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BATIK ART BY JONATHAN S. EVANS
Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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" ...THE LONELY SEA AND THE SKY..."

 

 

The following night, I got a call from Kelly inviting me to join the "Tree of Life" for her next trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts, starting in two days. I swiftly decided to put my life on hold for ten days and to sail off into the sunset with Kelly and the crew. Catherine and I went over to Alexandria to meet all the crew and to have a chat with Kelly and that all went very well. But I found it incredibly painful saying good-bye to my sweetheart. I could count on one hand the number of days that we had spent apart over the past four or five years and after our trip around the world, we felt as if we were joined at the hip. Catherine was very supportive of my decision to go sailing for I think she realized that I continued to have a need to have occasional adventures. We both knew that the relationship could only grow deeper and sweeter for the separation.

So I went on board in the evening and managed to get a few hours sleep. We left our mooring in the Port of Alexandria at three thirty the following morning so that we could pass under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge when it opened at four am. I spent a euphoric first day as we used our engines to travel down the Potomac towards the Chesapeake Bay. I kept watch twice and soon learned to steer the ship between the red and green lit buoys so as to stay in the deep channel of the river. I got to know the other two crewmembers, Paul and Damian, a little better and made a good connection with Kelly. He was a pretty interesting fellow, a couple of years younger than I, who came from a wealthy stockbroking family. His father had been a major wheeler-dealer in the Financial District of New York City and had been a major participant in the building of the World Trade Center Towers. Kelly had had a rather conventional upbringing in New Jersey, had sailed small boats since he was a child and had followed in his father's footsteps and gone into finance in the City. He had married and had two grown-up daughters. Around the age of thirty-five, he had reassessed his life and found it both lacking and meaningless. Perhaps he had "turned on, tuned in and dropped out" at an age that most men were digging in for the long haul. The result was that he divorced his wife, left his job as a stockbroker and had started a new life as a house builder and as a man about town of sorts. His family had been shocked. His father had cut him right out of his will when he had died which must have been a crushing experience for Kelly. When he threatened to take the issue to court, his three brothers had decided to take care of his interests rather than deal with a scandal. The result was that, as long as the Stock Market held up, Kelly would never have to work again. He had bought and dramatically renovated a house on the edge of the Old Town. The previous year, he had built this beautiful boat and had now taken to the water full-time in search of strong winds and high adventure. He was currently single and anxious to be mated again. I sensed that he demanded a tremendous amount from his lovers and that this pressure in his relationships eventually broke them apart. He seemed to me to be an incredibly talented but fundamentally insecure person whose tendency towards self-indulgence had so far prevented him from finding his true path in life. I found him very charismatic and was surprised for my own slightly insecure part, that he obviously liked me and enjoyed my company. As two middle-aged men, I think we each reinforced the other's belief that it was quite alright to be pushing fifty and still out there looking for whatever it was we were each looking for.

As soon as we left Norfolk and hit the open sea, I was suddenly and violently seasick. That wretched and messy state stayed with me for the next twenty-four hours. I managed to keep my watches somehow and spent the rest of the time sleeping and making dashes to the head. But in spite of that miserable affliction, caused by the steady rolling of the ship and the gentle slosh-slosh of tiny waves, I was already madly in love with the sea.

By the time we started to head up the coast of New Jersey on the third day, my stomach had started to subside and I had started to really enjoy myself. I began to settle into the rhythm of life on the sea. Regular meals, prepared by everyone in turn, were mostly fabulous and punctuated somnambulant periods both above and below deck. The gentle movement of the boat was incredibly soothing and our watches at the wheel often broke up our regular sleeping patterns. So it went -a nap, food, an eagle-eyed, ever-vigilant watch, a conversation on the deck, another nap, more food, a good book, more sleep, the next watch and so on. The "Tree of Life" was large enough for one to be able to walk around a bit, gather as a small group to hang out and even get away by oneself for awhile if you wanted to. She could be sailed by a crew of three or even two in a pinch but then you'd have to be on duty most of the time. She wasn't the easiest boat to sail. The rigging of the sails was terribly complicated and that's probably why there aren't many schooners around any more. I think that Kelly and the crew were still learning how to sail the boat.

Before this trip, I knew next to nothing about sailing except which side was starboard, which end was aft and that the lavatory was called the head. Mostly Kelly had me heaving on ropes and then coiling and tying them in various different ways. I began to understand a little about the principles and practicalities of sailing. But mostly it seemed as if my expertise lay in the gallery area and I found myself chopping a lot of vegetables and even baking some cakes. I was in love with the sea, its flat border that reached to the sky, its grays, its blues and that infinite space that stretched in all directions. Sailing was definitely a "womb" experience. The steady slosh-slosh of the waves made this a time to regress into a form of primal security, a state of mind and body that every sailor since the beginning of time has known about and loved. Of course, until recently, sailing has been exclusively a man's experience. Traditionally, sailing has been jealously and zealously guarded with all kinds of anti-feminine taboos to keep it private and sacred to men. That has all changed, of course. Nowadays a boat with a small crew of five people like Kelly's, forms a floating microcosm with complex dynamics and the possibility of all kinds of relationships. Fiona, the practical dreamer and a traveler like myself, became a good friend quickly. I found myself enjoying the young men's company of Damian and Paul as well as the older perspectives of Kelly.

Two more days of steady sailing took us up the coast to New Bedford on the southern coast of Massachusetts. I'll never forget my exhilarating four to six am wheel watch early that last day. It was quiet except for the classical music I played softly on the CD player. The full moon vanished into the sea west of me while a fuschia sun rose to the east. There were no other ships to be seen and an unearthly stillness in the air. My heart soared with joy as the "Tree of Life" cut through the waves and I saw a first seagull flying across our bows.

We reached port by mid-day and docked at the end of a short pier. New Bedford was an old whaling port, once the biggest on the East Coast but now a sleepy little town full of lovely old wooden houses. We got to explore a bit, ate pizza and I called my girlfriend, which was very nice. The "Tree of Life" was to go into dry-dock here so that the hull could be scraped and repainted. Kelly offered to employ me for a week to help with the work. We all moved off the boat and into Kelly's brother Rusty's large summerhouse just outside of town.

 

The following day, we watched the enormous boat being hauled out of the water in a huge sling by an even more enormous mobile crane. Each of the wheels of the crane was taller than I was. Soon the boat was on dry land, the keel resting on blocks of wood and the hull supported on both sides.

I spent almost a week sanding all the barnacles and old paint off the hull of the boat and then we gave it all a fresh coat of paint. It was grueling and backbreaking work. I found myself spending eight hours a day holding my right hand high over my head as I used the little hand sander, my left hand supporting my aching back. But when it was time for me to go home, I was really sad to leave the boat. She and her crew were due to spend the rest of the summer on the East coast attending boat shows and taking part in various races. Kelly was very keen to show off the boat as much as possible for he saw that one way to avoid an expensive boat's quick loss in value was to build up its reputation as soon as possible. The following year, the "Tree of Life" was listed as one of the hundred most beautiful boats in America.

That summer, I took my eight-week course in Silk-screening at the Corcoran. What might have been an inspiring and exciting experience turned out to be a Classroom from Hell. The instructor and I had a poor rapport from the start and I found her teaching methods to be uninteresting and unadventurous to say the least. Perhaps because I was a professional artist already, I felt that I was being continually ignored.

The classes soon started to feel like an ordeal and I was happy when they were over. Somehow I couldn't let myself drop out early but instead soldiered on until I had finished my prescribed three pieces. Then I snuck away. But I completed a print based on a traditional Javanese design, a collage piece and a portrait study of William Burroughs from an old graffiti photo I had taken in New York years before. I came away from the experience pledging to make sure that any classes I taught would be a lot more fun. Sadly I realized that my next career wasn't to be in Silk-screening.

Meanwhile I was in the studio working steadily away on a new series of batiks, one of which was a large study of the gorgeous deep brown irises, which were flowering outside in our small suburban garden. This was in payment for a dentist's bill. I was also doing a portrait of my lawyer friend, David with his two children from a photo he gave me of a family holiday on the beaches of India. It was getting warm in Arlington with summer already underway.

The Retinal Blowjob performed in public again at the end of June for the first time since the "Post-Apocalyptic Circus" Party in Bali. A young group of video makers calling themselves the Betapunks had taken over an old warehouse in DC. They were putting on a series of events under the banner of Ecomedia. Part of the profits of each event would go to a good ecological cause and part towards their next video movie. They asked me to put on a lightshow at their latest happening, "Concrete Madagascar". The space was truly massive so we built a scaffold at one end of the space to stand on and hung a series of sheets about two-thirds down the warehouse. When we focused ten slide projectors onto the sheet, the multi-layered image could be seen from both sides. I don't remember what the music was but with help from some friends, I showed slides of our world travels mixed in with some cyberpunk images, graffiti and all of Patch's collection of surrealist pictures. It went really well and we met an interesting group of young people.

For the 4th of July Independence Day Celebrations that year, Catherine and I drove up to Manasquan in New Jersey where we met up with the "Tree of Lifers" at a family gathering. We then joined the boat for a sail up to New York the next day. This trip, we got the luxurious aft cabin for a night and then moved back to my old cabin in the foc'sle. We were joined for the trip by a group of Kelly's friends from the old days. I think that Kelly felt torn between two worlds that entire trip and very uncomfortable. He and Catherine had become great friends and I think that we were all starting to feel very familiar to one another. We sailed up to Sandy Hook Bay on the 3rd at the mouth of the Hudson and anchored amongst the other Tall Ships waiting there for the Parade the following day. This trip, the boat was rather more laid-back than usual with some beer drinking and a lot of people congregating out on the deck all day. Like a true sailor, I slept a lot. But I woke up long enough to enjoy Kelly's showing-off around the larger boats. He sailed wildly all around the fleet, passing several boats close enough to be able to touch their stern flags. Early in the morning of the 4th, I steered the boat up the river under the Verrezano Bridge to the tip of Manhattan Island where we anchored off Ellis Island, just below the Statue of Liberty.

 

We spent the day watching the stately procession of Tall Ships sailing up river past us. There were some magnificent boats, three and even four-masted clippers, some new and some old. All were silhouetted for a surreal moment against the backdrop of the modern buildings of New York's Financial District before turning and continuing up the Hudson and out of our sight. Eventually we sailed across the river and tied up alongside the "City of Baltimore" on Pier Six in Brooklyn. We spent an evening of mad marine socializing, going from boat to boat where different shows were put on all night. We watched the fireworks that were set off upriver from us and danced on the deck of the "Tree of Life". The following morning we took a taxi down to New Jersey and drove home to Arlington by the afternoon.

My batik work continued slowly and unspectacularly with several new pieces in progress, a Japanesy piece called "Tea Party for One" and a Balinese cockfight piece with two swirling, fighting birds. I'd been working on the latter piece since Bali and had done several pieces, none of which I was happy with. This was probably my third version of the drawing and I was keeping my fingers crossed this time. On Catherine's birthday, late in July, I finished my "Balinese Terraces" piece as well as a fishing boat drawing that I'd been working on for weeks. The batiks were coming out fairly well but I was working without much pleasure. I felt that I was going through the motions as it were because I was a batik artist and therefore made batiks. I'd been batiking for well over twenty years and knew that I needed a change, a new medium, one, which was more in synch with the late Twentieth Century. I was very conscious of the fact that Batik was an ancient art that had been practiced without much change in technique for over two thousand years. Certainly I had tried and had succeeded to some extent in bringing a new approach to the art form. I had turned my back on the purely decorative use of the art and had treated it like a traditional medium for painting. But I had never managed to escape the uncertainties, the impermanence of a textile medium and the excruciating slowness of such exacting work in this technique. Perhaps it was because I'd had a lot of failures recently in my paintings. The newer pieces required incredibly complicated processes to realize. My heart just wasn't in my work as it always had been for so many years.

This general dissatisfaction with my work -and through that- with myself, carried over into our long-planned summer vacation with Dick and Mary at their condo in Duck down on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We drove down there for a week at the start of August but I soon wished that I hadn't. I didn't much like the condo, for Catherine and I had to sleep out in the living room and had no privacy. I generally found the beach and the scene around it rather claustrophobic. I retreated to the Health Club and Spa where I spent hours exercising and swimming. That, coupled with a Spartan diet, soon got me into good physical shape again. Perhaps life in suburbia had begun to take its toll.

From North Carolina, we made a long drive north through Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to be in New York for Bruce's wedding in Larchmont. Bruce -finally married! He had been living with Hilda -or more accurately, living between the Den at his mother's house and Hilda's little apartment in Queens- for a couple of years now. The two of them decided to legalese the arrangement that summer. The wedding was a curious affair for most of the guests were complete strangers to us, old Larchmont friends of Bruce and Hilda's Philippine family for the most part. But my old Ibiza friend and neighbour Pat was there, as was another old friend, Catherine and her husband Jeffrey. It was a great opportunity to spend some good time with Bruce's sister Lynne and her family who had flown in from Crested Butte in Colorado for the occasion. The wedding was held in the garden of Lorna's house on a lovely sunny afternoon and Hilda looked virginal in a full wedding dress. Bruce looked a little more weathered but nonetheless handsome in a dark blue suit. After the newly weds had taken off for a honeymoon at the family farm, I hung out till late and talked with Lynne by a friend's pool. Some day, Lynne, I swear I'll get out to visit you all in Colorado!

Catherine started her course in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at the end of August and I wasn't to see too much of her for the next few months. But we had reckoned on this being the case and started to schedule regular dates to spend quality time together, which generally worked out well. Catherine loved her course from the first and felt that she'd discovered what she really wanted to be doing. And that's probably about the most important discovery that one could make in life. She had to leave her job publicizing the changes in the benefits due to children for they only wanted her in a full-time capacity. She felt a little bad about that for she liked to finish projects that she started. But she managed to walk straight into a part-time job working as assistant to a Tibetan Buddhist tax lawyer. The work wasn't very interesting but she liked the lawyer, Jason, a lot and found him to be an excellent boss and a very good friend. It was quite well paid and gave her freedom to work on her course studies.

I wished that I could have felt as clear about what I was doing and where I was going as she did. I had finished off the last series of batiks and had made a drawing of the "Tree of Life" that I was going to paint in acrylic paint. I had worked in that medium in California years before during my self-imposed hermitage in the chicken shack. I had chosen to paint in acrylics because it was so much faster and more immediate than Batik. The work went well and although I ran into some technical problems that I didn't really manage to resolve in that piece, I finished my boat quite quickly and was able to move onto another painting. Of course, one of the things that I was enjoying so much about painting in acrylics was that I could go back and rework parts of the piece that I wasn't happy with. That was something that I could never do in my batik paintings. The flip side to that was that I didn't always know when to stop. But I was enjoying the freedom presented by this new medium.

My second acrylic was a nude portrait of Catherine lying in bed. I found myself strengthening the lines of the picture by outlining parts of it much as I might have done in a batik. I thought that it came out rather well. Others thought that it looked like a batik and I realized that if I pursued acrylic painting, I had a lot to unlearn.

In mid-September, we made another weekend trip in the "Tree of Life". This was definitely more of a "party weekend" than a voyage of exploration. A group of us picked up the boat in Annapolis and sailed across the Chesapeake Bay and up the Choptank River. It was a relaxed weekend with a minimum of sailing and seamanship and a lot of lying around in the sun, socializing and sleeping. Catherine and I slept in our regular cabin, which secretly I thought of as mine by now. When we got back to Arlington, Kelly asked us if we'd like to stay in his house in Alexandria the following year while he continued his life aboard the boat. We would pay a low rent and would have to accommodate Kelly's daughters and the crew whenever they were in town. But it was a small price to pay for such a wonderful space. We knew that it was time to move on from the Gesundheit Institute for the house was about to go onto the market for sale. Gareth and Pammy were planning on getting their own house and we would have to make our own arrangements pretty soon. So we said yes to Kelly who was heading North up the East coast with the boat for the rest of the summer and fall.

I got a call from the Fifth Column Club at the end of September asking me to do my Lightshow at a Wednesday night party. This was the biggest and best club in DC. and I was to perform with an "Acid Jazz" group from New York. My friends Rebecca and Fiona came along to help me work the projectors and we mounted a huge bank of them on top of massive speaker stacks at one end of the room. Then we built a screen of sheets at one end of the room so that we could project over the heads of the dancers. It was an exciting night with a lot of dancing, loud music and syncopated slides. At the end of the night I felt that the Retinal Blowjob was truly reborn. That night, the Lightshow was offered a regular Wednesday nightspot at the Fifth Column for the rest of the year.

My old friend Rudolf, the owner of the batik gallery in Koln, Germany where I had showed my work several times, came to Washington with his wife for an opening at the Textile Museum in October. Rudolf had been very kind and helpful when I had gone to Koln in 1978 on the run from Ibiza. I had last seen him in New York when he had come to visit me there. That time, he had arrived on the day after Kristin had returned from her son's funeral. It had been a melancholic meeting and we hadn't been able to talk much. This time, we all went to an opening of an exhibition of South East Asian Textiles and I had him come back to Gesundheit to eat one night. It all went a bit slowly until Patch, in his inimitable way, came to my rescue and managed to stir things up a bit.

Meanwhile, I had started on my next acrylic painting, a landscape with Corot-like trees. I was still working on a couple of new batiks but the painting helped to keep me energized. The weekly Retinal Blowjob shows were very exciting although they tended to break the week in half for me and I took a couple of days to really recover after each show.

 

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