THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE BATIK ARTIST
By 1972, Marie Luz and I were
getting regular orders for our work and were selling handmade 'art wearable'
clothes to several boutiques in Barcelona.
I had set up a tiny but efficient studio in the front hall of our
apartment in Calle Mallorca and was putting in very long hours at the wax
pot. Marie Luz was kept busy sewing
our clothes and drawing new designs for us to batik. From the beginning, we worked very closely together. Both of us drew designs and pictures to be
batiked and then would often collaborate on a specific design or even redraw
something that the other had drawn.
From this easy cooperation was emerging an easily recognizable
style. I had learnt to love the wood
block prints of the Ukiyo-e school of 18th and 19th century Japan from my Fine
Art degree studies in Edinburgh.
Artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige were incredibly influential to us at
the beginning. Just as the Japanese
print makers had designed one wood block print for each colour to create their
incredibly complex pictures, we were learning to break down our images into
their constituent colours tones. In
attempting to make our designs more and more complex, we found that there was
less and less room for improvisation or spontaneity.
Unlike oil painting where artists
can paint and repaint their picture until they are finally satisfied, batik
artists have only one shot at getting their design dyed on the cloth. As soon as the hot wax penetrates the
cloth, the colour dyed under that wax is permanent and cannot be altered. If you've made a mistake in the waxing, you
can try to change your drawing to accommodate the error but mostly you have to
learn to live with it. We found that it
was incredibly easy to make little errors in the work and that it was in fact
almost unavoidable. Essentially,
occasional spilt wax was the nature of the beast. After so many years of work in the medium, I still often make
errors, some only noticeable by me. But
I do it frequently enough to remind me that no one ever stops learning and that
absolute control of the medium is always relative. Possibly I've become better at camouflaging my mistakes but no
sooner do I congratulate myself on the superb control that I'm demonstrating,
than I make a mistake. Another tiny
blob of wax falls where it shouldn't.
All I can hope for ultimately is that the error is not too great and
that the element of chance inherent in the technique will work for me rather
than against me.
Of course I find that element of
chance very attractive. One never
knows quite where a crack in the wax will occur and where the resulting vein of
colour will fall. Some of my batik
paintings have a web of cracking so subtle that it serves to unify the work
without really being noticeable. I
have a beautiful batik portrait of Catherine which is completely ruined by a
chance black crack running right between her eyes. It's hard to feel anything but real frustration sometimes for
the process is usually very slow and most batiks take at least three weeks to
realize. In a sense, each batik
resides in the lap of the Gods until it comes back from the Dry cleaners with
the wax removed. Only then one can see
how it turned out, for during the process, as one dye is superimposed upon
another and then covered with wax, it gets harder and harder to see what the
true colours are. Over the years I've
obviously learnt more and more control over the process and a number of
techniques and tricks to minimalise my mistakes. But in the end, one has to rely on one's experience and the
benevolence of those Batik gods on that particular day.
The blissful tedium of the waxing
process shouldn't be forgotten. I
estimate that about forty hours of waxing are spent on each piece. Each piece represents long lonely hours
spent standing on my feet hunched over the cloth. The batik has been stretched out on a wooden frame which rests
on a waist-high table. Most of the
decisions have all been made, only the dye colours can be altered at this stage
and I'm fairly confident in my craft skills at this point.
My right hand holding the tjanting
returns automatically to the wax pot and I scoop the tool into the pot again to
refill it with hot wax before bringing my hand back over the table to cover the
next area of cloth. My left hand,
holding the upturned tennis ball, automatically moves in under the tjanting's
spout to catch any dripping wax. The
half tennis ball serves as a perfect receptacle to catch any wax that falls
which can later be squeezed out of the rubber shell and reused. I begin to fill in another little space
with wax. After a minute, the wax
cools down and I have to reach out for more.
As my back begins to ache, my mind starts to wander. I always listen to music when I work and
random thoughts start to form in the void created by the monotony of my actions
and the cadences of the music. Waxing
has always been an enormously relaxing process for me and for a man without a
conventionally spiritual outlook or outlet, it is as near as I come to
meditating. I suppose that it's the
prime time that I get to spend with myself.
After twenty years, I think that I've learnt how to wax really fast and
using both small and large tjantings plus brushes for the larger areas, I can
knock off the heaviest waxing in a morning.
Thus saying, I go a little too fast and spill drops of wax irrevocably
across the branches of a tree in the landscape that I'm working on. "It's a magnolia tree and those are
flowers", my mind kicks in automatically. "Or maybe I could make them
into clouds showing through the trees or seagulls.............. or even flying