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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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We moved into Kelly's house on the edge of Old Town Alexandria at the start of January. I've lived in a lot of beautiful houses and many not so beautiful but nonetheless exotic houses in my time. Kelly's was definitely one of the best. It was in the center of a fairly clean-looking but modest street, right on the edge of the funky black part of town where the cars parked on the streets suddenly changed from being BMWs and Miatas to being old Fords and even older Chevys. I thought that the whole block lived looking over its collective shoulder in fear of being robbed or worse. From the street, Kelly's looked fairly ordinary, a wooden three-storied house with a classically plain facade which fitted in with the other buildings on that street. But once inside, you began to realize that this was no ordinary townhouse.

The hall passage opened straight up into a soaring three-floor atrium with a huge glass roof. There was a central staircase to the upper floors, which split into two. One wooden staircase lead up to the bedroom on the second floor and to the office on the top floor. The other lead to the master bedroom complex on the second floor and another bedroom on the top floor. The master bedroom, where we slept, had a large walk-in clothes closet and a bathroom complete with a Jacuzzi. The shower was enclosed with engraved glass depicting a vaguely erotic scene with ladies cavorting in a tropical lagoon which only just avoided being out and out kitsch. We had his and hers sinks and our bedroom opened onto a small balcony which overlooked a walled-in outside space and a garage which became my studio. The third floor bedroom above was hidden behind a moveable bookcase. Basically the house was split into two blocks which were connected by the staircase. An open wooden walkway ran from the third floor office where we set up the computer and our desks, across the atrium space to the secret bedroom and acted as a vital structural support to the whole house. From the ground floor, the aerial effect was very much like an Escher illusionist building with stairs going on forever and an infinite expanse of space. There was a splendid kitchen, a large back living room and a giant forty-inch television. There was a nautical theme to the house's decor and a lot of art throughout, some of which was good and some of which was not so good. A huge painted fiberglass sculpture of a boy on what looked like a giant goldfish dominated the foot of the staircase in the atrium. There was wonderful light in the house, two large raised flowerbeds in the atrium, which we soon filled with plants and no less than four bathrooms in total.

It was an amazing space for two people and I used to love getting up and walking down the long curving staircase early in the morning. But I also knew that it would be fatal to get attached to the house for Kelly might return anytime. In fact the reason that I'd been able to live in so many wonderful houses was that I never owned any of them. I always felt that I was merely stopping off for awhile to enjoy the space.

I started to write my long-threatened "True Confessions" as soon as we started to live in Alexandria and worked on it steadily right through 1993. I found life in Alexandria just like living in a small town. After the featureless suburbs of Arlington, we found we could easily walk down to the Potomac River and the center of Old Town. The 18th century houses were charming, there were cafes, restaurants, interesting shops and good people watching as well as a used record store. As long as one had money, there was plenty to do in Alexandria. Unconsciously at the same time as I started to write, I stopped reading fiction completely and started to watch movies on television. I had no interest in mainstream television programs though occasionally I'd watch documentaries or a series on Public TV. But I started to catch up on some of the movies I'd missed during my travels over the previous twenty-odd years. I realized that I hadn't lived with a television since my marriage to Elspeth, when we had lived together in a cottage in Great Milton, Oxfordshire back in the Sixties. Television hadn't improved much by 1993, or at least not in America, where the continual advertisements insulted the intelligence. It was easy to flick through the forty-odd channels with the remote control and to find nothing worth watching. But watching television was just another way to plug further into the communication age and to assimilate information in byte size morsels. I figured that there would be plenty of time to read books when I was out on the trail again.

I only finished one batik painting during this past year, a rather nice study of boats in their moorings in Annapolis. I painted it out in the garage at Kelly's in order to have some current work to show at a weekend course in batik that I taught for the Smithsonian Resident Artists Program in March. I had been trying to set up a workshop with Joanne, the head of the Program and a fellow batik artist, for quite some time. The two-day course, that I labeled "Become a Batik Master in Only Two Days", was a great success. I got to play Jonathan the Batik Artist to the max for a weekend, genuinely enjoyed the contact with my students and even sold a piece, my "Git Git Waterfall", to one of the students. An eight-week course was planned for the Fall that same year.

I managed to enjoy my birthday in 1993 for a change by keeping it low key and spending a quiet romantic night alone with Catherine. But a couple of weeks later, we threw an "Aquarian PotLuck Love Feast and Improv Theater" at the house, using the staircase at Kelly's as seating and the atrium as a theater. We played the same games that we'd first learned in West Virginia and had gone on to try at Laurie's birthday in Bali. Although the mood wasn't very profound, it was very funny. Thirty five people took part in it and we had a dance party afterwards. A party isn't a party without dancing, I always feel.

We met a pretty fascinating woman at an art opening in February. She was a New Zealander called Debra who had just come from London to take part in a Janacek opera called "The Cunning Little Vixen" at the Kennedy Center. Debra was an acrobat, a successful performer in the so-called "New Circus" in Britain who had performed all over the world. I found her fascinating of course, a little mysterious perhaps but definitely worth cultivating. She gave me tickets to the dress rehearsal of "Vixen" which featured a lot of animals and children and a rather silly tale. There was no doubt in my mind that Debra was the star of the show when she swung out across the stage, a lithe young woman sitting high on a hanging trapeze. She came to dinner with me at Kelly's and commented that the space in the atrium would be good for swinging in. We never saw her again for she went back to London. But she left me with images of parties with acrobats swinging backwards and forwards across the long space. Standing at the top of the stairs, two acrobats could leap out into the void, catch trapeze bars and swing to safety on the other side. Within a week I had a trapeze bar hanging from the walkway above and I spent the next six months hanging and then swinging from it. It's been wonderful for strengthening my stomach muscles and an interesting experience in the effect that a chance meeting can have on one. If you're out there and you ever read this, Debra, thanks a million!

And then suddenly my life became busy and I found myself involved with an exciting new group of people and a new collaborative project. For several weeks I'd been getting calls from a guy called Fred who was the publicist for a local Surreal Theater group called "Fraudulent Productions". They were putting on sixteen performances of a new group-written play called "DreamFreak" and Fred kept asking me to come to production meetings. He had seen the Retinal Blowjob and thought that I was just what the new production needed. For awhile, I resisted his overtures and then finally went to a meeting at the First Congregational Church in downtown Washington. I really liked the people that I met and from that night on, I surrendered my life up to "DreamFreak" for the next few months. I've always loved creative collaborations and found myself involved with a wonderfully diverse group of local actors and actresses, artists, video producers and technical production experts. The play itself was pretty incomprehensible at first and in fact I didn't really get a handle on it until we were well into public performance. It seemed to be a cross between Frankenstein, William Burroughs, Karl Marx and the Marx Brothers and involved a crazy paranoid doctor's attempt to control peoples' dreams. There were holes in the play, which was due to start performance in only two weeks. I was called in to provide slide visuals to hold it together and to compliment the action.

Most of the time, at the beginning, I felt that I was operating very much in the dark but saw that there were several fairly obvious themes to develop in my slide sequences. Bruce came down from New York to visit us and to check out our new palace. He got raked into helping me throw together a 'sex and commodity' sequence to start the play. With four slide projectors rattling away on timers, we sat in the dark watching a runaway train of pornographic, possibly pornographic and blatantly commercial slide images bouncing off one another on the wall in the church. It was both exciting and intriguing with the sexier images being projected at a faster speed than the advertisements for lipsticks and food. Some of the images flashed almost subliminally on the wall and left one wondering if that actually had been a man sucking on a naked woman's breast? Or had that just been a particularly juicy bunch of grapes? I put together some other slide sequences, of martyrs, icons and violence, medical and organic images, rats, water and fire. Some were stronger than others were and the 'icons and martyrs' sequence was hardly ever the same but evolved beautifully over performances. My rats were christened "the Hampsters from Hell" and wouldn't have frightened a baby. Felicia, a really nice young television producer and I ran the projectors although we didn't actually manage to get through one complete run of the slides until our very first performance. The so-called "Storm of the Century" struck on the night of our opening. Although it didn't seem so bad to me after winters in the mountains of West Virginia, Washington came to a halt. Our second show was canceled which gave us a breather and a badly needed chance to iron out some technical problems. For six weeks I was totally involved with the cast and the technical crew of "DreamFreak". The rest of my life went on hold. Catherine and I barely saw each other as we both ran in different directions, she to her classes, me to my church where we had to transform the downstairs eating hall into a theater every night. During rehearsals I heard about the food kitchen that fed homeless women every night in the church and became a volunteer there when the play ended. I can't really claim that the play was a great success for we never got very large audiences, our publicity machine being almost nonexistent. But the Retinal Blowjob got good write-ups in the Washington papers and the Tech Team spent a lot of time together and became very close.

When the play's run was over, we found ourselves all dressed up and nowhere to go. I went into the traditional slump for a few weeks. Life slowly picked up again and I got the Retinal Blowjob a gig at one of the better alternative rock clubs in the area, the 9.30 Club in Washington. I was to provide an environment around a night of "Virtual Reality" and was given a totally free hand to do whatever I wanted. The 'lead act' was to be two rather primitive Virtual Reality set-ups, helmet, gloves and joystick and little hi-tech-looking platforms for the protagonists to stand on. Monitor screens showed what each person was experiencing. Mostly people seemed to be climbing around on different levels as if in some computer game, shooting at one another and dodging dive-bombing pterodactyls. I hung sheets to turn an all-black painted club into a white projection screen club, called in the Fraud Prod Tech Team to help with lights, sound and video and set up a dozen slide projectors on a high platform in a corner of the room.

I suppose that the night was a great success, lots of young people showed up to play with the VR setups and the nonstop Lightshow environment of stars, spaceships and high-techery looked good. But no one danced and most people just stood in lines all night for their turns. The equipment itself could only generate what might be described as virtual-Virtual Reality at best. It was fun to get back together with the Fraud Prodders however. I realized that we were all feeling frustrated that one theater production was over and that there wasn't another show in sight.

At the start of May, my friend Skip from California called up and invited me to come and meet him in Oxford, Maryland. The boat that he skippered in the summers (hence his name) had been in dry dock there all winter. Skip had to get the boat in good order for the season and hired me to strip off old varnish on the deck and to repaint the woodwork with him. I took a bus across the bay to Oxford where Skip met me and drove me to the very pleasant hotel where we were to stay. He was an exceptionally mellow character, well-traveled having lived in Europe for years, with a house in Spain where he had raised his children. I guess that he'd had some ups and downs in his life in the past ten years but was now married to an English woman called Caroline and was getting his life back on track.

He'd sailed boats all his life and now worked for a rich couple who only used their yacht on weekends during the summer. This left Skip free for half the year to go to Spain and to pursue other projects. The boat was a very nice fifty-three footer and was set up on blocks in a huge boat shed near to the water. So we settled into a steady routine of getting up early and bicycling down to the boatyard to work a solid eight hours every day on the decks and fittings, It was actually backbreaking work for two old timers like us but I enjoyed Skip's company. He was an incredibly easy person to work for, the pay was alright and Skip fed me well. In our week or so together, we must have tried every restaurant in town and got to know sleepy little Oxford quite well. I never felt that I got a good handle on the varnishing for it's an exacting process but I enjoyed the whole experience and was happy when we finally got the boat into the water and could clean and put up the mast. But I didn't have time to stay and do any sailing, which was a shame.

Back in Alexandria, I devoted the rest of a very long and suffocatingly hot summer to my book writing and even wrote a couple of fictional short stories that I've been trying to publish ever since. We heard from Kelly that he and Rosie had decided to leave the "Tree of Life" in Ireland for the winter and wanted the house back in the Fall. So Catherine and I looked around town and found a nice little apartment just around the corner from Kelly's. We moved in there in August. It was small but ample for our needs. We turned the spare bedroom into a studio/office and put a bit of work into making it all as nice and comfortable as possible. For two itinerant, basically unrooted people, Catherine and I were great homemakers and realized that this apartment would be perfect for us until we took off again. We still had easy access to Old Town and the new neighbourhood was quite integrated and multiracial. It actually suited us much better than Kelly's sumptuous house. Life moved on.

This morning in late September as I sit down at the computer to write these last paragraphs, it's a lovely Fall day and the sunlight is flooding through my window. Looking back over this past year, I wonder at my own versatility. I've painted in acrylics, done some silk-screening, made some collages and performed with my Retinal Blowjob Lightshow in most of the clubs in Washington. As well as all that, I provided all the visuals for a new play, taught Batik classes at the Smithsonian Institute and have written some short pieces of fiction and a four hundred page autobiographical batik book. I've learnt the rudiments of sailing and how to operate a computer. My on-line adventures in the Internet have been thrilling. Electronic mail has opened up a wonderful new form of networking and communication for me. This has obviously been a period of transition and I'm not at all sure what form my next artwork will take. At the end of the Twentieth Century, Art itself is in the process of being reassessed and reinvented. The sampling and recycling of the new Digital Age has made all information fair game and instantly available to anybody with a computer system. Suddenly it seems to me that there are no current ground rules and almost anything goes. Or will go in the next twenty minutes.

Perhaps I just need a break from the Batik process and will be able to come back and reinvent that technique for myself again as I have done a couple of times already. I have been a batik artist for almost twenty five years now. This feels like an appropriate moment to pause awhile and to deal with my confusion or post-mid-life crisis, as I somewhat affectionately call it.

The change of season has brought a welcome change from the suffocating heat and humidity of a Washington summer and the colours of the early turning leaves are as lovely as I've ever seen them. It is the end of one stage in evolution and the start of another. At the age of fifty going on two thousand, I'm still traveling along the trail with no end in sight. I doubt if I'll ever get to where I'm going and I don't think that I ever really want to. If I've learned anything along the way, it is that the Journey is all.


Jonathan S. Evans

Alexandria, Virginia USA

22nd September 1993


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