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

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THE SHOPSIN PORTRAITS

 

 

I had a final commission to work on before I took off. Kenny and Evie Shopsin were the proprietors of a rather well known delicatessen in the West Village, just around the corner from the SouthWest Gallery. I used to pop in there for food while I hung my batik show, the sandwiches were huge as were the Shopsins for they obviously loved the food that they served. The Deli itself was picturesque to say the least. It was full of interesting old slot machines, ancient bottles, strange antiques and advertisements from bygone eras and the walls were festooned with flashing neon signs and old period toys. Kenny and Evie had three children and all the family spent their time eating their products. Kenny would half-heartedly pull a wriggling child out of the cold meat case while cats slept amongst the sausages. Evie would have another boy squirming under one arm as she sampled her own egg mayonnaise sandwiches. It was a happy, careless sort of shop and I liked them all a lot. I invited them to see my show when it was up; they loved my work and asked me if I'd make a batik portrait of the whole family. With great difficulty, I managed to assembly the whole family together in the street in front of the deli early one December morning when the sun shone straight down onto the shop windows and took some photos to use in doing the portrait.

 

Then I left New York for Coconut Grove to stay with my friend Kay whom I'd known slightly in Ibiza and who had a little bungalow, which she shared with her boyfriend and her aged father. From there I went onto new adventures in California and didn't get to work on my Shopsin portrait commission until sometime in the New Year when I was back in Florida again and living in the Grove. I remember that I had a lot of technical problems with the portrait. When I finished my final pencil drawing on the cloth, I stepped back to admire my work and saw my drawing board blow over in the draught from an open window and my cloth tear apart at the edges as it hit the floor. Nothing daunted, I drew it again but by this time I was housesitting for my friend Jeffrey G. He lived in a strange dark bungalow which he wanted closed up at all times to keep out thieves and marauding junkies, he said. The air conditioners roared night and day and the only way he could afford this situation was to control his electricity meter so that his bills usually came to $5 or $10 per month. Current with my stay at Jeffrey's, were the race riots that occurred early in 1980 and the whole of the Grove was placed under a nine o'clock curfew. A white man was killed a block away and soldiers were stationed on the corner of my street. A heavy pall of black smoke hung over the North West of Miami where the main trouble occurred and the local radio station was advising us to stay at home at all times.

So there I was, struggling with my Shopsin commission against this frightening backdrop of racial violence, living in a paranoid's hide-out but trying hard to make the best of a bad situation. Actually the bungalow was pretty interesting, I remember, because Jeffrey was an artist who worked in mirror glass. He cut it and mounted it into large semi-realistic reflecting pictures so that I was constantly living with these splintered, distorted images of myself which probably reinforced the sensation that my world was coming apart. Finally I got a drawing completed that I was happy with and set up my studio on Jeffrey's front porch. I continued to have problems with the piece and the colours came out pale and lifeless. It wasn't until I was well into the dyeing process that I realized what I should have spotted earlier, that the fabric contained some percentage of an artificial fiber which my cold water dyes wouldn't take on. I put it all down to the peculiar vibe of the house and I started yet again on some new cotton and finally finished the piece successfully, though at my next housesit which I shall talk about later.

The piece came back from the dry cleaners and looked beautiful. I sent it off to Kenny and Evie in New York. They loved it, paid me and I thought no more about it until I got back to New York in November of 1980. I went round to see the Shopsins to ask them if I could borrow the batik to hang in my next show. Kenny had sent the piece to a framer's in Brooklyn to be stretched and mounted and called them up to see if his portrait was ready. It was but when the carrier arrived from Brooklyn to bring him his batik, it transpired that it had somehow been lost en route.

The Shopsins were crushed and then angry and finally took the owner of the frame shop in Brooklyn to court and sued him for gross negligence. They won their case and immediately commissioned another batik from me. Which I somewhat reluctantly agreed to do. There were now four children in the Shopsin family. There were a set of twins, a new six month old baby and the four year old boy who had had to be physically restrained by Kenny the year before but who held one dazzling pose after another this year when we took new photos outside the deli. Rather painfully, I completed the second portrait early in 1981. It came out quite differently the second time and I personally preferred version # 1. The colours in the original batik were stronger and clearer, I felt. But I am definitely not planning a third or a fourth version.

 

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