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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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We slotted into suburban Arlington life pretty smoothly. We were living in a huge, rather ugly, corner house with some pretty great people who generally kept an around-the-clock schedule. One contingent would be getting up for work just as the late late shift was going to bed. We lived in a house with four televisions, three VCRs, three complete stereo systems and heaven knows how many boomboxes. We had two phone lines, a fax machine, a Xerox machine and two computer systems. After a year on the road in Asia and five years in the mountains of West Virginia where we had even had to share a telephone line, we had suddenly entered the age of communication. I felt very excited by the prospect of this new step in our life. I knew that it was time for me to take advantage of the digital revolution and this fantastic new access to information. We bought our first computer, a tiny Mac PowerBook, for I was anticipating a life on top of an Indian mountain someday soon and portability was very important. I was amazed how easily I learned to use the word processing program and wrote this entire book on it. I soon had a studio set up in the garage and after a few false starts, was hard at work in the subterranean bowels of the house. The stereo played loudly as I set about trying to realize some of our experiences in batik.

Life at the Gesundheit Institute was never dull. Strictly speaking, our group house on Robert walker Place was not the Institute itself, but rather Patch's suburban fund-raising headquarters where he lived with his wife and two children. Almost ten years before, land had been bought in Pocahontas Co. West Virginia, the future site of his model hospital. The building was to be funded by public donation. It was eventually to provide beds for forty patients and staff as well as providing a wide variety of arts and crafts facilities and many other therapeutic activities. Patch's dream was to replace the current highly expensive treatment and strictly defined doctor/patient relationship with a free health service and much more loosely defined roles for the staff and their charges. All would live in a shared community, with duties, therapy and play being parts of a much larger picture of health and happiness. Fun was essential to Patch's vision of a healthy society and he went to great lengths to make sure that visitors to Gesundheit didn't take life too seriously. A popular "therapy" was to have visitors wear a red rubber nose for a few days. It's pretty difficult to be sad or serious when you look like a clown. This vision was still to be realized however and Patch mostly devoted his life to collecting books, which he did with great passion and to fundraising, which he did with a comparable passion. Numerous articles about him and his work had been published in magazines and newspapers all over the world and he himself traveled regularly all over the States and the world, talking about his project.

Consequently he was away much of the time but the house was almost always a center of feverish activity, with visitors and telephone calls from all over the world. If ever things seemed to quieten down for awhile, there was always Pammy's music lessons going on in the living room, Gareth's voice to be heard, raised high in one of his philosophical discussions or the insistent drumming of tiny feet and young voices as Lars and Blake rolled together down the stairs. Lynda tended to keep a very low profile around the house when she came home from her work at the Conservation Dept. of the Smithsonian and didn't seem to be very into the communal side of life at #2630. But her son Zag made up for her with his rap music, his teenage friends and the television. Besides all that non-stop action, my own loud music seemed pretty laid-back. Certainly we were one of the quieter elements in that house.

Living ten minutes from the heart of Washington had its advantages and compensations. We could easily pop over to the Mall to see free exhibitions and started to make that a regular part of our life. I have always found the Mall an amazing place. One might be forgiven for thinking that this broad grassy space, with the Capitol building at one end and the Washington Monument thrusting upwards massively at the other, was the heart of an American Utopia. The Mall was lined on either side by the impressive looking Smithsonian museums, by the Modern Art Museums, buildings which looked like temples and the Hirschorn built like a huge Space Age donut. Happy families picnic on the grass, hot sweaty senators jog by, children play ball and throw frisbees to one another. One sees people from every race under the sun. Unfortunately this perfection is betrayed by the many begging homeless people who mix with the madding crowd and the fact that Washington is the country's number one murder and crime capitol.

My forty eighth birthday came and mercifully went. Much more fun was the big dance party and event that Gareth and I organized at our house early in February. We called it "The Aquarian Conspiracy". I'm not really sure why, except that all Aquarians, like myself, privately believe that they are the secret rulers of the Universe. We took the TV evangelist, Bob T., a contemporary con man as a sort of theme and made a hundred Xeroxed masks with his face on them for our guests to wear. Best of all, we built a small installation in the middle of the living room, a surreal "altar" to religious chicanery which had as its centerpiece, a box from which a hand, palm up, reached out. A notice said "Please place your monetary offerings here". Inside the box were several burning candles. But mostly the "Aquarian Conspiracy" was a great dance party. I showed some slides and Gareth and I, joint Masters of the Universe, battled over DJ duties until three in the morning.

Life in Arlington necessitated some trips down to Uncle Jon's barn in the hills outside Union, West Virginia. Jon lives up the worst road I have ever driven on and that's including my travels in Africa, the Mediterranean and the islands of Indonesia. He and his lovely family live in a splendid isolation up a hollow in time-honoured West Virginia style. I've wrecked several exhaust systems going to visit them. Jon has a huge old barn behind the house. I believe that for him, his barn and its contents represent a legacy of Americana to pass down not only to his three daughters but also to untold, unborn generations yet to come. He actually invites us to leave any possessions we want in a corner of the vast, dusty space. So Catherine and I have made quite a few museum donations at different times and boxes have moved back and forward from the barn with some regularity since we started to travel a lot. These days, Uncle Jon's barn is a real reference point for us. We also love his pond and the upright Arthurian mystic stones, which sit on its banks. On hot sweaty days, swimming is the only way to cool off in the hills. Some day, that wretched track of yours will be a two-lane highway, Jon, you will finally be exposed to the late twentieth century and hordes will flock to see and marvel at the barn and its fantastic if dusty treasures.

On St Valentine's Day that year, sweet Catherine got carried away by the emotion of the moment. I remember that we were in Richmond for her friend Lael's mother's second wedding at the time. I gave her a cyclamen plant and she gave me a handmade card asking me to marry her. Although we'd been incredibly happy together for over four years at that point, Catherine had always refused my marriage offers, saying that it wasn't necessary. She didn't believe in the institution of marriage and what it represented. I didn't either, although I'd been married twice before. My early marriage to Elsbeth had only lasted two years after six happy years spent living in sin. Better if I write no more about my marriage to Carol. Of course I accepted Catherine's offer but later that day she was vague about dates and details and it hasn't been mentioned much for the past two years. A great "Indian giver", that quarter-Cherokee sweetheart of mine!

Living in Northern Virginia meant that New York was suddenly accessible again and we went up there for a four day visit at the end of February that year. I remember that it was bitterly cold. We weren't quite ready for that chill that seems to numb one's very breath. But Catherine and I spent those days out on the streets, walking incredible distances through those spectacular corridors between the towering buildings as we visited old friends all over the city.

I had a rather strange experience when we went to look for my Texan friend, Toney, at the rather chic French restaurant he owns in the old Hell's Kitchen area on Ninth Avenue. As I gave my name to the Maitre De at the door, I saw Toney, who looks superficially like me, rising from a table of people at the end of the restaurant and coming towards us in greeting. The people he was sitting with turned round to look at us and seemed for a long moment to be complete strangers to me. And then suddenly the unfamiliar faces resolved themselves into those of some familiar old Ibiza friends, Lanny and Michael from Studio 45 and Happy Valley, George the sculptor and Maggie the photographer. They all looked older and grayer and a little more shapeless. We had all, myself included, grown suddenly old in between visits and the sensation was a little disconcerting. Probably we all felt it and perhaps the feeling was further accentuated by Catherine's young, unlined healthiness. Michael went as far as to call me a dirty old man to my face when he learned her age. It wasn't an entirely comfortable reunion although Toney was his usual charming self and an ineffable host. George, who'd had a few drinks, made obviously sexist remarks to Catherine in the hope of provoking her in some way, I suppose.

We went from the Ibiza Old Boys Club to meet Boo. This was the first time that we had seen one another since our awful argument and my near-death experience in South Miami years before. Again more was left unsaid than spoken but she took us to an Afro-American club at Times Square where we danced to Senegalese dance music.


As always in New York, we stayed with my old friend Cathy on 45th Street. Cathy was hanging in there in New York, still in therapy and still the great talker that she'd been when Kristin and I had shared an upper west-side apartment with her several lifetimes before. She lived with her two large cats amidst the clutter of a professional waitress' life, beat up shoes, little piles of coins all over the furniture and carpet, overflowing ashtrays and a general clutter of astrology books. It was always comfortable to see her and to discuss our loves and lives. Before we left, she gave us a joint Astrological reading and warned us above all to maintain honest and open communication in our relationship. We were after all, a Leo and an Aquarian, two very different animals. With such distinct outlooks, she told us that it would be easy to slide apart and to go in different directions unless we were very careful. This turned out to be deeply prophetic advice. I expect that when I go back to visit her in 2001, Cathy will still be sitting by the window next to the old metal fire escape, a cigarette in one hand, a book in the other and words on her lips. We even managed to catch up with Gwen and Trevor that time and to visit them at their new apartment in Harlem where they now lived since renting out the house in Leonia. They were a happy multiracial couple and probably the best thing to come out of my reggae madness of 1983. Gwen, a musician, a teacher and the mother of the band's keyboard-player, Robert, had met Jamaican Trevor the radiologist, at a gig at Mikel's Club and the couple had been inseparable ever since. They both had several grown sons and one of them, Jamil, a young artist and activist came and ate with us at a nearby African restaurant. I really liked and admired him though we argued about music. Rap, which he listened to day and night wasn't a music form that I could relate to much although we both loved African music.

We ended a wonderful weekend out in Larchmont with Lorna, Bruce and his new girlfriend Hilda. We stayed up late watching "Mountains of the Moon", a movie about Speke and Burton's tortured expeditions to discover the source of the Nile and also "Ring of Fire", a series of videos made by the Blair brothers, old Ibiza acquaintances who had spent ten years exploring the islands of Indonesia. Fascinating stuff!

Back in Arlington, we learned that Catherine had been awarded $12,500 in damages by the insurance company for our car accident. The following day, she heard that she had been offered the job working for the Mental Health Project that she had wanted. We celebrated by spending a day out on the Mall at the Museums and felt that we were on a roll once more. Then two days later, the insurance company offered me $85,000 for my body and wrist injuries, saying that they were taking into account the fact that tests showed that I was about 20% disabled. Needless to say I accepted their offer at once. Then I went out and bought a new firm mattress for our bed and the CD player I'd wanted for so long.

Meanwhile, down in the studio, I was deep into Balinese batik production. I was working on a rice temple door piece, a new drawing of Catherine walking through the light-dappled alley that went off Legian Beach towards the main highway and a view of the volcanic Mt Agung on Bali. I soon had six pieces in varying degrees of completion and was back on an all hours work schedule with Catherine away in the city every weekday. We had discovered that the best thing about life in a rather sterile suburban locale was the nearby park and the paths running through it down to the Potomac. So almost every day, Catherine and I spent prime private time together and got some exercise at the same time. In retrospect those walks were some of the best times of the year that we ended up spending in Arlington. As the year went by, the skeletal trees fleshed out with new leaves, the landscape became more and more obscured and the paths became muddier and muddier. We came out for walks before dinner almost every night and got to know our neighbourhood pretty well. We watched the grays and browns of winter pass into the new greens of spring. I reflected that if we had to live on the East Coast of America, this was probably about as good as it got.


So we were settling down into American suburban life. Catherine's job, working on a campaign to publicize changes in children's benefit laws, kept her very busy. She was still waiting to hear whether or not she had been accepted for her course. Knowing how well qualified she was and how well she came across in interview, I never had any doubts personally on that score. I was steadily working away at my new batiks but somehow not enjoying my hours in the studio as much as I ought to have. Since I'd come back from our trip, a part of me had really wanted a break from the tortuous and sometimes tedious batik process. It seemed to be too "low-tech" for my current lifestyle and so I decided to apply to do a silk-screen course at the Corcoran, the Washington College of Art. I still had vague plans of designing and executing large sized wall hangings and I liked the idea of learning a new process.

About this time, I made an interesting new contact. There was a lecture on batik advertised as part of the Smithsonian Resident Artists' Program on the Mall. I went to check out another batik artist's work. The audience was almost all made up of very elderly people, mostly women, and once again I reflected that these days, batik only appealed to an older generation. I didn't learn much from the lecture but it was always interesting to see another artist's work. After the slide show, I introduced myself to Joanne, the lecturer, and made an appointment to show her my portfolio the following week. It turned out that the Program was looking for a batik teacher.

Catherine's younger brother, Michael, came to stay with us en route for Burundi in East Central Africa. He had been accepted by the Peace Corps and was going off to develop a National Park area on the shores of Lake Tanganyika right next to Jane Goodall's chimpanzee reserve. I was of course madly envious of him but managed to hide that from him for the most part. Remembering my experiences out on the trail, I bought him a really good portable stereo system to take with him. I've sent him a steady supply of new tapes since then and have no doubt that when we see him again, he will be a very different man. He was forced to leave Burundi in a hurry when civil war broke out in that country in late 1993 but he signed up for another two years in Botswana. I'd like to go and visit him there before he comes back to the States.

Simma and Jeffrey and the boys came to Alexandria, Virginia for a family reunion at the end of May and we spent a crazed day out on the Mall together looking at museums. Their visit coincided with our next House Party, which was an event to celebrate the Gemini birthdays of various friends. We called it the "Twentieth Century Schizoid Party" in honour of that astrological sign's notoriously double-edged personality. I had hung the living room with white muslin and had assembled quite a number of slide projectors. In fact this party was an excuse to resurrect my 1960's "Retinal BlowJob" Lightshow once more. Back in the early days, it had been a simpler affair and I had mostly projected glass slides filled with oils and dyes onto the rock bands as they played. Now the Show was more sophisticated, with slide projectors throwing multiple images which I made pulse or dissolve at the same speed as the music by the simple process of moving my hands across the front of the projector lenses. It was somewhat akin to playing "air" bongos. And I'd also built a low dais in one corner of the living room that had a sheet hung in front of it and was brightly backlit from the rear. The shadow of the dancer was thrown into strong contrast on the sheet. It was a safe invitation to do some hot dancing and the chance for some exhibitionists to exhibit a little but to stay anonymous at the same time. I was amazed by the numbers of people who were willing and eager to dance on that little dais.

We even had a seven-foot tall robotic skeleton in attendance that night. Often spoken of as "Patch's Folly", the robot was a genuine skeleton mounted on a mobile platform. It could perform various simple movements using remote control radio, like raising its arms to smoke cigarettes, rolling its eyes and -ahem- farting. Patch, who had already spent a fortune on his creation, had further plans to have it speak, do massage and dance but all that seemed a little way down the line. On the night of the party, it continually malfunctioned and could do nothing but roll backwards and forwards, farting quietly to itself in a corner.

But fewer people came to that party. It occurred to Gareth and I that we were starting to alienate some of our friends with our hypnotic techno music, our flashing strobe lights and the barrage of pulsating images. People even appeared to be taking refuge out in the back garden. Simma and Jeffrey arrived for the party, took one quick tense look around the scene and swiftly left. I had a wonderful time but realized that it was time to get the Retinal Blowjob out of the house and into the clubs where people came expressly to dance to loud music in the most extreme environment possible. In modern clubs where the norm was a massive computerized light system, there was nothing like my lightshow to be seen.

At the end of May, I finally completed my "Git Git Waterfall" batik. I had actually been working on the piece for almost a year, having done the drawing first at Susan's house in Bali. I completed a first version some months before in Arlington but had felt very dissatisfied with the results. So I had painted another version and was moderately happy with a batik that had turned out to be very technically difficult to realize. My old Australian friend Phillip had taken Catherine and I to see Git Git in the center of that incredibly beautiful island. He had been shocked by the growth of tourism and the commercialism that had sprung up around the waterfall since his last visit. After we had parked the van, we followed a sort of wooden boardwalk that had been constructed along the old path that lead from the road to the falls. All along the boardwalk, there were stalls and stands selling food, drinks and the usual tourist clothes and gifts. But we found ourselves alone when we finally arrived at the base of the waterfall and I found the whole place quite magical. For me, it was very reminiscent of some Hokusai wood block print in which some old Japanese sage is depicted lost in contemplation of this frozen moment of eternity. In my drawing, Catherine, sitting on a rock in the lower right hand corner, replaces the sage but is no less rapt in concentration at the sight of all the falling water and the river running past beside her. The waterfall itself seemed unbelievably high and the force of the water unimaginably powerful. There was a small bamboo hut like a gazebo just below the falls, which gave just a touch of a complimentary colour to a lush landscape full of different greens.

It was a slow piece to paint as it contained about three dozen different dye colours, most of which I applied by brush. Colours that were out of the general context and range, like the light red roof of the gazebo and Catherine's skin tones and red dress had to be carefully isolated with wax. I believe that there were at least six green dyes in the foliage of the trees too. The contours of those thousands of tons of rushing water were also slow to realize. As I often do, I covered almost all of the painting with wax in the end, leaving only the small areas of shadow and fine lines delineating the structures of the piece exposed to take the final black dye. Looking at the finished batik, I can still remember that hot sultry day in June when the only relief from that bright heat was the spray from the waterfall which wet our clothes and which hung around the river below, causing tiny rainbows to dance amongst the drops of water.

On Patch's birthday on May 28th, I did the final black dye for four other completed batiks and laid them out on the front lawn under plastic to dry slowly, ensuring maximum dye strength. Lynda's present to Patch was the family portrait that he had commissioned from me some eight or nine years before. She had finally mounted it under glass in a handsome frame. It showed Patch and Lynda seated on the lap of the massive statue of Albert Einstein that sits on Constitution Avenue in Washington DC. They are with a young Zagnut, their first son, who is juggling a ball in the air. The batik was hung in their hallway to greet visitors to the house. That same day, Catherine learned that she had been accepted to do her Master's course in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. From the six hundred applicants, only fifteen were accepted so that she had done extremely well, as I knew she would. It felt as if all was going as we had planned.

About that time, I met Kelly who would have some influence on our life in Virginia. The early summer River Festival in Alexandria was happening and we were invited to go to a party on a sailboat with the Gesundheit crowd. I've never had the opportunity to do much sailing but have loved it every time that I have sailed. I always jump at the chance when it's offered to me. Our great friend Betsy from Bali was in town with her new beau Aron and we took them along with us too, I remember. The boat turned out to be an incredible ninety-three foot schooner, recently built in Nova Scotia by an ex-stockbroker and house-builder from New Jersey called Kelly. He was a rather wealthy, peripheral Gesundheit figure, who had helped buy the current group house on Robert Walker Place. Kelly was about my age, extremely attractive with a large beard, a pigtail and a decidedly piratical look about him. I didn't make much contact with him that day for there were a lot of people around and he was busy with his boat. We didn't make much of a trip, just sailed out into the Potomac River to look at the fireworks display a little better and to let off some fireworks of our own.

But I made a really good connection with the boat's first mate, an Irish woman called Fiona. She was a real rough diamond, rather attractive with lovely eyes. She was a consummate sailor, a cook and a friend of most of the Irish rock stars that I had ever heard of. I invited her to eat with us at the group house the next day. But it was the boat, "The Tree of Life", that really grabbed my attention with her lovely long lines, her fabulous polished wood and the obvious attention to perfect detail everywhere. Kelly had designed the boat himself and had supervised her construction in a Halifax boatyard. She had bunks for twelve but could accommodate a few more than that. She had a large well-equipped kitchen and all the latest electronic navigational toys. One could go anywhere in the world in "The Tree of Life", in great comfort.


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