A map that everyone can understand

Marquesas Islands

French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean.  An island group so small, in relation to the bigger picture, that when you zoom in to see the islands, their relation to the rest of the world disappears, and they sit surrounded by a screen of blue…

This delightful image reminds me of this excerpt from Lewis Carrol’s The Hunting of The Snark (a poem that every sailor should read and possess a copy of, on board):

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

On a bigger map, these islands of myth and legend, beloved of sailors, dreamers, and an ailing, suffering Paul Gauguin, apparently sit—wonderfully, unimaginably—isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At this scale, they disappear—words, shapes, everything—from the map, completely, and we have to rely on Google’s red balloon to determine their existence.

Screen shot 2017-10-26 at 9.49.16 AM

In the poetic imagination, The Marquesas are so remote from the rest of the world, that when Paul Gauguin—plagued by all sorts of illnesses, going blind, abandoned by his vahines, and dependent on laudanum and morphine to ease his suffering—told his art-collector friend (and, later, biographer), George Daniel de Monfreid, that he wished to return to Europe, Monfreid dissuaded him:

In returning you will risk damaging that process of incubation which is taking place in the public’s appreciation of you. At present you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are the definitive creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from this world. Your enemies – and like all who upset the mediocrities you have many enemies – are silent; but they dare not attack you, do not even think of it. You are so far away. You should not return… You are already as unassailable as all the great dead; you already belong to the history of art.

 — George Daniel Monfreid, Letter to Paul Gauguin circa October 1902

Kris finally got through the Panama Canal on the 17th of September, after countless leads, agents, options, fly-by-night freight carriers and whatnot… and he did not even spend a whole day on the other side…

Eager to finally make his way back home, he weighed anchor the same evening. His first stop, The Marquesas…

As remote as they are, The Marquesas signify, happily for me, the slow but dogged approach of my Beloved.


jungles real & imagined

We Go...
We Go In Search Of Our Dreams, 2017.30x40cm. (12×16″) acrylics and alkyds.

My friends organised a group show while I was in Guatemala, called Gypsies, Vagabonds, and Wild Mad Women (open from 13th April – 7 May at Tactile Arts, Fannie Bay, NT), and included me. When I got back to Darwin in October of last year, I found it so difficult to do the work for it. Of the 7 small canvases I prepared, I only managed to paint 2 in the end. This painting was one of them.

Unlike most of the other things I made for the show, this one practically painted itself. That’s partly because realistic stuff is actually quite easy to paint…I’m not really inventing anything from scratch: trees, plants, jungle backgrounds, lianas, ferns, backpackers…I’ve seen them all, at some point in my life, and know roughly how they ought to look. Putting all these elements together may be a kind of inventing, but I’m really just layering one familiar image on top of another.

The other reason this painting came so easily is that I have fairly recent memories of jungles like this. Kris and I spent 5 months up a river in Guyana, surrounded by riverine jungle…and very little else.

Jungle Trail

I have some photographs from this part of our trip, but looking at them now somehow doesn’t recall the way it felt to be there. That’s the danger of relying on photographs to preserve your memories: very few of the photographs we take do the experience justice. With a camera in hand, I tend not to observe as much of my surroundings…I don’t stop to gaze at one thing, burning it into a complex memory that includes sounds, smells, textures, movement. I am counting on the digital record to reproduce all of that for me, later. But the camera can’t record smells or textures or sound (not mine, not well), and it focuses on no single thing; unless I’ve taken a macro of some flower or other small object, most of my shots of “the jungle” are just a mess to look at: a million leaves, a tangle of branches and vines, every skinny palm tree or rotting log is there, in the poor light that filters down through the canopy. The photographs show everything; and yet, often, show nothing. A green and brown shadowy chaos.


If I hadn’t spent hours upon hours just paddling around, gazing up at the forest canopy, or walking around with my eyes glued to the forest floor; if I hadn’t taken individual plant specimens home to carefully sketch, or written page upon page of what it was like, at that moment, to be sitting on deck, looking up at canyon walls covered in trees and snaking vines…I would not remember Guyana as vividly as I do.

jungle underpainting

All that actual looking, writing, smelling, touching, sketching paid off. As I painted each layer of this canvas, I heard the whooping bird calls again, the yip-yip-yip of toucans colourful as piñatas; the drawn-out roars of howler monkeys  echoing from deep among the trees; the boiling surface of the murky river, as great fanged arapaimas hunted blindly for the smaller piranhas; the ghostly lights of giant fireflies floating among the buttress-roots of giant trees. I saw again the up-and-down floaty bounce of morpho butterflies—their Dutch Blue wings flashing in and out of sunlit patches. Felt the cool air of the forest floor on my face, and heard the muffled patter of fat raindrops falling through the jungle canopy in a storm.

Jungle Trail

This painting became a doorway back to that world, that time in my life. I got misty eyed quite often, painting this (even though the finished painting is hardly fine art) and the memories flooded me with rapture—How can this wild, primeval memory be mine? How have I deserved to be the owner of such magnificent sensations?—and regret, because I could have spent a decade in that jungle, and still be a stranger to its secrets. I am sorry I could not spend more time…not just in Guyana, but in all of the places we visited and fell in love with.jungle underpainting

Still, to have been there at all is a miracle. I never dreamed I would make it to any place so wild and beautiful. And I have my memories, scented and intricate and rich, tucked inside: a miniature door that I pray will continue to open for me, when I need it, given the right touch, turning the right key.

A New Year for this Old Blog :)

party bottle

Last night I discovered that the Finlandia vodka bottle has a lumpy, organic surface that catches and distorts its surroundings in interesting ways. I caught my bottle in a festive mood when I put it down on top of an unfinished painting.

WOW. I want some of THAT with soda and lime, please…

Hello, how’ve you been? I’m sorry I went away for such a long time.
I’m sort of back, but not quite yet. Internet and power issues on the boat. Same old story. Poor old blog,…it’ll take weeks to clean away the cobwebs and tame the tumbling tumbleweed that rolls across this howling, desiccated wasteland that I ironically refer to as my internet presence.

Bear with me.

In the meantime, have a HAPPY NEW YEAR.

May the organic surfaces of your days and nights distort your surroundings in surprising and beautiful ways, and bring magic into your life.

Gettin’ Chichi widit

just arrived in Chichicastenango

Part I

Her first child came into the world when she was 15; she went on to give birth to 13 children (although only 7 lived) and was abandoned by her husband 14 years ago for somebody in a neighboring village. She probably isn’t much older than I, though she looks it: in her eyes swim the universal wisdom and sorrows of the Mater Dolorosa.

She’s a small, round woman—a little over four feet tall and almost as wide—dressed from head to toe in the intricate and colorful outfit that is her people’s (the K’iche Mayas) traditional attire, or traje. Her nose is formed from three doughy balls, and it adorns her chubby face like a knobbly plum thumbed into a loaf of brown bread. I glimpse a gold tooth when she smiles.

She exudes maternal charm. Cinnamon and church incense come off her in waves. She’s gregarious, probably hardworking, likes to do dreadful country-style machine patchwork, and is untrained but adequate with an embroidery needle…

She’s also ruthless as an iron spike, and this human ball of ethnic textiles stripped me of a hundred dollars within two hours of my arrival.

The really stupid thing about it is that I bought stuff I didn’t want.

I paused near her stall to look at the street signs and figure out which corner of the plaza I was in, and she popped up in front of me like an imp, pleading with me to look at her stall of second-hand huipiles. To be polite I scanned the display, but saw nothing that I liked.

Well, almost nothing. My gaze lingered half-a-second too long on a mustard colored hupil—a color that has since gone out of style as the women in this area favor black or dark blue backgrounds, these days, and a pink-red-violet scheme for decoration. But she caught that split second of hesitation, and fetched the huipil down with a long stick.


She started up with a continuous and hypnotic spiel: “Buy it buy it good price six hundred handmade my own work buy something five hundred for you is beautiful I’ll give it for four hundred good price is silk is silk is handwoven how much how much you want to pay so soft is silk handmade a good price how much you want three-fifty for you good price my own work is silk is silk…”

I scrutinised it…not only was it old, it was damaged. There were rips in the weaving, large inky stains, and some of the embroidery had come loose. On his own visit to Chichi, Kris had discovered the secret spot where all the second-hand huipil dealers hid; he’d even drawn me a map. From any of them, a slightly faded but still perfectly good, wearable, undamaged huipil was 150-180 Quetzales. Why was I even talking to this woman?

I tried to fight back. “But this is garbage! It’s useless! It can’t be fixed, can’t be worn, can’t be made into something else. You’re selling something that you would otherwise throw away! One-fifty for it. I’ll give you one-fifty. It’s garbage!”

When she replied she seemed not to have heard. “It’s silk, seda, feel how soft, it’s good, a good price, three-fifty, take it for three-fifty, help me out, to feed the children, they don’t make these anymore, you won’t find them, it’s old, an antique! Three-fifty, what do you want to pay for it? Three-fifty…”

“I want to see the rest of the market, first. Tomorrow. I can come and look at it again tomorrow.”

Her face clouded over like a thunderstorm. “No. I won’t be here tomorrow. Now. Buy it from me now.”

And, dammit, I did. Somehow we agreed on 300Q, three times what the thing was probably worth (if stains and a hole didn’t make it worthless, I suspect they did), and I paid her. “You’re a thief,” I told her, smiling, after I’d paid her. She laughed in delight, her gold tooth winking. “Your mother’s a thief,” I told her teenaged son.

He laughed and asked me where I was from. We had a little chat about Australia and kangaroos. I lit a fag. I was calming down. “It’s only money,” I told myself.

Then I looked down to find the demonic little Maya woman busily wrapping a traditional skirt, a corte, around me. Her stubby arms could barely reach around me, so she was practically embracing me. I laughed at the sight of her face on level with my chest, and moved my arm to go around her back (and protect my cigarette). She took this for a real hug, and squeezed me back.

“Oh, you look so nice! Doesn’t she look nice?” she bubbled.

Her son agreed enthusiastically, chiming in, “, se ve linda.” I’ll bet. His mother’s son.

A foot taller than everyone else (even the men) in this Maya town, I looked ridiculous. And I had no desire to be one of those self-satisfied gringas—wrong build, wrong color, wrong everything—decked out in someone else’s full national costume.

“It will go with your huipil!” she cried, as though the idea had just occurred to her. I groaned.

“No, I don’t want the corte…”

Unlike the bright huipiles, the cortes of Chichi are rather dark and muddy…they remind me too much of ikats from Indonesia (which I never liked). The only splash of color are two wide stripes—one vertical, one horizontal—that K’iche’ women embroider onto the mass-produced tube of fabric, to add more color. Because every article of clothing has to feature a rainbow of colors…preferably clashing or in discord.
Nat's corte

“It’s not traje without the corte! You have a beautiful huipil, you have to wear it with the corte! It’s brand new. I made it myself! See?” She waves a bag of embroidery thread and a half-stitched corte at me (I am an embroiderer…her hasty work does not impress). “You will look beautiful! Five hundred.” She folds the skirt up, and stuffs it into my shopping bag with the huipil. Oh. God.

“Señora, please, I don’t…what? No! Five hundred! That’s criminal!”

“Okay, three-fifty! It’s worth more, it’s brand new, extra long, but three-fifty for you. Take it take it, help me, my dear, I have to feed my children. My first sale of the day. Buen precio! Buen precio…

A fool and her money are soon parted. But I am a bigger fool than most…

“I like your dolor very much,” she tells me, after tucking my money for the huipil and the corte away. She wiggles her fingers in front of her face, wrinkles her nose.

Dolor?” I was puzzled. In Spanish, dolor means ‘pain’. I thought she was referring to what she’d just put me through.

K’ok‘,” she says to her son, wiggling her fingers again.

Her son explained, “My mother doesn’t speak Spanish well. In K’iche’, k’ok’ means a good, a nice smell. She likes your perfume.”

Olor’, then. She gives me an engaging smile. “You can spare some of that dolor for me?”

Does this woman never stop? If I stand here any longer, she’ll strip me naked! “Well,” I thought to myself, “there’s really just a centimeter of perfume left in that bottle…” May as well jettison a bit of weight, to make room for my new, unwanted traje.

Go on, give her everything, get it over with… “Yes, you can have it, but it’s getting dark and I’m not coming all the way back here tonight to bring it to you. The boy can walk me to the hostel if you want it.”

“Oh, it’s okay, bring it when you come to the market tomorrow,” she says brightly, then falters when she sees the look on my face.

Why doesn’t this surprise me more? “Ah. You will be here tomorrow. Because you’re a liar AS WELL as a thief. You’re a witch.”

She grins mischievously. Already she’s sized me up, knows that she has been forgiven in advance because I like cheeky women. “Will you bring it?” she asks, patting my hand.

*sigh* “I will bring it.”

I still can’t say why I let her cow me so. Too polite? Intimidated? Guilty?

I can’t say that I resent her for it, either. Them’s the Rules. Buying and selling is a blood sport at any sprawling street market, and unless you know how to play the game you will get diddled silly. In the end, there is no one to blame but my own sorry self. Caveat emptor!

Welcome to Chichicastenango.
Iglesia de Santo Tomas in Chichi

aguardiente “La Quezalteca”

Aguardiente La Quezalteca
Kris needed a bottle of cheap alcohol for his homemade Elegguá (the Orisha who, as you might recall from my previous posts, is fond of cigars, strong spirits, and sweet things)…more about that later! He bought this pocket-sized flask at the local supermarket. The label was so pretty that I just had to draw the bottle, to go into my growing collection of local beers and hot sauce bottles.

No, I didn’t try it…it smells like paint thinner! And I found bottles of cabernet sauvignon, from Spain, at the same supermarket, for under $4. I have a weak spot for red wine. 😉

A compound word from agua (water) and ardiente (burning or glowing), aguardiente is what English speakers would call “firewater”…a strong alcohol, technically distilled from sugar cane, though other sweet musts and grains are also used.

The ♥ is curved like a road through the mountains

The ♥ is curved like a road through the mountains

Inspired by a two-week trip among the volcanoes, lakes, and colorful mountain villages of Guatemala’s lush highlands. And an ode to chicken buses. I love chicken buses.
The ♥ is curved like a road through the mountains

What are you waiting for? Hit the road and have an adventure! It is later than you think.

This is a new art print, available in my Society6 store.