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

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" NEW YORK, N.Y., THE PLACE SO NICE, THEY HAD TO NAME IT TWICE"

 

I'd always loved that old jazz record made by Jon Hendricks and the George Russell Orchestra. It was an early jazz and poetry concept album with fabulous lyrics and a punchy big band sound. Oh, yes, New York was definitely nice, not to mention fabulous. I was attracted to the city instantly and at the same time repelled by it, all the years that I lived there. I had the sensation of being part of an experimental community made up of every race and creed under the sun. But at the same time that we were all working together to create a new world, we were like ants labouring mindlessly in a vast metal anthill. In some ways, life in New York was a choice to live under the most artificial and incredibly adverse conditions imaginable. Probably New Yorkers have to feel good about their city or they'd go under pretty quickly. Where else in the world outside of New Delhi, can you find over nine million people living in such crowded and intense conditions? Truly you've got to feel good about New York or you just won't survive out there running through those big city mazes. You love New York or you're dead.

 

I loved it and after all those years in Spain, I was ready to enter the Great Rat Race that was life in Manhattan. Barbara, an old Ibiza friend, left town and let me use her little apartment on the corner of East 38th Street and Park Avenue whenever I could get into the city. Westchester offered me comfort and security but Manhattan offered high corporate adventure, the greatest market the World has ever known and a rich cultural soup mix. I was fascinated by the way the different races overlapped throughout the city, Italians into Chinese, East European into Hispanic. I even found that I got to speak Spanish quite often too.

 

Soon my life started to be divided between Larchmont and work with the others and the City where mostly I would just walk around. I explored Manhattan from Tribeca to 90th Street and from the Hudson to the East River. I was completely fascinated by the endless avenues and cross streets, by the shops and the shop windows, the graffiti and the posters, by the people in the streets and the workers in their offices. I used to catch the Amtrak train from Larchmont into Grand Central Station and plunge straight into the towering cityscape of sublime glass reflections. I checked out the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, Time Square, the porn shops and always the running people everywhere. Central Park was just up the road and I spent hours exploring the paths and the ponds, the boathouse and the avenues running through it, all of which were overshadowed by the great modern buildings around it. This was a city of extremes. There was great wealth and great poverty and every nuance of existence lying in between. People were literally dying in the gutter outside buildings worth billions of dollars. These disparities in the human condition obsessed me and I was irresistibly drawn back again and again to the streets of the City.

 

At the same time I had got back to my batik work, for Lorna Heutchy had let me set up a studio in their garage in Larchmont. I had made an interesting connection with a tiny bird-like woman called Gloria Buce who ran a design studio in Manhattan. She was always looking for new and fresh ideas for textiles and wallpapers. She saw and liked my work and soon had me working away in her studio on the 18th floor of a building on 39th Street. This gave me a classic view of the Empire State Building through the window. For awhile, I became one of her "drone" artists with my own drawing table and would come to work at 8.30 a.m. with all the other drone workers. These were brilliantly competent artists who could knock out two floral designs for wallpaper before lunch and three abstracts by 5 o'clock. I managed to come up with a couple of good floral drawings myself, which were approved by the Boris Kroll Company and was soon "retired" to Larchmont to realize them in batik. For some reason, I can't remember quite why, perhaps the cloth I worked on contained some kind of artificial fiber, my first efforts were complete disasters with dull, dead colours. But I persevered and my next efforts were successful. I earned my first good money (quite illegally) as an artist in America. There was to be life as an artist after Ibiza.

 

About this time, I moved out of Larchmont and into Barbara's apartment on Park Avenue. I continued to commute out to the suburbs to work with Bruce and Pieter to make money for I was still pretty broke. But I was living in the center of Manhattan finally and could spend more time with old Ibiza friends like Lanny, Michael and Gene. I could continue to explore the city by night and day. But suddenly Barbara came back and needed her apartment. I couldn't afford to rent a space and didn't know where to turn for help. I didn't want to move back to the suburbs and all my friends were about as poor as I was and were struggling themselves. I checked into a real fleabag of a hotel on 21st Street. This was the lowest point in my trip so far for at least the dreadful squat in Victoria where I spent my last night in England, had been full of friendly Irish faces. This hotel had cardboard walls, a lumpy mattress, stained sheets on the bed and an over active nightlife. I could hear people running up and down the corridor all night and once I overheard an argument and a violent fight going on two rooms down at three in the morning. I prayed that nobody would try and break into my room at night to kill me and couldn't leave anything of value -not that I had much to speak of at that point- in the room when I went out. This depressing and slightly terrifying situation lasted for over a week but I hung on there, too proud to call up Larchmont and ask if I could move back there again.

In the end, I was saved by the Ibiza Old Boy Network. It transpired that Lanny's landlord was one Douglas Durst whose family owned most of Time Square. I had known Douglas a little in Ibiza. He was a very quiet guy who had come there to spend vacations from time to time but I'd never realized that he and his family were one of the main property owners in New York City. Anyway, he found me at Lanny's studio/loft on 45th Street one day and told me that one of his tenants had just vanished without paying the rent for three months. He asked me if I'd like to stay in the apartment for free until he could re-rent it. Of course, without even looking at the place, I said I would. Such opportunities don't come up every day and it was clearly a time to jump blindly. Besides I was beginning to fear for my life on 21st Street.

The apartment on 44th Street, just off Time Square, was vast with lots of rooms and used to be the East/West Restaurant and Macrobiotic Food Emporium. In one of the rooms, the last tenants had left a big pile of prepackaged grains and rice and dried legumes of various kinds. As a long time vegetarian, (I hadn't eaten meat or fish since I was nineteen) I obviously wasn't going to starve. Douglas, my saviour, came up with a bed for me and I found a little stove and a pile of folding chairs from the Restaurant in one of the rooms. There was even a funky old record player and a collection of old 70’s disco records to play on it. Once again I thanked those mysterious forces that were out there somewhere looking after me and moved into Time Square. Central Manhattan was to be my home for the next five years.

It was easy to set up a basic batik studio and once again, I went back to work. Michael was having a hard time in the city too and moved in with me at the end of the month. Soon things were bopping around the apartment. Time Square was a very peculiar place to find oneself in. 44th Street wasn't too bad a street but I was living only half a block from the famed electronic clock and it was a neon neighbourhood by night and day. Huge multi-coloured advertisements pulsed out their message continuously and the noise of traffic, sirens and people on the street never stopped. It was still a pretty sleazy part of the City, full of hookers, porn theaters, sex shops and peepshows. Pimps cruised around in pink suits and pink Lincoln Continentals and police followed them in blue suits and blue squad cars. It had its own rather seedy glamour and was fantastically convenient for most places in Manhattan. I could easily walk up to Central Park or down to the Village and friends lived nearby. I felt that I was beginning to get it together in Manhattan after being in America only a few months.

 

 

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