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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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" I SURVIVED 1984"


So, a brand new year, a brand new ray of hope. My baking job was actually working out very well. The "Kitchen" must have been the only vegetarian restaurant for a hundred miles and was run by a sweet couple called Pat and Pete. It was right on the main road between Auburn and Grass Valley. My job was to bake about a dozen fruit pies, cakes and big healthy granola cookies every Monday morning for which I was paid a little bit of money and really well fed. The restaurant was closed on Mondays so I usually worked on my own with good music blaring away. I mostly enjoyed the time I spent there. At the very least, it provided a bit of structure to my life in Grass Valley. And then I walked into another job, which gave me a lot more structure and took me out of the house a lot more. I had taken to working once a month at our local food co-op in Grass Valley where we bought most of our food. It was a small contribution that I could make to our household, I enjoyed the scene there and managed to nibble pretty well the days that I worked there. I saw an advertisement for a house sitter at Kate Hayes House in Grass Valley on the noticeboard there and went over to apply for the job. Kate Hayes had been a notorious courtesan and actress in the area during the boom years of the Gold Rush era and the house named after her was a Shelter Home for people with various mental problems. There were normally between five and ten people who were in transition between an institution and the outside world living there at any one time. The house was run by a couple called Joy and Floyd who had two young sons, Nat and Ben. There was not much to my work there and not much real money to be made either. Mostly I would have to take charge of the house when the others went out for they were very active in the local Theater group. My work was mainly to keep an eye on the boys and to dispense regular medication to the inmates. Life with Susan had prepared me well for some of the oddities of behaviour that I might experience there and I felt that I had some real compassion for unfortunate people with mental problems of one kind or another. Plus I got to take endless hot showers there, eat well and even had access to HBO television should I want it. And every penny helped at that point too.

So I settled into a routine of life in Grass Valley which lasted all that year without any real excitements or major changes to speak of. I didn't fall in love, the Family gradually got closer and tighter and I spent a lot of time with the two boys. It was a year of domesticity, I remember, a year of steady if unspectacular work and a year in which I put energy out in a lot of new directions. I was in close touch with Susan all year but the others were definitely unhappy about her coming back to the live on the land. This caused me a great deal of pain for I often felt that she had no one except me in the world as a support system. But the conflict that this caused between Simma, Jeffrey and I, did make us deal with our communication problems and strengthened our relationships in the end. Susan finally came to visit for a week in March but she was on a lot of medication and was very passive and out of it. It was clear to both of us that our land wasn't the best place for her to be and she went back to Oregon to try and put a life together there in some Rajneeshy commune. I missed her but knew that she had to find her own salvation and that I had to stay and look for mine. I started putting advertisements in the Lonely-Hearts Club section of the local newspaper and met and went out with a succession of different women throughout the year. One of them, Mary, became a good friend but there was generally no great chemistry between any of them and I stayed in my role as Grass Valley's Last Eligible Bachelor. Which in retrospect was just as well for I was broke and confused and was much better off in my own company most of the time. My love affair that year was with sweet little Zeb who would totter on down to my house every morning to do exercises with me and then potter around behind me all day.

I took up acrylic painting for a change and painted steadily all that year. I was happy to paint anyone who would let me. I finished portraits of Ron and Sarah (who hated the "party girl" painting that I came up with though I really liked it), all of Joy and Floyd's family as well as some pretty bad self portraits of myself in hell. I pushed on with my Californian landscape batik series and completed a whole series of slightly kitschy barns as well as a good "Yuba River" piece and a Nevada City facade of beautiful old Victorian Houses. I showed Batiks three times that year too, at a local gallery "ArtBeat", at "Harmony Gallery in Southern California and in Cologne, Germany. My old friend Rudolf Smend put together a huge "International Batik Exhibition" in May. I somehow represented the USA and showed my Florida self-portrait (Artist with Ear) so I certainly didn't feel as if I was dropping out of the Art World completely.

I joined the local Theater group, the "Foothills Theater", and though I didn't really feel very involved with the other members there for they were a pretty insular bunch, I did paint backdrops for three productions, "The Mikado", "The House of Blue Leaves" and "Bus Stop". I was happy to be doing something really different and to be part of a group effort.

In May, my father, Maurice wrote to say that he was about to have a minor operation for colon cancer. I had had almost nothing to do with my father for about fifteen years. But he had been in the States twice since I had been there, doing English Literature lecture tours and we had somehow managed to miss each other both times. Little did I realize the severity of his illness which would eventually lead to his death six years later.

I met Doug the Californian dentist and worked out a great Batik trade with him in exchange for major tooth repairs. Doug lived in a Native American tipi with a hot tub just outside it. He had a massive electric organ in a nearby trailer which he played in a local rock band and he kept a real wolf, masquerading as a wolfhound dog, as a pet. He was my kind of dentist and ate vegetarian meals regularly at the "Kitchen". I batiked his portrait standing outside his tipi as well as a portrait of his beloved wolf and he fixed up my teeth which had needed urgent attention.

At the "Kitchen" I organized a reggae Night, "Reggae Kitchen", where we served strictly Ital food to over sixty people. We managed to fill the little restaurant completely and showed a video of the little-seen reggae classic movie "Countryman which was a great success. I joined the "Kitchen’s" outside catering unit that summer too and we served Tex-Mex food at rock festivals in the area which was fun.

Fulfilling a lifetime's ambition, Sarah and I took the local radio station KVMR's deejay training for six weeks in the Fall and became qualified deejays. Then we started out with "Sarah and Jon's Dance Hour" before I became the deejay on the "Roots Reggae" Show which was broadcast from eleven p.m. until four a.m. every Friday night. I enjoyed doing the reggae show a lot for I had collected an incredible amount of unusual reggae music during my adventures with "Catch a Fire". But in the end I had to admit to myself that I enjoyed listening to the radio more than I enjoyed broadcasting. It was the element of surprise that made radio my favourite medium for you never knew in advance what was coming next whereas of course, when you were the deejay, you did.

We all had a rather unpleasant experience which had a slightly deja vu element to it for me. An old Ibiza friend, Candice, showed up to visit with us bringing her young baby Zephyr and her boyfriend Errol Zero who was a slightly well known, second rank Reggae star. I had played a couple of his records on my radio show. By this time, Simma and Jeffrey were well ensconced in the new "Big House" while the Dome had become our guesthouse. Errol started to drink heavily at night and I listened to the sound of smashing bottles and domestic struggles down in the Dome from my shack. During the day, all seemed normal but on the second night, the fighting became much worse and Candice brought the baby up to my little house to escape the violence. Errol followed her up to me but I refused to let him in. He accused me of trying to seduce his woman but I managed to defuse a potentially bad situation without any violence and he calmed down eventually. Candice and he were obviously locked into an abusive relationship and I wanted no involvement in any situation like that. But I did take Errol up to Nevada City to appear on my reggae program where he sang beautifully over the radio and was a big hit. Interesting breed, these dreadlocked reggae performers.

I took up running in 1984 too and worked out an up and down hill three-mile course to run early every morning. It was agony at first but I soon found it easier and easier and would do my thirteen laps of the property before the others surfaced in the mornings. I was feeling thin and fit and ready for almost anything. My old friend Kristin came to visit and soon slotted into life in Grass Valley. She came and did a radio show with me and hung out with me at Kate Hayes House where I housesat all year. That little job kept me in pocket money all year and also provided a little stability in an otherwise precarious sort of life. Besides I could do the family wash there once a week, take regular hot showers and meet some nice people.

As usual, I managed to let Christmas pass me by and on the very last day of the year, took Harun out to a shop in Grass Valley where we had matching "I Survived 1984" tee-shirts printed up. Hmm... My future was still inscrutably unclear and I wasn't able to see beyond my next morning exercises. But the winter weather was wonderful, our land was growing more and more beautiful and only the other morning, I had been able to watch a young doe playing with our little ginger cat in that patch of poison ivy growing just outside my front door.

The New Year started quietly and I couldn't have known that my little world would be blown apart within six months. Had I known, I might not have written so glibly that I enjoyed the mystery of it all. Simma realized a long held ambition in the Spring and opened a little bead shop, "Chester Bead", in Grass Valley. I was brought in to paint the huge shop sign and to design the shop's logo which was a large bead with a needle and thread entwined, coloured black on shocking pink. The grand opening was on March 2nd and I hung a show of my Grass Valley batiks there a month later which ran all summer.

My love life didn't improve much although I got slightly involved with an English friend of Ron's called Liz who lived in San Francisco. She had a little son called Lamin and hit some deep-seated chord in my English soul. But the friendship never really progressed very far although Liz did come and live up at Ron's house for awhile. She was a city woman, was tied up in an intense single mother relationship with her young son and was never very interested in me romantically. And my friendship with beautiful Rachel ran a similar course. On paper it might have looked perfect but she had children too and most of her energies went into just keeping it together. There wasn’t any space left for love. Both of them stirred me up a bit but in my heart of hearts, I knew that neither woman was what I was really looking for. But I painted two good portraits of Rachel and one of Liz and Lamin which came out very well and continued my series of acrylic portraits and landscapes right into the summer. I was making batiks too and did a portrait of my darling Zeb standing in front of a stack of winter firewood. I also completed a commissioned portrait of Dr. Patch Adams and his family sitting on the lap of the huge sculpture of Albert Einstein in Washington D.C. which I called "E=MC2". Both pieces came out rather well and I was quite happy with the way my work was going at the time. I published an article in a local art magazine called "ArtMatters" in which I talked about living among the oak trees of Northern California and how I realized that my work had only just begun.



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