The early hours of a January night, I was trying to sleep, over tired following a binge on Sherlock and any remaining Christmas chocolate. I was full of thoughts for the year ahead. It had been a day falling quietly into night, a cocoon of winter rest and easy chats about the near future. The New Year window of light leaking in and rousing us to the task of 'getting on' again.
My 'getting on' was about getting somewhere new – to travel. I wanted to see and feel Bali and after that, find some silk worms - to gather more knowledge about the origin of the material I use for my scarves.
Fast forward to September 2016 and I've made it to Bali. Going slow, determined to scoop up enough of the place in which to build a new scarf collection. That’s my intention here, relax, soak it up and do some art. And then write about it.
So to today’s theme, travelling and staying creative: finding focus in Bali. The title suggests I haven’t found it quite so easy. There’s plenty of subject matter, right now I’m that sponge, falling into a sea of new. It’s easy to sink amidst a feeling of overwhelm. If I’m feeling it, others too must have struggled, their intentions outrun by logistics, sweat, traffic, strangerdom – and sleepiness! Adjusting to this, yes. Coming up for air and beginning to look again, having stocked up on drinking water and biscuits, my pace changes. Resisting the constant sightseer lure. This means, I’m trying to stay in occasionally.
Bali sits outside my window as I write, composing in my thatched-roof room. The birds here are like a speedy chorus sung on loud repeat. So unlike the slow, murmur of the pigeons on my roof back home. I wish I could bottle the air here, like I can the sound. The weight of warmth that hits you on opening the door. It’s a sort of buoyant, thick sense that makes you still. Every pore awakened to escape. Like wearing wool a centimetre away from your skin, it’s a comfortable but unshakeable cardi.
I’ve certainly set myself a challenge, one that is now more clear. To respond to a place and then observe myself having responded. Sounds clunky, but I think that’s how it works. I’ll try and get more specific. I’ve been in the capital city of Denpensar, rice field Ubud, mountainous Bedegul and now, seaside Lovina, on the north coast. I’m going to share some of my Bali inspiration and a few choices I’ve made to keep me focused.
Creating some limitations
The first couple of days I resisted using my chunky SLR camera, reluctant to put it out there, nervous of the reaction, nervous I would get carried away and offend someone. Instead, I would discreetly use my phone, an iPhone SE, with a decent camera. I also began using my sound recorder for the first time, the Zoom Handy. A revelation to me. In the way I search for an image, I began searching for sound, my ears tuning in - it’s such a brilliantly inconspicuous gadget. My room in Ubud was next to a school, I was lucky to hear the cheeriness of local, young life. Early in the morning, as lessons started, I placed my recorder out the window to catch their voices.
I love using the sound recorder, its a physically easy, non invasive way to capture a place and its energy. Those first few days I felt languid and weighty, so I was limiting my active senses to just the one, my ears. Where my thoughts seemed static, my ears were energetic, seeking new sounds.
Wake up, I inwardly shout most days, cold showers and fresh mango help me out. I walk the streets of Ubud, a stubborn pedestrian among the scooters. I start to notice what I’m noticing and it focuses almost completely on Bali’s natural materials.
Penjor line the streets in Bali during the Galungun Hindu festival time and I arrived towards the end of this period in September, getting a chance to see many examples. The penjor symbolises good over evil and gives thanks to the gods. Bamboo poles are wrapped with sculpted shapes of coconut and palm leaf and stretch up 10m high, with an additional bamboo structure placed at the end to hold offerings. This weight causes each pole to arch into the road, leaning over and swaying in the breeze. Lines of straw colour and sharp edge create silhouettes to photograph against the sun.
Palm Leaf Offerings:
The palm leaf offering of Canang Sari is carried out to thank Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in praise and prayer. It is the simplest, daily household offering, occurring every morning. It seems a quieter, smaller approach than the Penjor. I watched women and children make these palm shapes, using a stapler to fix the folds in geometric shapes. Scattered on pavements, doorways and temples, the shapes act as plates for holding petals, food and incense, in carefully organised arrangements. I frequently walked past Balinese women in traditional dress, placing these offerings, lighting the incense, head bowed and still in prayer.
As each day passed, I felt I pieced together more aspects of this daily ritual- resisting the immediate google search. I observed the cooking of the food, the collecting of petals, the serenity of the offering, the smell of incense, the sweeping of each area in the afternoons. All this physical activity carried out by the women. The offering is a sign of self sacrifice, due to the time and effort to prepare. While I was drawn into this piece of Balinese life via the craft of the palm leaf, I’m struck finally by its powerful intention. The discipline and care so consistent through every road and village. I’m not sure what to do with these observations, how they connect to my sketchbook. But they do make me consider the place for ritual, the room for the spiritual within the ordinary. I keep an eye out for old leaf plates and find some in a rubbish pile. I’m intending to teach myself the method of making the plate and take it from there.
Back in the UK, every August and September I look out for hay stacks. In open, freshly cut fields they look like land art, casting long, identical shadows. Some cylindrical, some rectangular, sculptural all the same. I think it’s the imposed order on the field that gets my attention. It’s so organised. And for me, the Bali rice fields create a similar response. Acres of green, in various shades and textures. Each field in a different state of growth and harvest. The long, lush, grasses, the water filled spikes of growth and the stubby, straw residue from the cut, inhabited by sparrows, quick to fly away.
I photograph all this variety, particularly enjoying the play of light on the new growth that’s water-clogged. I can capture the reflections of these new shoots in the water, echoing texture and line.
I start to create mono prints of these rice fields. Using sheets of acetate, I paint and scratch in the detail onto the plastic. I place the acetate paint side down onto a sketchbook page. I use a pencil to further scratch on top of the acetate as the paint connects to the page, creating further lines. When the acetate is removed, an impression remains – my mono print. I use a combination of watercolour and acrylic, enjoying how the two mix together.
My art materials are few: a5 sketchbook, 10 x sheets of a5 acetate – which can be reused, a variety of paint brush sizes, pencils, pens, watercolour case, primary colour acrylics, white and black and cello tape, string and scissors. And I’m now wishing I brought a needle and thread.
I sit on the floor of my various, guest house rooms, and lay out my studio. Only an hour here and there each day, to fill my pages. I use my iPhone pictures as a reference and make new marks on the page, enjoying the subject matter and limited materials. I think these few resources are helping me stay focused, the expectation is lowered and I’m forced to innovate. I don’t normally use watercolour, but its a way of carrying colour that isn’t too heavy in my rucksack. And interestingly it seems to suit the environment, a light touch is needed here in this humidity, a fluid, gentle way to layer.
A favourite feature of Bali for me is the bamboo, in all it’s uses and natural habitat. I’m bias here. I’m already a convert. My socks, my first scarves, my first plants, my mattress back home, all feature bamboo in some form. In Ubud and Denpensar I first observe it in building construction, blinds, brushes, mats, furniture and as the decorative penjor.
In the mountain village of Bedegul, I visited the Bali Botanical garden three times. Here I found a mini bamboo forest, in a variety of size and age, reaching 50m or more into the sky. It was beautiful. The forest floor of bamboo leaves, soft and bouncy under foot. The breeze causing the high stems to sway and creak against each other, reminding me of an ageing boat under water. And I soon rummaged in my bag for the handy recorder.
Most striking, were the masses of fallen strips of bark all around. Like mini sculptural forms by the likes of Anish Kapoor, an elegant curve, a shiny surface, like resin. They fall in heaps around each bamboo clump. Piling up, littering the forest floor with hues of cream and brown and that tea stain colour we used to dye our sketchbook pages. These pale colours in easy contrast to the fresh, new green of the trunk before it peels away to the beige.
I’m not done with bamboo here, I collect samples of the leaves and bark and take it home to experiment – to paint, draw, sculpt and photograph. I start thinking about bamboo as a scarf collection.
The percussion of Bali
I may have been listening out for it with my handy recorder, but I can’t help feeling there is a beat to Bali. The crickets, the birdsong, both wild and caged, the daily sweeping of an entrance like a drum brush, the cockerels day and night, ducks in the rice field, hens, chicks, barking of the cross stray dog and the happy beeping of the traffic as drivers pass each other. This is constant. Peaceful, Bali isn’t!
To finish, here’s a snippet of a traditional dance performance I went along to in Ubud called the Legong Classic. In it you can hear The Peliatan Masters – playing Indonesian instruments which are, you guessed it, mainly percussive. Metallophones played with mallets and hand drums keeping the pace, called Kendhang. The beat moves between slow and fast sections, heading towards a repetitive frenzy, stretching my listening threshold taught. Walking back from the performance I recall a mental calm, as if the chaotic percussion had cleared out my mind, like an emptying out of stubborn clutter. The music certainly feels a reflection on the environment, a densely populated region of people, nature and development, all making noise, competing for our attention.
So is the tonic for my travelling overwhelm a blast of Legong? It seemed to help me! As in homeopathy, by treating a symptom with its cause perhaps it does alleviate something. I’m just thankful for the show and enormous spirit of the dancers and musicians – helping me pull together my senses of Bali – and the rhythms now ingrained for good.
I continue on my travels to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I hope to finally introduce myself to those silk worms and explore the wealth of textiles out there in South East Asia.