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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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THE NEW WORLD: First Impressions

I arrived in America early in the evening of May 4th, 1978. This was my first visit there and I was dressed in the discrete "going through Customs" white shirt and black tie which I kept especially for such occasions. I carried all my possessions in Jeffrey’s old black suitcase. I had a return ticket to London and almost $150 in cash. The official who processed me at Customs quickly spotted the mark that the Immigration Dept. at the U.S. Embassy had surreptitiously made in the back of my passport when my first application for a visa had been denied. She asked what the problem had been in London and I shrugged. When I showed her my return ticket, she wished me a pleasant visit and casually waved me through the Airport entry doors into the vast unknown beyond. I was finally in America!


This was the home of junk food and junk culture, the birthplace of Tricky Dick Nixon, McCarthyism and the Ku Klux Klan and although I had lots of great American friends, they were all exiles who had chosen to live in Europe. I had always felt that I wanted nothing to do with the States and that I would never go there. But here I was and going out through the doors, I instantly spotted a grinning Bruce waiting for me. I pushed past the crowds and we hugged each other hard. "It's been a long time, man", he said. So it had been, perhaps two years since we had last seen each another in Ibiza. Although I had known Bruce for a long time, we hadn't seen each other very often. He had come to Ibiza at the end of the Sixties, had found his lovely little house, Can Rafaela, and had gone back to the States to make money to pay for it, leaving Phillip and Ana to live in it. He generally showed up once every couple of years, spent most of his time running madly around the island until his cash ran out and would then split back to New York with a bag of dirty clothes and an empty wallet. He was a few years younger than I, a charming and attractive under-achiever who had never found out what he wanted to do with his life. He periodically came up with scams to earn a lot of money very quickly which never seemed to exactly work out. I was very fond of him and I often thought of him as a younger brother. Life in Ibiza had the effect of bonding people closely together and our houses had been side by side in the Valley.

A few years before, Bruce had taken a collection of batik to New York to show for me. Unfortunately he had been stopped at the Customs coming in and had had to pay import taxes so that neither of us had made much money out of the whole business. But his parents had bought some of my work and he still considered himself my unofficial agent. Right now, I was delighted to see him.


So we walked down through J.F.K. Airport and out into the mild early night air of the parking lot. Bruce unlocked the door to a long sleek blue car, a Ford Gran Torino. We got into it and I remember feeling very dazed and excited and talking a lot. We sat there for a few minutes looking out at the multi-coloured shimmering lights of the Airport and the planes which landed and took off every few seconds.

"Uh, one thing, Jon," Bruce said, " This is my mother's car. She only let me borrow it if I let someone else do the driving. I owe about $900 in speeding and parking fines and they suspended my license three months ago. Do you mind doing the driving?. Half an hour later, feeling very disorientated and higher than a kite, I was driving us through the garishly glittering world of Times Square en route to visit Michael and Gene. "Welcome to Central Babylon " said my passenger. "You certainly took your time getting here!".


My first night in America could not have been more different from my last night in England. Bruce's parents Al and Lorna had kindly written me a letter of sponsorship while I was in Europe and it was to their house in Larchmont, suburban Westchester, that I first went. This was the very heart of Middle Class America, a safe and affluent area populated mostly by white people who generally commuted into Manhattan to work each day. Bruce's parents were extremely welcoming and invited me to stay with them. I know that I could never have stayed and survived in America without their help and support. Although Al died of a heart attack a few years later, I still consider that household very much part of my extended family. The first thing that I saw when we arrived at the house late that evening was the small batik screen with flower studies that I had made in Ibiza the year before. That was somehow very comforting and made the whole experience much less alienating than it might have been. The house was quite large with four bedrooms and four or five televisions, one of which was always on. I was given the library room next door to Bruce’s room but I don't believe that I slept more than two hours a night during that first week in Larchmont. I found everything incredibly exciting. Even the small commonplace details of life there like the accents, the food, the cars, the streets and the warmth of late Spring weather were endlessly fascinating. The tulip trees were in bloom and the air smelt heavy and exotic.

Bruce and I hung out in the basement of the house, in the 'Den' with its dusty bar, its huge colour TV with its twenty five channels, its old books and the National Geographical magazines from the 50's and 60's which still lay around. Bruce would sneak out after dark and "liberate" firewood from the neighbours' woodpile for our stove. In the Den, we were cocooned in the warm arms of comfortable security. Down there, America relived its golden years forever. I learned a lot about the country from watching television. The news, the advertisements and the old movies said far more than any books or articles I had read could say. It was information bombardment time and after so many years in my isolated ivory tower in Ibiza, I was definitely ready for it. The family treated the Den as our private domain and rarely even came down there. I got into some heated arguments with Al, a staunch Republican, but the feelings were always good on both sides. Bruce had an older sister, Lynne, who was as strongly motivated as he was not and who lived in Colorado where she ran a well-known restaurant called Penelope's.

At this point, Bruce lived at home and spent occasional nights in Manhattan at his girlfriend's apartment while earning an irregular living working with his friend Pieter, doing odd jobs around the local community. I too slotted quickly into the Larchmont landscape, going out to jobs with them, cutting lawns, mixing cement, chopping firewood, cleaning gutters and climbing up on roofs.

But all that came a little later, for first, inevitably perhaps, I had to crash at the end of that first thrilling week in America. I was there to see the manager of Nettlecreek Industries, an interior decoration chain store to work out the details of the big batik order that he had told Michael he wanted to make. Predictably, the whole deal fell through completely. The manager quibbled about prices, about materials and about designs. He told me that he would get back to me but of course, never did. I fell from a great height at that point but was saved from great harm by my new Larchmont family who put me to bed for a couple of days and kept those regular meals coming. I felt very depressed and disappointed at first but soon realized what I should have known all along. If I were to succeed in America, I would have to do so by sheer hard work and true British endurance. But most importantly, I had got into the country and would never have gotten there without that lure of gold. I've always thought of myself as a natural survivor, someone who was prepared to take a chance. I had never been afraid to put myself out there and to trust that I could make the right decisions at the right time. It worked then and still works for me now. In Ibiza I had learnt how to go with the flow and that far from trying to make long term plans, it was achievement enough to get through each day in one piece.

So survival mode kicked in and I went to work in the Great American Suburb with Bruce and Pieter. The first job that I did was for a neighbour of the Heutchys. We spent a dusty day cleaning out their basement, which was perfect work for an old anal compulsive like myself. Housecleaning was actually right up my street for I had long ago learned to maintain order in my life and in my surrounds and to never knowingly add to anyone else's workload. I've been called the perfect house sitter, which is a very useful skill for the itinerant artist and adventurer. This talent has taken me inside some very interesting and glamorous households, as I shall later relate.

I remember that the second job was not so easy or pleasant. We had to empty the old leaves out of the gutters of one house and then clean under the eaves before painting them. I found myself balanced precariously on the top rung of a long ladder, straining upwards to wipe the underside of the eaves with a rag dipped in bleach to remove mildew. The bleach dripped down the sleeve of my coat onto my arms and burned them and then fell straight down onto my upturned face. That was pretty awful work but I enjoyed earning some regular money and had enough to make trips down to Manhattan in the trusty Torino. I would chauffeur Bruce to his girlfriend's house and then go on to see friends or visit galleries and museums.

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