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

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MY LIFE AT MOUNT MAD

 

MY LIFE AT MOUNT MAD

 

Situated nearer to Algiers in North Africa than to Barcelona on the Spanish Mainland, Ibiza is a small rocky island with terraced hills and a constant water problem. It supported a local farming population as well as a growing foreign community and had suffered and supported invaders in one form or another since ancient times. Traditionally Ibiza had been a safe haven for pirates and outlaws and artists since time immemorial. According to legend, it had been in the Balearic Islands that the wandering Ulysses had tied himself to the mast of his ship to avoid throwing himself into the water when he was lured by the seductive Sirens of legend. These days, Ibiza was a playground and home to modern day sirens and I was eager to make their acquaintance. It was a haven for every kind of misfit and freak, for drug dealers and movie stars, for celebrities and the not so celebrated. It was a place where people came to vacation, to play, and to just hide out. Clifford Irving would write his famous fictional biography of Howard Hughes just five miles from my house. Elmyr de Hory, the notorious art forger, would hold court at open teas on Sunday afternoons at his finca near San Jose before his suicide in 1977. For me, Ibiza turned out to be a place to come and work.

But that was all in the future and first I had to explore my new home. From the very first day, I fell in love with the island. The countryside around me was unbelievably lovely with a brilliant red clay soil. Masses of almond, fig trees and exotic palm trees were dotted around the terraced hills. After the grim grayness of England, I had found a Paradise. When the sun finally, almost unwillingly, went down at night, I almost expected 'That's All Folks' to rise up over the atoll-like silhouettes of the surrounding hills into the rainbow coloured sky. The nights were warm and balmy and the rich smell of herbs like rosemary and thyme was everywhere. By day, little black dressed figures, hard at work, could be seen dotted all over the landscape. Goats seemed to be the animals of choice, presumably because of the dryness of the land and the lack of grass.

From our vantage point at Mt. Mad, the name Chris gave to their 400 year old house, C'an Masouetta, we could see right down the San Jose Valley to the hills on the edge of the sea. Behind us, the blue sea shimmered down by the port of San Antonio on the other side of the island. I was very aware that I was living on a rather small island which floated jewel-like on an azure sea. This was the Mediterranean, the ancient seat of classical culture, where Western civilization had begun and where I had decided to set up camp for awhile.

I was assigned the turret room at the finca. It was up a little winding staircase off the entrada room with a tiny window cut into the 5' thick walls and a beautiful view, almost like a perfect miniature painting, of the hills by the sea. The top of Vedra, a huge rock in the sea a mile off the beach, could clearly be seen jutting up above the cliffs. In the morning, the rising sun would catch my tower in a noose of light and at night, the moon threw shadows in through my window. I was in ecstasy.

 

I shall never forget my second night on the island. Chris and his new lover, Gwyn, waited until after sunset and then lead me down a narrow path to our nearest neighbours' house. There I met Phillip the blond Australian surfer and his American girlfriend Ana. We followed Gwyn, holding a lit candle in her hand, down a winding path to a side valley where we went to another friend's house to celebrate his birthday party. George's little house was packed with exotic looking people and candlelight threw fantastic shadows on the whitewashed walls. The birthday cake consisted of 100 pancakes piled on top of one another with different rich fillings between each layer. The guests seemed to have come from every country under the sun and I felt that I had instantly made a lot of exciting new friends. Later I was taken back up the hill by candlelight and soon lost all sense of direction. Had I been abandoned, I would happily have died of euphoria out there on the hillside.

 

Mount Mad was a beautiful crumbling palace that Gwyn had bought with money her father had given her when she graduated from Bryn Mawr. Like most houses on the island, it had no running water. Rain water ran off the flat clay roof and was collected in a well or cisterna. All our water was drawn up in a bucket by a long rope. We shared the house with a few chickens, several half-starved cats and Azrul, the North African monkey. Somebody had asked them to look after Azrul some months before and had never come back. Azrul was an agent of complete chaos. She was attached to a long rope which was tied to the kitchen door handle and then wrapped around her waist and padded with a scrap of filthy cloth to prevent any chafing. The effect was pretty grotesque and made her look like she was wearing a small loincloth in a vain attempt at modesty. She somehow managed to escape almost every day for Chris had never been a Boy Scout and knots were not his forte. Azrul would deliberately dangle the end of her rope down off the roof just out of our reach and gibbering with glee, would mock our attempts to catch her. Once she got into the kitchen and stole a whole cake off the table before our eyes and then escaped by swinging from almond tree to almond tree until we gave up in sweaty fury. Later that night, we found her crashed out under a tree, a few crumbs of the cake still in her paw. Once she sat on the roof and watched us plant out an entire vegetable garden and then as soon as we went indoors, went down all the rows uprooting every plant. We ended up sort of hating her and eventually gave her to Portuguese Maria who lived with Luis the drummer down the Valley. The cats were hard to deal with too. Half starved, they lurked in the dark shadows of the kitchen and would come out to make guerrilla raids at mealtimes. On more than one occasion, Jane, the most savage of them, leapt up to literally take food out of my hand en route to my mouth.

 

The house was incredibly primitive with great chunks of whitewash scaling off the walls and an earth floor in the dark damp kitchen. It was hard to see anything in the gloom of the windowless kitchen and we left that territory mostly to Gwyn who seemed oblivious to the total lack of all mod cons. The kitchen table consisted of one narrow wooden plank resting precariously on two orange boxes and we only had one shaky stool to sit on. Gwyn was a freckled redhead with a Scottish mother, an American father and a divine singing voice. She and Chris were deeply in love and were brilliant musicians. He could always play any instrument that he picked up and wrote and arranged all the songs and music that they played. Somehow they survived from day to day by performing in bars all over the island, sometimes playing with Jack the virtuoso recorder player, sometimes accompanying themselves on guitar and violin or sitar and flute. I have a terrible recording of them playing at Art's Bar in Santa Eulalia but the songs are moving and the harmonies exquisite. I wish that they had been able to make a record back in those early days. The combination of their voices still sends a thrilling chill up my spine. Both of them have long since moved on to other countries and other musical relationships but back there in 1970 they were making magic together.

 

I soon slipped into the timeless existence that was life at Mount Mad. Gwyn would start the day early with her voice exercises and would harmonize with Jack who lived half a mile away on the other side of the hill. The sound of Jack's recorder scales carried crystal clear to us through the clean air and I would hear them singing arpeggios together as the sun rose. Then Gwyn would cook bread for us over an open fire. Later I learnt that the 'pienso' grain that she used to put in her heavy but tasty unleaven chupatis was in fact chicken food from the local tienda and that there were many different ways to live in Ibiza.

 

In those early days nobody had a car and most of our days were spent at home in the valley. An expedition was usually organized down to the local tienda, Can Chordi, on the main road in the morning before the heat got too intense. Chris and I would toil up and down our path carrying Ibicencan straw baskets laden with heavy Ibicenco white bread, essential Tulipan margarine and vegetables. Pepe and Esperanza at the shop treated us with good-natured tolerance. I'm sure that they thought we were crazy, living up there in our dilapidated palace. But we were presumably crazy rich for we didn't seem to go to work anywhere. And we did buy all our groceries at their little country store so that soon Pepe expanded his space and started to stock exotic foods like brown rice, oatmeal and imported jams. At night, he could be seen poring over brochures for hot new motorbikes and cars by the light of a kerosene lamp. Electricity and even television arrived eventually at the tienda but nothing else much changed. When Pepe's new motorbike came, it was set on newspapers in the center of the mostly bare living room adjoining the shop. It half-obscured the little black and white television screen. All the family and neighbours sat around the dark room on tiny straight back chairs that looked like they'd been made for dwarfs back in the Middle Ages. We had exchanged our TV sets and condos for log fires and fuzzy radio reception from North Africa and were blissfully happy with the trade. We had swapped our modern civilization for an almost medieval lifestyle, not realizing that there was ultimately no real way to turn back time. Modern Ibicencan culture had been drawn almost overnight into the age of consumerism. This transition would turn out to be irreversible and would affect all of us in the end.

 

I spent my days in the country going for long walks, writing poetry and even writing songs. Under Chris' guidance, I took up the guitar and learned to play a bunch of chords. Practicing assiduously day after day, my fingers became more and more flexible and I gradually regained the use of that damaged left hand although I could never make a good clenched fist again. But making music was a lot of fun. On Sunday afternoons, a group of us would meet at Lanny's house nearby and would attempt to play the piece that Chris would have written especially for the occasion. We used to sit out under the apricot trees on the edge of the terrace by the house and were a massed orchestra of very amateur musicians and unconventional instruments. There would be four or five guitars, at least one harmonica, assorted drums, flutes and whistles and several hot combs wrapped in tissue paper. Usually musical chaos reigned for most of the afternoon but before the sun went down completely, the impromptu orchestra would usually lurch into life for a little while and we might actually have some inspired musicianship for a few minutes.

After a couple of months in my turret room, I found a little house to rent half a mile down the Valley and so began my life at Mi Casita. The dense bamboo growing next to the house made me feel like I was stepping back in time to medieval Japan. The house itself was old and tiny, three small unconnected rooms, one with a fireplace, all with pitted rock floors opening onto a sloping, lightly covered porch. A further section of the house had collapsed and the rocks that had made up the walls lay in mounds all around. An enormous geranium plant grew up out of the porch area and burst through the cane roof. My only furniture, which my landlord Agustin was contracted to supply, was a folding card table. All my water for the first few months had to be carried down from an empty finca higher up the hill. When a cisterna was dug into the rock by the house so that I could store my rain water, it looked like a World War One submarine and a road had been brought into the house for the first time. Having left everything I owned in England, I had virtually no possessions except a new cassette tape recorder and tapes. I slept on a straw mattress on an ancient Ibicenco bed. I built a splendid table from an old goat shed door and a long straight piece of sabena wood I found and had big cushions made to sit on. I had the house's floors cemented level after the heel of my shoe literally jammed in a crevice in the kitchen floor and broke off. The slightest thing I did for my house improved the quality of my life immediately and like all my new friends, I had started a mad love affair with my little home.

My nearest neighbour was Pepita, the little ageless goat lady, who wore a bright yellow and blue dress quite unlike the sober garb of the older Ibicencos. When a parent died, it was customary for the women to dress exclusively in black for the rest of their lives. Pepita sat out on the terraces all day talking with her herd of goats and would run away and hide behind a tree if one of us came by. She seemed to live off the land almost totally and only made trips down to Pepe’s store once every three months or so for a few essential items. I should have loved a look inside her house. On the terrace above my house, I found an enormous mulberry tree. Mulberry trees were written about in Greek mythology and spoken of as bearing sacred fruits. For some reason, the Ibicencos only fed them to their animals but I spent many afternoons gorging myself on their intoxicating fruit in both a holy and unholy communion with those ancient gods.

 

The rest of my neighbours were mostly immigrants like myself and I thought them the most interesting people I had ever met. Actually the so-called Happy Valley community was pretty tight and spent a lot of time together. Michael and Gene lived down behind the tienda and were incredibly creative artists. The former was a successful actor who had dropped out to live the Ibiza life and spent his days beautifying his house with crystal mobiles and found art montages. Gene was designing a fabulous organic garden with spiral flowerbeds and hanging baskets of vegetables. They too had an old neglected finca which once had been the chief house of all the Valley and the winding paths through their gardens had semi-precious jewels and shells from the beach embedded in the concrete. For Michael and Gene, their house was their canvas. They were very sociable and I used to eat exotic and not so exotic dinners with them often, depending on our current finances. Once we tried to eat boiled dried corn, chicken feed by any other name and I can report that it can't be done.

 

I can vividly remember coming down to visit them at Cana Vicenta and finding Michael, wearing only a silk loincloth, ill on his bed with newly diagnosed hepatitis. Fortuitously, for they were completely broke at the time, Gene had found 10,000 pesetas in the street or the bus or under a bush somewhere so Michael could be ill in style, clutching a huge jar of honey and drinking Turkish coffee. A Mozart concerto was playing on the stereo and Gene was busy with a hammer and chisel, knocking a window through the 500-year-old wall in front of the bed to give Michael a view during his illness and subsequent recuperation. The hole was eventually fitted with glass shelves and hanging crystal teardrops, "liberated" from Versailles Palace, through which a lovely view of the far-off hills and blossoming almond trees could be seen. Michael was part Cherokee from Virginia with big hair. He was the only member of his family to have ever escaped from Martinsville. His sweet friend Gene was born near the Bronx Zoo but they had made their home in Ibiza and later they would come to make batiks with me in Barcelona. Later still, Gene would die tragically from Aids in New York, but that's another story.

Once I was down at Michael and Gene's when Jack burst in the door in a complete panic, shouting that the forest fire that had been burning over the hill towards the sea, had suddenly turned in its course and was heading down towards Cana Vicenta. "All is lost ", he screamed, "Grab the art and let's get out!". We trooped outside to look through the thickening smoke at the forested hill behind and it seemed that we could see fire. It had been started by some careless labourers a week before and we had sat and watched the brilliant glow grow stronger night after night from the balcony at Mount Mad. "Quick, Water!" shouted Michael and we quickly formed a chain and drew buckets of water from their well to throw on the roof and outside walls. In three hours of frenzied work, we completely finished their entire water supply and then stood and watched the wind suddenly veer away from us and the fire stop a quarter of a mile away. Living in Ibiza made us learn to take both the rough with the smooth and to roll with the punches.

Luis, the Portuguese drummer was my nearest neighbour. He had lived in Ibiza forever, in a big house across the valley from Mi Casita and was engaged in a long drawn-out war with his landlord who had not received any rent for over three years. Now Luis was living upstairs in the house, his rooms stuffed with musical instruments, African art and a great library of books. At times it seemed like he was under siege up there with his beautiful girlfriend Maria and the ever-present rock and roll band that Luis lead every summer.

One night, I smelt smoke from my house and suddenly saw flames coming out of Luis' roof. Running over there, I could see Azrul the monkey on the upper balcony connected by her long rope to the rail up there and screaming with fright at the smoke and fire. I managed to climb up the front of the wooden house to untie her and carry her down like a big baby before the fire got too fierce. It destroyed the house and its contents completely. At the Inquest, it was proved that Luis' landlord had started the fire himself to get Luis out. Luis, who lost a lifetime's possessions in one night, never went back to look at the house.

My good friend Bill is a true original. I met him in my early days in Ibiza when he came to visit Gwyn at Can Masoueta. He and Gwyn had married in London a few years before so that she could stay legally in the country where she was working as an actress. He had a shaved head and was the most elegant man I had ever seen, with a natural grace and a friendly garrulous nature. He was a clothes designer working for the BBC who, in a moment of clarity had robbed the petty cash box there of $200 and found himself in Ibiza twelve hours later still wearing his caftan sewing smock and wondering what had hit him. Bill had the ability to take a piece of material and somehow transform it into a dazzling dress without using a pattern of any kind. Every article of clothing he created was quite unique as if it had been sculpted in some way out of the raw material of his cloth. He came and went quite often but I always felt like we picked up the same conversation again each time. My fondest memory of Bill is of him sitting out on a terrace under an algeroba tree, sewing a dress on his old Singer machine. I don't think that he had anywhere to live at the time and was camped out at the burnt-out shell of Luis' house. Amongst the long grass and the wild flowers, with the bright summer light surrounding him, Bill looked like Vincent Van Gogh's twin brother. Whenever an Ibicenco family came by, Bill would leap up from the sewing machine and would pretend to be a tourist out on a hike.

There were more fascinating foreigners living in our neighbourhood. Lanny was an artist from New York who painted great portraits and later learnt to be a fine classical guitarist. But he earned his living cutting everybody's hair, a talent he openly despised although he found himself everybody's confidant as a result.

 

Peter and Pat took over Lanny's house when he moved on. I'll never forget a Christmas Day when we all ate spaghetti together on the roof of their house while a dense mist rose obscuring the valley below us. We felt like we were sitting on a magic flying carpet. Peter was a photographer obsessed with taking photos of little old ladies staggering under heavy bundles and Moroccan men smoking kif. Years later, he and I were to have great adventures together. His wife, Pat, was a perfect New England lady who wore a monocle and whose rather severe exterior somehow hinted at a smoldering volcano beneath.

Phillip and Ana were sweet dreamers who had met in Ibiza and had traveled around the world together. Eventually they had settled down in the mostly absent Bruce's tiny house, Can Rafaela, where Phillip grew his vegetables, read his atlas and planned fabulous voyages everywhere. Ana mostly supported them with her meticulous and perfect sewing. We once calculated that she earned an average of 7c per hour from her work. Later, all our lives would become very entwined. Sometimes, Phillip would get up before dawn to collect snails to sell at the Market in Ibiza for although life here was still very cheap in those days, our idyll had somehow to be paid for.

 

 

 

 

 

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