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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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So getting on noticeably poorly amongst company, we said more fond good-byes and headed south to Pocahontas County and wild and wacky West Virginia once more. When we got down to the land again, we found Kristin, Eva and her young son Josh and Andy living there. I found Eva a fascinating and eccentric young woman, over six feet tall, bewitchingly beautiful and both funny and outspoken. She and her very young boy had somehow ended up living at Gesundheit and she was one of the prime energies around the place. It was she who was responsible for the fabulous vegetable garden that fed so many people and she worked in Lewisburg, the nearest big town, as a massage therapist. She was always great fun to be around and I secretly had a little crush on her. Kristin was always Kristin, now deeply committed to Gesundheit both as a model care unit and as a way of life. Andy was the man-about-the-house that year, had a Scottish father and became a good friend and confidant of mine eventually. We had driven straight into mid-winter and the land was frozen and covered in hard mud and snow.


Life was funky but very entertaining in Hillsboro. The land was down a back road about three miles from the village itself which only had a school and two little grocery shops, one of which was a hold-over from the fifties and sixties with products still packaged from that era. There were a couple of garages, for this was a very rural area and without a car or a truck one was pretty paralyzed. We saw signs which would grow to be familiar, like "Beer, Bait and Ammo", the three prerequisites of rural life in these parts. There was a tiny library in a trailer, a Post Office and not much else in the village except for the Pearl Buck Center. The house in which the well-known novelist was born in and the larger house in which she had lived and worked were situated just outside the village. Although her politics had been pretty much discredited by this time, there was a very minor industry still operating around her name.


Hillsboro was a rural farming community with a rapidly dwindling population and an uneasy relationship with the young dropouts who had come to buy land and live there in the early Seventies. It was hard to know what the locals thought about the Gesundheit Institute and the steady stream of strange visitors that trickled through the little wooden shack that, at this stage, was the only permanent dwelling on the projected hospital site. There was a further complication in that a well-known Neo-Nazi group also lived in the area, a bunch of high-level extreme right- wing survivalists who had a camp up in the hills where they wrote pamphlets and books propagating their ideas. I hope that there was no confusion in the locals’ minds’ between the immigrant hippies and the fascists, but I expect there was. Hillsboro was in fundamentalist Bible country and there were lots of local churches. It was still possible to find thirty acres and an old wooden farmhouse for $30,000 in Pocahontas County and rents were unbelievably low. It was a very beautiful, untouched and unpolluted countryside and I liked the idea of coming to live there as soon as I saw it. I couldn't imagine going back to living in New York again for it seemed too expensive and too dangerous. I'd had too much trouble keeping it together there last time and anyway, we'd just had a shot of the city in Chicago. West Virginia was safe and cheap and we could walk straight into a circle of good friends immediately. I hoped that Carol and I would get a chance there of working out our problems.

It was the Year of Haley's Comet. In spite of the freezing winter weather, Carol and I would go out at night and climb the hill behind the house searching the sky for it. Just before Christmas, using high-powered binoculars, we started to see the comet every night, a red-brown slightly streaky star in the sky. I found it wonderful to have lived at a time when the legendary Comet was in the vicinity of our Earth and to have been able to watch it pass us by. Of course, it wasn't the threatened spectacle that one might have dreamed of but still a experience to tell one's children about.

Kristin had a suggestion about where we might live for there was very little space for permanent living at the house on the Gesundheit land. The little house had three small downstairs rooms and only two tiny bedrooms upstairs although there were plans to build onto the existing structure. It was made of wood and heated, like all the houses around, by a wood stove. There was an outhouse toilet, which could be a slight ordeal on a snowy winter morning. Anyway, Andy, an older man and ex-lover of Kristin's, who was living and working at Gesundheit for the winter, had a house nearby that he had renovated and was trying to sell. A warring couple called Eric and Cappy and their three young girls were living there but there was room for us too. Kristin somehow thought that Carol and my presence might stabilize the situation there. Andy was agreeable to the idea, the house was in walking distance of Gesundheit and we went over and met the others who agreed to let us move in. We had a nice bedroom, there was a room I could make into a studio and we would share the kitchen and living room spaces. It was definitely worth trying out the situation although I wasn't particularly drawn to the other couple and had my private doubts about being able to stabilize any bad situation.


We had a great first day with Eric who owned a magnificent Belgian carthorse which we used to haul tree trunks down from the woods for firewood. I did one of my favourite batiks of that log hauling experience as soon as my studio was ready. And so we approached Christmas, getting our new home together and making a huge English Christmas pudding which I steamed literally for days until it was rich, moist and potent. We walked around our neighbourhood and met John and Leslee who had just bought a big house in the nearby hamlet, it couldn't be called a village, of Beard down by the Greenbrier River and its Trail. They were starting a guest house business and needed house sitters over the holidays. There were lovely walks along the River Trail around endless bends in the river past lots of little signs of a community and an industry now long gone. I was amazed how quickly a civilization built of wood and a little stone could vanish and the land be reclaimed by nature. Of course, most of the heavily wooded hills around had already been logged by settlers so that the trees were second growth. But I could see how transient our impact on the world could be.

Carol went up into the mountains thirty miles away and got a job as a masseuse at the spa at Snowshoe, our nearest ski resort, which showed great initiative, I thought. When she went up there in the heavy snow to work at night, I would act as her chauffeur. I got to take long saunas and jacuzzis and to work out on the Nautilus equipment while she worked. On December 21st, Gesundheit held a Pagan ceremony for the Winter Solstice. On a freezing afternoon with snow on the ground all around, we huddled in a little sweat lodge with a bunch of friends and shivered rather than sweated while Eva lead us in a strange Native American traditional chant. The rocks never really heated up enough and the ground was wet and muddy with a thin layer of straw. I remember staggering back up to the house early to avoid frostbite in my toes and collapsing by the fire with a lot of hot tea and cookies. We stayed at the rather elegant, traditional guesthouse, "The Current" over Christmas but celebrated and feasted over at Gesundheit with good friends. I recall that Carol was depressed and quarrelsome. She managed to bring up our differences in front of everyone which reminded me how poorly she did in company and made me feel a little resentful. But we all went on to play "Dr Ruth's Good Sex Game" which was good fun and gave us all an opportunity to display our expertise on the subject, which of course we all liked to do.

1985 ended with Carol working up at Snowshoe and my taking a lot of saunas and hot baths. There was big party in Hillsboro on New Year's Eve where someone came with a new drug called MMDA or Ecstasy, which we all tried. It was a night of fireworks in the snow, dancing and a lot of hugging but I felt the physical effects of the drug strongly and as I hugged another stranger and told them how much I loved them, I couldn't help reflecting that we were all high and that none of it meant anything much. The next day, we were still all strangers and I realized I didn't even know everybody’s name.


The New Year did not start smoothly. Carol and I were not getting on well together nor did life go smoothly with Eric and Cappy who had problems of their own. Cappy objected to the smell of wax from my batik studio and asked me to either move the studio outside or to batik only when she wasn't around. I have to admit that I was mildly outraged at this, for personally I have always loved the slightly sweet, slightly pungent smell of hot wax. Having elevated art to the level of some fringe religion, I found her request almost sacrilegious. So I went on working away everyday in spite of her protests and had started a new West Virginian series. I had several pieces started, a "Logging in West Virginia" piece with Eric and his fantastic horse straining right out of the picture as they pulled at a tree trunk and a study of a little deserted church just down the road. In retrospect this wasn't a calculatedly diplomatic move but nobody had ever, anywhere, complained about my work before and I had to work or go under at this point. My work had been disrupted terribly during the past year, Carol was becoming impossible to be with and work was my only salvation. She was deeply depressed and had announced that she thought that she was pregnant. This was pretty hard news to deal with, for on one level, both of us would have loved to have a child but, in the current emotional climate, it was probably a terrible idea. As if to try to escape the tension and problems at home, I started to get out more and more into the community and got involved in a variety of creative projects.

Andy heard of my radio training in California and enlisted me to help him edit a recording of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" that he and a group of friends had made at our local AM radio station WRVR in Greenbank the year before. So we would drive up the road to Greenbank every week and work on the gargantuan task of putting together a version of the play that could be broadcasted. There were hours of tape, take upon take of each scene, many of which were flawed or unusable for one reason or another. The recording quality was very uneven and all had to equalized and played around with before they could be used. Sound effects, doors opening and closing, footsteps and "outdoor" noises had to be slotted into the mix. It was truly a labour of Hercules and after months of work, was finally left unfinished. As far as I know, the play was never broadcasted which was a great shame. But it got me out of the house at a crucial period and served its purpose as far as I was concerned at least.

John and Leslee, the owners of "The Current" just down the road were both very politically conscious. John's family owned a lot of land in Renick down towards Lewisburg and last year they had organized a music festival there to raise money for various worthy causes. It was called the "Spring Creek Music Festival. It had been quite successful considering how late in the year they had had the idea and how little time they had had to organize it all. This year they were going to do it again and I quickly volunteered to join the planning committee. I eventually took on the Catering booth having had a lot of experience with the "Kitchen" Tex- Mex Mobile Unit in California the year before. It was a good cause and an interesting project, trying to balance the needs and tastes of the rural community with our own tastes and ideas. There were a lot of people involved and a pleasantly anarchic approach to decision- making, which slowed the planning process down a lot. We met weekly at a church in Renwick whose own ideas had to be taken into account also. Kiss or Judas Priest were not being included in our short list of groups to perform at the three-day outdoor summer Festival. But neither did we want anemic new age or squeaky clean Christian music either so that selection of the music was no easy feat. Getting the right bands to come and perform for charity and expenses would keep us busy for the next few months.

I continued to explore the community and to make new friends, some of whom lived on a back road called Lobelia Road, a local area with a reputation for trouble. My friends Bernadette and Phil had a farmhouse up there, the latter being a retired folk musician from Atlanta who was the local sound engineer and ran the sound board at Spring Creek. His wife taught Special Education in the local school and both of them were to be important elements in my life in West Virginia. Bob, who lived high up on the ridge behind them, was a local osteopathic doctor with a little practice in Hillsboro. It had been he who had found the corpses of the two young women who had come to the Rainbow Festival which had been held nearby a couple of years before. This tragic murder had shocked the local immigrant community and it wasn’t until much later that the people responsible had been brought to trial. There had always been rumours about the practice of Black Magic back on Lobelia amongst the locals and there had been another rather sensational pair of deaths on the road a few years before, also unsolved. It was as if a local curtain of silence was drawn from time to time on this little back road in Pocahontas County, itself the least populated part of West Virginia. I found it all very fascinating and was quickly becoming very involved with the community.

Carol and I soon discovered the "Little Levels" Clothing Store also. It was situated in an empty local church and was only open for one day a week. But it was a veritable treasure trove for second-hand clothes aficionados like ourselves. Each piece of clothing cost only ten cents and the small building was literally filled ten feet high with mounds of donated clothes . Of course it was Polyester Heaven for the most part but incredible bargains were to be found in there if one took the time to rummage through the garbage. Several sweet little old ladies ran the Store and were very helpful in helping one find clothing or missing shoes. They sat around a central wood burning stove and I always noticed a strange acrid smell about the place and wondered what it was. One day I watched one of the little old ladies stuff armfuls of plastic and leather shoes into the stove and realized that this operation had clothes instead of wood to burn. I still own some fabulous items that I discovered under the polyester at Little Levels, a beautiful Christian Dior shirt, heavens knows how that got there and a great white and black jacket identical to one worn by Paul McCartney on one of his record sleeves. Paul ? In Hillsboro ?? We would go to Little Levels en masse to pick up costumes for Halloween and I remember feeling slightly outraged when all the clothes went up to twenty five cents in price a few years later. Clothes even got mysteriously recycled through Little Levels. I remember buying a bunch of great old patched jeans there one day and discovering that Eva had thrown them out at Gesundheit and had donated them to the church the week before.

Meanwhile, life went on rather uneasily at Cappy and Eric's where Carol was going in and out of deep depression. One day, after yet another row, I discovered that she had once again packed up all her things, taken all the money and vanished. I eventually tracked her down to Snowshoe where she was still working at the Spa regularly and managed to persuade her to come back to Hillsboro. Thinking back to all the conflicts and arguments and paranoia of our marriage, I'm a little amazed that I hung in there so long. But I was still in love with the beautiful, shining and seductive side that she displayed half the time. I suppose on balance that I must have been getting more good than bad out of the relationship. When that balance eventually shifted, I got out and moved on. But that point was regrettably still quite a long way down the line.

However, when Carol finally returned to the house from Snowshoe, it was the turn of Cappy and Eric to become alarmed and demand that we move out, perhaps afraid for the safety of their kids. Once again my personal credibility was totally undermined though of course I sided with Carol in the conflict. There was an incredibly ugly scene in which Eric threatened us with violence and we hurriedly packed up and moved over to the Gesundheit house. Kristin was going off traveling somewhere and let us stay in her room. But it was only a temporary move for Carol, who moved out and went to stay in a rented room in Hillsboro. She was terribly depressed and upset and I could neither help nor reach her. I felt secretly relieved when she announced that she wanted to terminate her now confirmed pregnancy.

Meanwhile, in the heart of a freezing mid-winter, I set up a new batik studio in the trailer in the big field at Gesundheit which had pink flamingos painted on its side. It was pretty grim out there and was without heating of any kind. But I was driven to go on with my work. I would go out there through the snow in the morning and work there as long as I could before my fingers and toes went completely numb. Then I would stagger back up to the house for warmth and food before going back out there again. Looking back on that experience, I think that I was very heroic or very desperate, for I would literally have to break the ice on the top of my dyes in the Pink Flamingo trailer every morning. The snow that I brought into the trailer on my boots the day previously would still be lying on the floor the next day. But I managed to complete at least six batiks in my new series which included a good painting of the Gesundheit waterfall in winter, dripping with icicles and glittering like diamonds on a midwinter morning.

One long harrowing day in February, Carol and I drove over to Charleston, the capital of the state and she finally had an abortion. We spent the night there in a motel and drove back the next day. I think both of us felt a better and less pressured by our situation. Carol continued to live in Hillsboro with her Mrs. Hollingsworth and went on working up at Snowshoe. But she felt ill, continued to bleed and I was getting worried for her health. She alternately seemed to need me and to want to hurt me and I was trying to keep her at arms length. Our relationship had hit an all time low and held little compensation for me at this point.

Then early in March, Carol called me feeling so faint and ill that I took her to the Clinic in Hillsboro for an examination. She was referred to Low Moor Hospital in Clifton Forge, some sixty miles away. There she was looked at again and immediately whisked into emergency surgery. She was terrified and I was shocked. Four hours later, the surgeon came out to tell me that he had had to perform a complete hysterectomy. One ovary had been abscessed and the other had endometriosis. Carol came out of surgery in poor shape, but behaved so desperately bravely that my heart went out to her once more. At that point, I reflected on it being a good thing that she had not gone off to some Third World country in that state, for there probably wouldn't have been adequate facilities to diagnose or deal with an illness like this.

We both stayed at the hospital for five days, Carol making good physical progress but terribly depressed and me sleeping in an uncomfortable armchair by her side all those days. We had plenty of visitors, talked with her parents in Wichita and both felt very happy when Leslee called and invited us to come and stay at "The Current" while Carol recuperated. I remember feeling really good once we got back to Hillsboro and "The Current" and Carol was upstairs, warm and asleep in bed. And then I suddenly got violently ill myself with uncontrollable vomiting and sudden diahorrea for twenty four hours, the price of being a pillar of strength during the past week. But soon I felt better and went back to my work at the trailer while Carol got her strength back.


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