Spinning old rope into gold : : Mr. Jacob

Mr. Jacob spins rope into goldTook a shortcut to the beach from the supermarket through the L’Anse aux Pines park, and spotted Mr. Jacob, sitting with his back against a disused shop, stitching something. Drawn like a bee to honey by anyone plying a needle, I went over and got to talking to him.

Mr. Jacob isn’t from Grenada, he hails from some other Caribbean island, but he moves around between the different islands a lot, doing his work, collecting old rope, and selling his handmade baskets and bags to the wealthy tourists on the beaches. He stays at a boarding house in the town, walks every morning to his little spot next to the park’s entrance, and sits there till sundown, making his baskets.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

He first started making his unique, original bowls from recycled rope 20 years ago. Before that, he was a fisherman, but a problem with his ankles (swollen and covered in sores) forced him to stop and find other work. I love that he looked around his original fishing environment, and found a way to use what he had in a new, beautiful, creative way.Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

Like Naomi Drakes from Guyana, Mr. Jacob puts a lot of unbelievable work into his handmade baskets. He chops frayed nylon rope into short, 1-inch lengths, and then sandwiches the stuff between two layers of invisible, fine fishing net, and stitches through everything, working his way over the surface, until he has a kind of “felt” mat, pushed and molded by hand into a bowl or bag shape. Using this bowl as his ‘canvas’, he then couches down simple designs using lengths of thicker rope, or thin, spread-out layers of brightly coloured fibres, using a needle he made from an umbrella spoke, and ‘thread’ from yet another length of untwisted nylon rope.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

 

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

Unlike Naomi Drakes, however, Mr. Jacob knows the value of his work, and makes a decent living from the sales of his baskets and bags. No doubt this is because he has access to a bigger market with more spending power (all the tourists between Grenada and the British Virgin Islands, basically) and because there are shops and galleries that also carry his work. Any one of the large fruit bowls in the photo above costs a little more than US$100, which I think is a fair price for the two days it takes him to make one.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

What is lovely about him , though, is that he is not at all pushy with his work. He’ll sit and stitch while he answers questions from curious passerby…never forcing his work on anyone, but never backing down on his price, either. He knows that what he makes is unique, that nobody else in the Caribbean makes these baskets, and he believes that the right person will come along and claim each one, in time.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

I didn’t pretend to be a potential buyer. I told him that we live on a boat, that we are traveling on a shoestring and that, much as I love his work, I cannot justify so much money for a fruit basket or bag…a hundred dollars buys us food for many, many days! He dropped the sales talk right away, and Kris and I had many lovely conversations with him about history and politics. I dropped in to see him whenever we went to the supermarket. If I bought a cardboard plate of Oil down from one of the vendors on the beach, I always got one for him, too, and we would eat together, drink the locally made tamarind juice, and chat about rope colours and his design ideas.

Far from lonely, Mr. Jacob’s corner is a magnet for smart people, and I often find him with company. He’s very well-read, well-traveled, cheerful, and because he knows how to listen and isn’t pompous, a lot of smart people hang around to talk to him. Some of the most stimulating conversations that Kris and I have had were with people hanging around Mr. Jacob.

Mr. Jacob spins rope into gold

If you are interested in getting hold of something he’s made, Mr. Jacob can be reached by snail mail, but don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back from him for many months…he moves around the West Indies, stays at boarding houses or with friends on the different islands of the Caribbean, it may be a while before he gets back to read his mail in Bequia (pronounced Bek-way).

Mr. Jacob Scott
Bequia,
St. Vincent & The Grenadines,

West Indies

We are leaving today (I write this on the 17th of July) and I have had these same photos printed for him in town, so he can show his work to people when he doesn’t have many finished pieces on hand. I’ll be going to see him in an hour, to give him the photos and say goodbye. We leave for Venezuela tomorrow, the 18th of July.

Find your tribe : : Arte Nomade

A month in Brazil had passed, and we had acquired enough rudimentary Portuguese to express ourselves and hold simple conversations. We started looking to establish a rapport with some locals. This usually (but not always) means locating the artists. A shared enthusiasm for creativity and skills is another way of ‘speaking’. This affinity can fill the gaps—or, sometimes, outright replace—imperfect language skills. So when we spotted the Arte Nomade bus, parked under a tree across the Jacaré riverside park, we headed straight for it. Up close, we saw that the visual impact of the bus was created by a surprising combination of unexpected elements, each layer cranking our amazement up another notch as we came to understand what we were seeing, and how it had been used.

First, there was an encrustation of assorted stainless steel bits and pieces, all skillfully welded together to form elaborate sculptural ‘growths’. These were riding spurs, cooking pots, colanders, forks and spoons, canisters, pipes, twisted cables, rings, screws, buttons, bolts, perforated sheets…a lifetime of saving or scavenging stainless steel from workshops and garage sales, it seemed, had been welded into this gleaming reef of metal.


Tucked into the stainless steel’s nooks and crannies, and creating a remarkable contrast with its metallic sheen, were animal parts (horns, skulls, bones), an occasional cameo of Krishna or some moon goddess, or a baby doll’s head looking soft and pinkly incongruous among the silver pieces;

there were dried plant parts (branches, roots, pinecones, seed pods), large glass globes (marbles, old fishing buoys), hunks and clusters of quartz crystals

(the main crystal, mounted on the front of the bus, was the size of a loaf of bread!), and, perhaps most astounding of all, living plants…succulents, cacti, tiny leguminous sprouts.To a Western eye, perhaps this assemblage would come across as gruesome, or creepy, but from the point of view of Eastern philosophy, this was no more than the way things are: Life, Death, Rebirth. The Soul and the Body and the different elements…that 8-tonne-bus crawled with symbols, like a hippie van that had made it all the way to Nirvana, and then had come back.
We introduced ourselves to its owners. Pardal, and his partner Rosa, were uncompromising artists who had quit their day jobs, decades earlier, and were committed to living solely for the creation of their art. Not only did they support themselves by this work, but they refused to compromise their artistic visions and pander to the tastes and understanding of the general public to make themselves more popular. That would be hard to do in developed countries like the U.S. or Australia…imagine how difficult it would be to do this in a not-quite-stable economy like Brazil’s!


Pardal designed and built one-of-a-kind sculptures, incorporating stainless steel, plants, crystals and waterworks, much as he had on his bus (only the small fountain [!] on the back of the bus wasn’t operational at the time of these photographs!). Rosa handled his public relations, running around and discussing the sculptures with their clients. She also made beautiful one-off pieces of jewellery, artfully distorting spoons and forks (you could hardly recognise them) into settings for semi-precious stones, crystals, shards of rock with tiny fossilised fish or prehistoric plants, a curl of horn, a nosegay of feathers.

We became frequent visitors to the Arte Nomade bus…any time Pardal’s motorbike—also smothered in his signature style—was parked by the door, we knew he was home. He always had time for us, making a pot of jasmine tea to share and then sitting in the doorway of his crazy bus, talking about the effects of art upon life, the meaning of being human, how to live in a genuine and meaningful way, and about his sculpture ideas for an upcoming festival in Europe.

A gentle, ageing Buddhist who’d spent many years in India—vegetarian, non-drinker, non-smoker (also, contrary to the stereotype, he didn’t use ganja)—I remember him telling me, one night, as I slapped at mosquitos on my legs: “You know, every time you kill one of these, you are destroying a really amazing, tiny, tiny mechanical engine…unique in the world and impossible for our finest engineers to replicate!” He never scolded or preached, though, and this was said with a mischievous smile. He had the sort of eyes one would describe as ‘twinkling”.

Most of the time he never spoke ill of anything or anyone. His attitude to the foibles of the world was “It exists, and so there is a reason it exists…we don’t have to know the reason.” He had an incredible faith in the human being, which he didn’t talk about so much as put into practice. He never locked his bus when he and Rosa went away—despite it being all that they had, and full of expensive welding and metalworking tools; his motorcycle didn’t require a key to start. He, too, believed in the “problem with a gift in its hands”, saying that if anything was stolen, it was to lighten their burden of possessions or to prepare them for something better; he also believed in karma.

Once I found him in a slightly world-weary mood, frustrated by the stupidity of strangers who would knock on his door and then seem to want to argue with him, or attack his beliefs and lifestyle, just for the heck of it. As though it weren’t enough for them to live their conventional, phoney, dissatisfied lives; they must also browbeat others into conforming to the same (and then they’d want to take selfies with his bus.) Twice I heard him (mis)quote Mark Twain: “The more I know of man, the more I like animals,” and a tired look would flitter over his face. He’d had enough of the crowds, and he longed to take his mobile home, motorbike, and Rosa off into the empty hinterland, where they could live like hermits, tend a vegetable garden, and be surrounded by only nature. “But,” he shrugged, “it is not always so easy, nowadays.”

Even less settled than we are, Pardal had neither postal nor e-mail address. When we left Jacaré, we lost our only means of communicating with him…namely, to walk along the beach to where his Arte Nomade bus sat, in the shade of a tree, overlooking the rio Paraiba, and call his name through the open door of the mobile home. I wonder whether we’ll ever see or hear of him again.

Chatishine

The Artist as Deus Ex Machina by Chati Coronel 2014
The Artist as Deus Ex Machina by Chati Coronel 2014

“This series started out as an attempt to do self-portraits. I wanted to find the most honest way of depicting myself and because I see myself most often from the inside, it became a depiction of inner landscapes….

The Artist as Spirit Animal by Chati Coronel 2014
The Artist as Spirit Animal by Chati Coronel 2014

“For a number of years, I have been doing a technique of painting in layers. It is a most effective way for me to convey inner histories, building from the deepest level up until I reach the surface.”

The Artist as Disassembled Chandelier by Chati Coronel 2014
The Artist as Disassembled Chandelier by Chati Coronel 2014

“It has always been a journey from the core, from the most essential part of being. From the universal to the very personal image that shows up on the surface.”

Chati’s been re-working her blog, and I just had to post a few images, and some of the beautiful thoughts and feelings that go with them, again (other posts about Chati here & here). I met Chati Coronel nearly 20 years ago, at a very special little secondhand bookshop and café, owned by a literature professor, across from the university, and I have had a girl crush on her ever since. She is one of the most beautiful, radiant women I know…a punk rock Björkshire princess (hey! I like the sound of that :) ) enlightened mother, lover, and Buddhist saint, rolled into one tall, willowy, enigmatic and consummate artist. It has been a while. I miss my friends, my ‘tribe’, my creative space back home, my life with plants and cats in the mangroves. Saudade. Brazilian songs are full of it (though where they’d rather be, I have no idea.) Chatishine.

Blumen im Winter…

UntitledEin alter Mann, der lächelt, ist wie Blumen im Winter

(An old man who smiles is like flowers in the winter. -German proverb)

The Charleston Shuffle

Tried to catch dad doing the Charleston Shuffle, but his arms were too fast for my exposure, and vanished!

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

A display of energy like this is rare from him, these days, but he had perked up considerably after a big breakfast together on the verandah.

breakfast mit meinem alten Mann

Also done by this father-daughter pair on Saturday: swapped files, showed each other our Flickr photos (with background story narration), watched one of the BBC’s Planet Earth DVDs., shared a visit from friend and artist Ace Polintan, had halo-halo ice cream with leche flan on top (decadence), took selfies with the camera’s remote control, and watched the sky for rain.
Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

Of course, after all this (plus his stunt on the dance floor) he had to take a nana nap. :)

Frühstück mit meinem alten Mann

Eats, shoots, and leaves a tremendous impression.

Had such an inspiring meet-up with the brilliant street photographer behind WordPress blog Malate, Elmer Valenzuela, last night. In a bar overlooking an urban crossroads, filled with young people in ridiculous hipster getup, throbbing with live music and strobed with laser lights, we sat over a dozen beers and a sizzling plate of that classic Filipino drinking snack known as sisig (it’s minced pig’s face, now doesn’t that sound lovely? Perfect foil for lots of booze.)

It was so great to finally meet Elmer Valenzuela in person, and to find him every bit as genuine, artistic, and nice as he seems on his blog. He’s incredibly modest, insisting that anybody could do what he does…the sign of real passion. “No, not everyone,” I assure him…my reluctance to pull a camera out of my bag, not to say point it at someone on the street, borders on neurosis. I carry my DSLR in a backpack everywhere…the streets of Singapore, the streets of Manila…but it’s pretty usual to come home having taken not a single shot. Terrified of street photography.

Back to Elmer’s blog, where he disses would-be street photographers who shoot from the safety of their cars (Eeep, that’s ME!) and worry about something happening to their cameras (Again, a raw nerve, goddamit). In his post Shadow Selfie: Overture to Street Photography, these words from Robert Frank sit, emphasized, centered, and pointing an accusing finger at me:

If an artist doesn’t take risks, then it’s not worth it.

We parted ways, but not before we aimed our cameras across the table at each other. I don’t know how his shots went, but mine were absolute crap in the low, low light, and I deleted them in disgust. I sped home through empty streets at 2 in the morning, stopping at a 7-Eleven to pick up a cheap pack of smokes and a couple of balut (fertilised and partially developed duck eggs) from an old lady out the front. Local wisdom says that balut gives you, er, staying power, stamina, or spunk. I’m running out of time in Manila, but if there’s one thing I would love to do before I go, it’s take Elmer up on his invitation to go for a street photography walk around Intramuros, the oldest district and historic core of the City of Manila. Maybe those duck eggs will work their magic, and I’ll master my fear of the fascinating, inscrutable street.

Friends & Family

DSC_0345

I arrived in Manila a week ago, and hit the ground running. Have been out almost every night, as different groups of friends sweep me off to gatherings, get-togethers, and parties in hotel rooms, in rapid succession. The trend seems to be: 3 days of going out, followed by one quiet day at home with my dad, resting, doing my laundry, and organising my schedule.

at The Ascot with 4 goddesses
I am starting to feel the effects of so much socialising, drinking, and eating (food I’m supposed to avoid), but I have been loving the precious hours spent with “my tribe”: the raucous laughter, the feeling of being totally accepted, familiar, and unconditionally loved; the sparkling joy of conversations that dive—without polite preamble or censorship—into the depths of some of life’s great themes: how to live, how to die, how to engender change, how to make a difference, reconciling one’s real and imagined families, protecting integrity, nurturing creativity, food as encoded culture and as an expression of selfhood, the roller-coaster ride that is love, sex, and attraction, the role of poverty and its codependency with government, the absurdity of democracy, the ravages of time and the melancholy poetry of ageing…

As you can imagine, the sketchbook has suffered some neglect. Here’s a sketch of Darwin airport from my seat on the plane, and the facade of a hotel in Singapore, on Duxton Road. Nothing new to show, but I will try to do some sketches if I am home for most of the day, tomorrow. :)

Darwin to Singapore

An article in the Zululand Observer about Kris…

In the Zululand Observer

In my inbox tonight…an interview with Kris by Val Van der Walt of the Zululand Observer, November 14.

Three-day retreat

cycad

N.B. I wrote a long blog post about this, right after it happened, but failed to save my typing and lost it all when my browser crashed.

In early October I spent three days, two nights, with the glass artist Meng Hoeschle and her delightful, multilingual husband, Herb. I was put up in a second, smaller house on the other end of their 5-acre property, and told to “relax”.

It was quite funny, me not knowing how to do that. I hadn’t brought any current project (as I didn’t realise I’d be in a separate house, and who wants to unload a heap of things onto someone else’s dining table, engage in something as unsocial as painting, or make a big mess?) so I was rather at a loss for ways to spend my time, while I was alone. I don’t watch television, so didn’t even check to see if it was plugged in. I had a lot of showers, they were definitely luxurious—the bathroom was as big as my bedroom/workspace on the boat!—and I took Nana naps! I tried to draw a little bit, but this was early days for my sketchbook pages and I lacked confidence.

The best part of my time there was, of course, the hours spent in conversation with Meng, and with Herb. If I wondered, on the first night (lying in the white cotton bedsheets, in the air-conditioned bedroom, surrounded by the deep silence of a night on the rural outskirts of Darwin) what the heck I was doing there—in a spotless modern cottage like a resort’s—I had the answer by breakfast the next morning.

Life sends you teachers when you need them. Both Meng and Herb were reservoirs of wisdom and joy, and I cried often during our conversations.

Meng and I talked late into the night, in her studio like an alchemist’s laboratory, while she moved briskly about the room, cutting sheets of glass, enameling them, then putting them into the kiln to slump. We talked about art, about craft, about putting yourself into your work, about the value of such work beyond measuring sticks like money or time. From the rafters, tinkling glass discs and globes trapped or threw ensorcelled lamplight out into the darkness of cycads and gum trees surrounding the house.
sea wall by Meng Hoeschle

I fell in love with one of her pieces, that I have named Sea Wall, because looking through it is a bit like looking at a cross section of foaming ocean, and I love the submarine light that filters through it. The next day, Meng chose another of her works to give me…this one a turquoise tumbler that looks like the moment when a drop hits the surface of a tropical lagoon, frozen in time. It was still warm from the kiln, from the night before, and she wanted me to have something whose making I had witnessed.splash by Meng Hoeschle

Twice, during my stay with the Hoeschles, I was given the bulge and nuzzle of the sea to hold. Precious, precious pieces, representing their two radiant souls, and the gifts they gave to me, of courage and curiosity, of essence and message.

Today, because I cannot take them with me, I took these photos, and then wrapped each piece up in layers of bubbles and brown paper, for when we get back.

Thank you, Meng & Herb.