trotskyite politico and artist. Those months in Ibiza were an opportunity for him to get off that wheel for a little while. I remember that he published cartoons in the local paper, wrote most of a thriller novel and became a stone sculptor for a few weeks before the Party found out where he was and he had to answer their call. My mother came too, to spend Christmas and New Year with us at Es Coll des Vens one year but there were probably too many friends and children around for comfort or good communication and I think that I was probably running to finish some batik project too.

This was a very intense period in all our lives, I remember, for Marie Luz's children were around a lot. Maita the second oldest daughter, got pregnant and had a baby boy called Evan which didn't make the family back on the Mainland too happy probably. Our little family at Es Coll des Vens was growing bigger with no end in sight.

I pushed on with my work, exhibited at the"Semana Cultural" annual Expo and also sent work to show at Galerie Smend, a great textile gallery in Koln, Germany.

1977 turned out to be my last year in Ibiza but I didn't know that when the year opened. Marie Luz and I went up to England to teach a course in Batik for the Oxford Education Dept. in February, which I had managed to set up using some of my old teaching contacts. The classes went really well and I realized how much time could be saved under the guidance of a teacher. We had finally raised enough money to buy a lovely piece of land nearby, a few well-chosen terraces below Phillip's land where we planned to build our own house some day. We had our biggest and most important show to date set up for November that year at Tecmo Gallery in Barcelona. We were working on a new series of screens to exhibit. And we had started to sell quite successfully at the hippie market at Punta Araby where Marta was working as a receptionist at the Holiday Resort desk.

Life seemed sweet but things were not going as well as they seemed. For quite awhile now, Marie Luz and I had been working separately although we still signed all our batiks DE. Marie Luz was growing tired of our normal frantically paced life and our heavy workload. She was after all ten years older than I was and wanted to slow down a bit and lead a quieter, more contemplative existence. She had recently become more interested in spiritual matters and had started to follow the Eastern guru Maharaji, the young master discovered in India who had suddenly become very popular with some seekers after truth. I knew him by his popular name, Fat Boy, and knew that these were territories into which I couldn't follow Marie Luz. I've never believed in gurus or leaders of any kind. Besides, I was only thirty-three years old, full of energy and still running. Probably I wouldn't have known how to slow down had I wanted to. Slowly, without realizing it, Marie Luz and I were drifting apart and at the same time, I drifted into an affair with Helena, her niece. Neither of us felt very good about it but it was hard to resist. So we found ourselves all locked together up at Es Coll des Vens during that long hot summer.

I can vividly remember a big Harvest Full Moon Party at our house. The entrada was full of mad dancers and the fresh haystacks in the mowed fields around the house were full of burrowing people. In my somewhat intoxicated state, the massive moon seemed to be rushing like a comet through the sky above our heads and the night was as bright as day. I looked all over for Marie Luz and only found her at dawn, huddled in our car with the children where they'd spent the whole night.

In retrospect, I think that I behaved rather badly over the whole affair, that Marie Luz was as solid as a rock and that poor Helena was out of her depth completely. She finally fled back to Madrid. But the damage had been done by that time and our life could never be the same again. We never really found the way back to our earlier loving relationship. I always felt that I did a terribly cruel thing to Marie Luz without realizing it at the time. Just when she had managed to pull all the disparate elements of her life together and could relax for the first time in years, I bailed out. Marie Luz would probably never be able to put our relationship before her relationship with her children but I think that she had come to the point when she could make a firm commitment to me finally. She was forty-four years old and after nearly eight years together, was finally able to tell me unequivocally that she loved me. But it was too late and I was to leave Ibiza very soon.

 

I sold some batik and went off to Morocco with my neighbour Peter One and his young son Fish for a few unforgettable weeks of adventure. We rented a car and drove South through that fascinating country, stopping in Chouen, the little pastel painted town, spending a fortnight in Ketama, high in the Rif Mountains and ending up in the ancient city of Fez. There we stayed in the fabulous old Palais Jamai, now an exotic hotel. Tangier was our last stop in Morocco. For me it was a chance to revisit some of the places that I'd been to fifteen years before when I'd made a hitchhiking trip to Spain and Morocco and had spent almost a year traveling around the country. This time it was a much shorter trip but one which I'll remember all my life. A couple of extraordinary moments stand out. We left the village of Ketama in the middle of winter with the ground deep in mud. Actually there had been deep mud on the ground the whole time that we had been up there and we privately named the place Mud City. That morning, Peter went ahead up the winding earth road in the Renault car while Fish and I walked out to lighten the load. As, hand in hand, we started up the first curve of the road and passed beyond the last houses in the village, a large mangy dog that had been discretely following us, suddenly came close. It snarled and bared its teeth at us and kept coming nearer. Fish held my left hand even more tightly. I picked up a rock, a large one, I can still feel its wet weight in my hand and threw it at the dog. The rock caught it full on the front leg and the ugly animal collapsed screaming in pain with a broken leg. Above us, Peter had seen what had happened, blew the car's horn and was waiting for us a couple of bends further up.

Fez was an incredible ancient city, a vast sprawling, mostly covered, market where everything under the sun could be found. We made exploratory sorties out into the maze of narrow winding streets lined with stalls and stands selling everything from carpets to caterpillars and kif pipes to hand grenades. A small boy had attached himself to us as a guide, which was just as well for I truly don't believe that we could have made it back out on our own. We passed streets of ceramics, streets of gleaming brassware, of pots, leatherwork and silver jewelry. I turned an abrupt corner and found myself in a street exclusively for dyers. An almost naked man brushed passed me, his arms dyed blue to above the elbows and his feet permanently stained a generic brown colour. The whole street was a splash of different colours, brilliant reds, yellows and blues where skeins of wool and bolts of cloth were hung on lines in the air to dry. The contours of the low white buildings were lost under the masses of colour so that the whole effect was that of a startling abstract painting. There were long troughs on either side of the street where cloth could be bathed in dye or rinsed and men stood around great steaming vats of colour, stirring hot dyes. There was a strong smell of wood smoke from the fires heating the water and rivulets of dye ran down the gutters of the street. This had been going on for a thousand years in exactly the same place and in exactly the same way. It was a batik artistís vision of a corner of heaven on earth.

When I came back to Es Coll des Vens, most of the children were over from Barcelona staying at the house. I walked into the entrada to find all of them lying around furiously smoking cigarettes. Marie Luz sat staring at the wall with a blissful smile on her face. The house was a shambles, no firewood had been collected, the animals were unfed and the goats unmilked. It was all too much to deal with and inside I think I knew that this was a parting of the ways. I still loved Marie Luz but needed to distance myself from the weight of responsibility that was falling on me at Es Coll des Vens.

 

We had been seeing a lot of a young German couple called Willi and Claudia who had a house on the island. They were getting on very badly. They seemed to like me a lot and talking with me about their problems seemed to help them. They asked me to move in with them and offered me their guest house and studio space. I guess I jumped at the opportunity to escape from what was beginning to be a claustrophobic situation for me at Es Coll des Vens.

So late in 1977, I packed a bag, put my studio into a box and moved into Willi's guesthouse. I don't think that Marie Luz knew what was really happening for she made no objection to my move. Anyway she was pretty busy with her new guru and the family. The children had all, not unnaturally, decided that life in Ibiza with their hippie mother was a lot more fun than life in Barcelona with their strict father and were trying to figure out a way to stay on permanently. They were a pretty wild bunch and I could see trouble of one kind or another up ahead for sure. At this point I wanted to distance myself from the whole situation, at least for awhile. In fact, both Marta and Maita and their then-current boyfriends were busted for attempting to smuggle cigarettes into Ibiza by boat from North Africa the following year. My timing had been pretty good.

I set up my studio at Willi's and went straight back to work and actually did some of my best wall hangings ever in the space and peace that the move gave me. I painted a lovely little "Almond blossom and Bird" piece and my going to the Tienda in the Rain batik there in those last weeks on the island. Willi was rich and owned a factory in Cologne which paid the bills without the necessity of his being there. His house was near to Ibiza town and had belonged to the great grandson of David Livingstone the explorer. Claudia was a beautiful model and a serious manic-depressive. All she and Willi wanted from me was that I instigated intense after-dinner conversation. Considering my own situation and emotional state, that was usually pretty easy.

And so the year ended. Marie Luz and I saw each other often, she would come and stay over at Willi's and I would visit the family at Es Coll des Vens from time to time. It was a time for reflection and introspection and I guess I was preparing myself for the next stage in my life, whatever that might be.

 

 

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