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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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The question of who picked up who that night at the Oakwood Inn has been a much-argued point during the happy and exciting six years that Catherine and I have spent together. It's perfectly clear to me though that she moved in with me within one week of us meeting. Perhaps it all happened a bit fast for me for I was still recovering from a couple of very unhappy years married to Carol. I know that it was a long time before I could tell Catherine that I loved her. I would say goodnight to a group of friends and tell them that I loved them all individually but couldn't let myself feel love for Catherine nor say those three little words to her for many months.


The day following the gig at the Oakwood, Catherine showed up at my house in her nice blue Subaru. After showing her around my very humble abode and after she had admired it all, we drove up Briery Knob Rd. and walked up to the top of the hill to look at the view. I never tired of the panorama from the summit and that day was no exception. It was a sunny, late Fall day and one could see for miles. We sat on my favourite rock, looked at the flame-tinted trees and pointed out details to one another. We were getting to know one another a little and the more I knew about Catherine, the more I liked her. Her Grandmother had been a Cherokee Indian and she looked very much like one herself with deep dark eyes and prominent cheekbones. I clearly remember asking her what her age was and my mouth falling open stupidly when she said twenty-two which was exactly half my age! She came from Richmond originally and her parents, who were my age, lived in nearby Bath County, Virginia. When she was at High School, a wealthy benefactor had decided to help a deserving Appalachian child. He had financed her final high school year at an expensive boarding school. From there, she had gone on to get an honours degree at prestigious Oberlin College in Ohio and had then started her Vista volunteer assignment in Lewisburg.

Almost from the start of our relationship, my life and its circumstances changed and have continued to do so ever since. I got a job painting an old wood house for John and Leslee and in the same week heard from Craig in Ohio saying that he'd managed to place five of my batiks in a gallery that a friend of his was opening in Ohio.

Two weeks after we met, when Catherine was away for the weekend at her parents, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night to find the schoolhouse full of smoke. I reacted pretty quickly, kept low and saw that the west wall by my batik table was burning fiercely. The stove hadn't been lit for days and I had no idea what caused the fire. I emptied the fire extinguisher on the blaze and somehow managed to get a telephone call out to Phil. I started to throw all the water I had in the house on the flames while Phil and Bernadette arrived within five minutes to help me. Phil had brought an ax with him and we knocked a big chunk of the wall out to contain the blaze. It made a terrible mess of the house but we managed to control the fire before it spread very far. Had I woken five minutes later, I imagine that the whole house would have burned down. All in all, I was incredibly lucky.

I've never figured out what started the fire but am certain that nobody would have deliberately started it. Perhaps it was a case of spontaneous combustion, started by the chemistry and passion of my new relationship! The cleanup took awhile and I had to fit a new section of wall into the house. A few priceless records were melted but I got off lightly. And it was quite an interesting exercise in priorities. When I first discovered the fire and wasn't sure that I could control it, my options shot through my head at lightning speed as I considered what I should try to save. All I could think of were my batik slides collection and my enormous cassette tape library. I've shot slides of almost every piece of batik I've ever made, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of them and without that record of my work, I felt that my whole identity would be in question.


I've collected music since I was a kid and have always considered music the highest, most sublime art. As a teenager living in Scotland, I took cello and piano lessons which I didn't enjoy much but would go to the local flea market with my parents where I used to buy old jazz 78 records . I remember that we only had an ancient wind-up gramophone at home which I kept in my bedroom. My parents were generally very liberal and I was allowed to entertain girlfriends up there-so long as they could hear the music playing. Which meant that I would wind up the gramophone, put on one of my beloved early bebop records and then start to neck furiously with my girlfriend of the moment on the bed. But I would have to leap up from my bed and dash across the room to wind the gramophone up again every three or four minutes, which stopped me from getting too wound up, I expect. When I left home and got a record player of my own, I started to collect jazz lps, many of which stayed with me until recently. I started to buy rock music when the Beatles struck and it was a running joke that I put my record collection before food and that I'd buy an album before I'd buy a square meal. As the years went by, my collection of records grew steadily and I branched out as my taste became more sophisticated, to collect all kinds of interesting and challenging music. When I left England to go to live in Ibiza, most of my records were shipped out to me there. About then I bought a cassette tape recorder and started to collect tapes as well. The collection steadily grew over the years and when I came to America, I arranged for Jeffrey to pack it up and to have it shipped to New York eventually, although Marie Luz and the children held onto their favourite music. By this time, the collection was getting to be too big to be moved around very easily and contained all kinds of music, from classical to jazz, from rock to world beat music, from atonal to lyrical and from the esoteric avant garde to the most ancient of ethnic sounds. The collection languished in Leonia during my years out in the American Wilderness but I finally picked it up again and took it down with me to the schoolhouse in West Virginia. By this time, my emphasis was on cassette tapes which are the answer to the pirate music lover's prayer. I eventually transferred all the music that I still valued and listened to, to tape. Later, when we left West Virginia, I sold the whole priceless collection to my friend Greg for a nominal sum. He was a true fan and music lover and would always let me have access to the music. So I moved on with my tape collection. Now I have a C.D. player but still tend to transfer the music to tape format for listening to in the car or for taking with me on world travels. So my music collection is just about my only possession that I really treasure. But hey, if I ever lost it, I'd just start all over again. The great thing about collecting music and having such broad tastes is that there's always so much more music to listen to and enjoy. My quest to collect all the great music in the world is infinite. Someone out there is busy creating something new and wonderful out there even as I write and I must get a copy of it !


There was a wonderful late Indian summer that year with warm balmy weather right into November. Catherine would get up early to drive down the mountains thirty miles to Lewisburg every morning to work at the Family Refuge Center. She soon had me signed up as a volunteer and helping out there once a week. But mostly I was at home, working on new batiks for the Ohio gallery which was planning a show of my work the following year. Winter struck suddenly at the start of December but it didn't stop us from making a weekend trip up to Ohio to visit Craig and Brenda in Warren and to meet Tom, the owner of the Oaktree Gallery. We spent a very entertaining evening with some friends of Craig's, B.J. and Kathy. B.J. was a rather forbidding looking 6ft. 3ins. tall biker with a long ponytail and a ZZ Top style beard. He lived in the country with his young son and wife who was a student. He had a fabulous collection of classic and antique cars and motorbikes and we spent a memorable night at their house playing Scrabble and old rock n' roll records. The following day, I got my first look at the Oberlin College campus where Catherine had graduated the year before. It was about as far removed from Edinburgh University where I had graduated, as I could imagine . Everything was within walking distance and there were co-ed dormitories (with co-ed showers), vegetarian co-operative eating halls, concerts every week and a great movie every night. This was a school that genuinely catered to its students needs and wants instead of making the students fit in with some ancient out-dated traditions as had been my experience in Edinburgh. I liked it very much and was mildly envious of Catherine's college experiences. We showed up extremely tired and wasted to visit some old friends of Catherine's and took Craig along with us. I should mention that Craig was an ex-marine and had been invalided out of the Service after injuring his back on his first parachute jump. He tended to dress in battle fatigues and wore his service like a badge. It looked as if we showed up to meet Catherine's impeccably politically correct friends with a Contra soldier in tow, which made me laugh.

Back in Hillsboro, I found that my father had sent me some money so that I was solvent again suddenly. Since I'd left home, I'd never received any money from him. When I'd come to America, I'd called him up and told him that I was broke. I reminded him that I'd never asked him for anything and then asked him for something to help me out on my adventures in the New World. Maurice had been very evasive, had pleaded poverty and had finally sent me a little under $100. Now, starting to feel the onset of the illness that would kill him a few years later, he had redeemed himself, at least financially.

I put on another Paradise Club Dance Party, "Zulu Jive" just before Christmas and met Catherine's parents Mary and Dick for the first time, having stalled on the meeting for weeks. I supposed that I was rather nervous about meeting them due, certainly in part, to the fact that we were of the same generation. In fact Catherine's mother was a few days younger than I. I was afraid that they might disapprove of my living with their twenty-two year old daughter. I remember that we met and ate together at a Wendy's Restaurant and then went to see Dylan Thomas' " A Child's Guide to Christmas in Wales" together. It was a nice evening, Mary and Dick were very kind and pleasant and no references were made to the age difference. They were both schoolteachers living in nearby rural Virginia and were active Quakers. They had somehow missed out on the so-called youth revolution of the Sixties which had changed so many of my generation's lives. I always had the sensation that Mary and Dick came from my parents' generation. Catherine had a younger brother Michael and the whole Barnes family was a very tight supportive group. They have certainly always been that and more with Catherine and I. As long as their daughter was happy, I think that that was all that concerned them.

Carol was in the meantime living a mile or two away and was in and out of our lives continually. She seemed to like Catherine a lot and came by to visit continually in the new Bronco truck that she had bought after crashing the Subaru. I remember one night that she didn't want to leave the schoolhouse and tried to climb into bed with us, more out of a feeling of being excluded than anything else I think. But generally she seemed contented and happy. And I was too, for I was coming to terms with my new love affair and seeing Catherine as a clear and welcome constant in my life. Suddenly Catherine was losing lots of weight and emerging as a beautiful, rather exotic looking young woman. I counted my lucky stars daily.

Christmas came and went. I spent it at Gesundheit, cooked my now traditional English Christmas pudding and managed to eat a bit too much. We went up to Ohio again on New Years Eve to deliver my latest batiks to the gallery and had a memorable night at B.J.'s again. Apparently these bikers' favourite leisure activity was to play silly board games. The year certainly ended very much more happily than it had begun.


Eva of the Gesundheit Institute's second baby, a girl named Mir (Russian for Peace) was born at the start of January and I became a Godfather for the second time. This was getting to be a little like always a bridesmaid never a bride, I thought. We made another trip to Washington which was fast becoming our cultural center and went to see the new wonderful underground African Museum. It was our friend Gareth's birthday and he threw a big "Safe Psychedelics"(whatever they are) party. I brought my collection of strobes and rather cheesy disco lights as well as an appropriate dance tape and we danced for hours. During the years with Carol, my credibility around the Gesundheit house in Arlington had plummeted. Somehow we had always managed to fight while we were up there and had got to the stage when we really couldn't show up together. The opposite seemed to be true now that I was in a happy and loving relationship with Catherine. We always felt loved and welcome there with Patch and the others. We had grown particularly close to Gareth, who was now publishing a desktop magazine using his computer and getting involved with the growing "Cyberculture" Movement. He had a brilliant mind and he and Catherine, another mighty intellect, hit it off from the beginning.

Far from the madding crowd, back on Lobelia Rd, I was hard at work on my latest West Virginia batik series. In a temporary warming period during the cold winter, I managed to break the ice on my black dye bath outside and rescue two batiks that had been frozen solid in the ice for over two months. They didn't seem to have suffered from the experience and I took them off to the drycleaners to have the wax removed. I had settled into a winter routine in the country, working every day on my batiks and going out regularly with Phil our neighbour to collect, cut and stack firewood. Whatever else we lacked out in the mountains, it wasn't wood. I was a regular volunteer at the Family Refuge Center in Lewisburg, driving kids from their homes to events and group meetings at the Center, playing soccer once a week with the younger children and occasionally helping out around the Safe House itself. I remember one particularly tense afternoon when I was roped in to help a woman in Marlinton retrieve her possessions from her abusive husband's house in the country. Her husband was not supposed to be around during the afternoons but I was sweating as I helped the poor scared woman collect her clothes together and load them into the back of the Subaru. It wasn't only from the exertion of lifting bags and boxes either. Fortunately the abusive husband didn't show up and I survived to save another day. I really used to look forward to my days at the Family Refuge Center.

Phil decided to collect the maple syrup from the trees on his land this year and asked me to help him. I think that maple sugar is my favourite sweetener and that most people would agree with me. But collecting it was incredibly hard work. First we had to tap into the trunks of several hundred maple trees on the slopes above Phil's house. We did this by literally hammering spouts into the trunks of the trees and then hanging a bucket, each with a lid to protect the contents, on every spout. Phil set up oil drums all over the wooded hill to pour the collected sap into every morning. From there, the clear, almost tasteless sap ran through plastic tubes down to the little sugar shack where it was collected in an old bath. We had to cut a mountain of firewood for the syrup refining process. Years ago, planning on going into the business in a big way, Phil had invested in some rather superior equipment, a long series of stainless steel baths which were heated underneath by a wood fire. There was a small spout at the far end of the trays where finally the incredible refined syrup miraculously dripped out. We spent long happy afternoons in the little shack, hunched over the sweet steam, sipping syrup tea, each of us lost in his slightly stupefied thoughts. Shafts of brilliant sunlight fell through cracks in the walls making fantastic flickering patterns in the steam. Occasionally one of us would throw more wood on the fire. The light illuminated the piles of galvanized iron buckets and lids stacked along the walls. Friends would come by to sample the season's product which Phil, to my amusement, treated like pure liquid gold. I suddenly saw him as some kind of agrarian alchemist. Those slowly lengthening afternoons drifted by in a sweet smelling mist and, after awhile, we would all become strangely silent.

In March I produced another Paradise Club which featured some EcoTheater, improvised theater by some local teenagers who spoke spontaneously and therapeutically about their lives within a predetermined framework. We had the usual Trillium Company Improv Dance Performance which was excellent and now involved Catherine. The show ended with a performance by the "Bone Symphony Orchestra" which was actually the audience. I had wanted to try out this idea for ages and found a friend, Three Birds, to realize it. We amassed a vast number of instruments of all kinds, percussion, whistles of different kinds, real musical instruments and found objects which could make noises. We sat everybody down, handed out the instruments and Three Birds, himself a percussionist, attempted to organize an orchestra of eighty amateur musicians and frankly non-musicians into one cohesive orchestral unit.


Actually he was only partially successful and for the most part only created an awful cacophony of noise. Music is about the relationship between silence and sound. I think that Three Birds forgot to communicate the basic principle that the silent spaces in between the sounds were as vital to the music as the sounds themselves. The huge group of enthusiastic amateurs made as much noise as they could but each failed to listen to the sounds that his or her neighbour was making. But the Bone Symphony Orchestra seemed to enjoy itself and I made a mental note to try the experiment again some time and to exercise just a little bit more control over the participants.

On a Full Moon on Easter Weekend in April, I celebrated ten years in America. It had been an incredible experience with surely the most intense highs and lows that I had experienced in my life.

Unfortunately, I had not seen any of my family during this period and had not seen my father for over fifteen years. This was a situation that I had to remedy as soon as possible and would remedy later that year. I celebrated my American sojourn by making a quick trip to Florida with Catherine, Eva, J.J. and their two children. We made a marathon drive down to Gainesville in one day to visit and stay with Lenor, Kristin's sister. We ran into Adam, Kristin's son, now tall, handsome and grown up with his girlfriend Aletha.

We walked on the beach on the Florida coast and back in West Virginia, I batiked a picture I called "Figures on a Beach" although in my head I always thought of it as a study in blue and gold. Josh, the little boy, is in the dead center of the painting as he follows the line of the rising tide on a beach that stretches forever. Catherine, walking behind him, is easily recognizable by her small but voluptuous body and her curious walk in which she places each foot directly in front of the other. I've often wondered if this was the traditional Native American way of walking, passed down through the genes via her Cherokee grandmother. There were only the colours, the space and the two shadowed figures in this batik but all came out very true I thought.

We went on to visit with Eva's parents in Orlando and then, leaving the others up there for a few days, Catherine and I drove South to Coconut Grove to stay with Kay for a weekend. Coincidentally, Simma was also in Miami to sell some of her jewelry and I surprised her in the parking lot outside Kay's house. She literally staggered in her surprise to see me for we hadn't seen each other since Grass Valley days . We had a loving reunion that afternoon in Kay's 'garden' room and spent an afternoon with the whole family the following day. As the gossip columnist of the local Coconut Grove rag, Kay used to get invitations to everything happening and at eight that evening, a long stretch limo arrived at the house. Catherine and I were whisked off to a big art gallery opening first, then to a private party somewhere and we ended up at the opening night of a new Latino disco called Club One. We took Catherine down to Cauley Square the next morning for an exotic lunch with Mary Ann at her restaurant and played in the park by the Marina with Zeb and Harun later. It was a wonderful trip to South Florida but a brief one. Soon it was time to zip back up the Dixie Highway to Orlando to pick up the others and head back to West Virginia.


On May Day, there was a pagan ritual at the Sassafras Community near Alderson. Catherine was busy but I went down for the day, helped dig a hole for the maypole and then stick it in the ground. I'd been to May Day celebrations before but had never enjoyed them very much. Actually I had never really grasped the meaning of the May Pole before, or at least not emotionally, as I did that year. About forty men and women grasped hold of a streamer each. Half of us walked around in one direction while the other half of us went in the other. We interwove our streamers as we walked in and out of the procession. At first, it was just fun and friendly. But as our streamers became more and more interwoven and thus shorter and shorter, our contact with the people going in the opposite direction to our own became closer and closer. By the end when our streamers were very short, there was barely room to squeeze by one another and suddenly the whole experience became quite charged, almost bordering on erotic. Finally, as we clambered over one another, I could see how in a different context, this May Day celebration might have ended in an uninhibited group orgy. In more drunken days of yore, it probably always did. The May Pole was followed by a rather noisy group sweat by the Sassafras pond but I ducked out of that early and went home to celebrate privately with my girlfriend.

My batik show at the Oaktree Gallery was set for the end of June and I made another trip up there to see Craig and to deliver the latest pieces for the exhibition. The Gallery itself somehow wasn't going to be ready by the agreed upon date. The owner, Tom, announced that he had rented the downstairs banquet room at Canfield's biggest restaurant, Alberini's, instead. It wasn't what I had planned upon but at that stage with a lot of work already up in Ohio and being framed by the gallery, I just had to go along with the new arrangements and hope for the best. Tom was very friendly and generous and took us all out to a nearby mall where he bought us all new clothes. He wanted the opening to be lavish and he thought that it was important for us to look as smart as possible. It felt a little unreal to be bought Armani shirts and silk jackets and to have trousers specially tailored for me. We all bought conservative shoes to match and Catherine was bought a very glamorous deep blue satin dress for the opening. Tom even threw in a leather bomber jacket that I'd admired.

That weekend, Craig took us to a nearby flooded quarry for what was for me, a quintessential American experience - Saturday afternoon swimming at the quarry. There were hundreds of Ohio kids hanging out there, jumping off high rocks into the crystal clear water, having swimming races and cruising one another in time-honoured style. The quarry looked exactly like a scene out of that wonderful movie "Breaking Away". It was a hot early summer afternoon and suddenly I felt really happy to be there. That evening we all went to a big Grateful Dead Rock concert a couple of hours' drive South. I've never been much of a Grateful Dead fan and was rather disappointed by the music. I kept waiting for the band to really kick in and the music to soar in some sublimely transcendental way as it was rumoured to do in concert. But I never felt that it really took off that day although the Dead Heads reckoned it was a good concert. The whole experience was pretty amazing, from the wheeling and dealing in the Parking lot to the thousands of happy tie-dyed stoned kids dancing till their feet bled on the grass in front of the band. It has often been said that the Grateful Dead are a Way of Life rather than a Rock Band and that was clearly demonstrated that afternoon. An estimated ten thousand fans travel with the band when they do a tour, some to make recordings, some to sell clothes, jewelry, food or drugs, some just to be near to their heroes. It was a wonderful afternoon in the golden sunlight and we were surrounded by thousands of happy mellow people. I thought that if the Aliens chose to show up right then in the middle of Ohio and to land their spaceship next to the stage, they would have chosen an appropriate place to touch down and would have been in good company.


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