Thursday, 25 October 2007


Over the winter of 1998 and 1999 I was in Isan, better known as North-East Thailand, mostly in a small village called Sang Khom on the banks of the Mekong. I had been there eight years before and had always wanted to return. The Mekong is a huge lumbering and beautiful river forming the border between Thailand and Laos, and Isan, being little affected by tourism, seemed full of traditional character and "place". As everywhere, globalisation was making inroads, but hadn't overrun. I travelled around the region and also into Laos, to another small village Vang Vieng.

Back in 1999 I also had been pondering my creative direction, unsure whether there really was a future for me in batik, in Britain at least. The medium struggles to be accepted by the establishment as "fine art" (despite employing drawing, painting and printmaking skills let alone design and colour theory ones). I have never felt comfortable calling myself a textile artist, as my sewing skills are such to make my mother weep with shame. Yet I wanted to belong... somewhere, and if that meant change then change it would be.

So alongside this three-month holiday I intended to practise working in acrylics. Why I settled on them I'm not sure, maybe because of the strong colours, maybe because other people's work in acrylic inspired me to think it was for me. But I struggled... the paint dried up so quickly! The heat! The heat.

The peaceful surroundings of river, horticultural activity on its banks, distant hill and forest views, rice padi and banana plantations, butterflies, spiders and lizards, Buddhist monastery gong rings, and village life ticking over was astoundingly inspiring. Ideas for batik kept leaping forth, I scribbled them down, making sketches and taking photos for reference. Within a few days I knew: I am a batik artist, it's how I think, it's how my work evolves, it's what I do, it's what I was meant to do. I am a batikker, and will have to make it work, somehow.

I resolved to forget acrylics, and concentrate on initiating a series of batiks inspired by Mekong culture, agriculture and wildlife. It would have been great to have started the batiks there (if workspace and sourcing all materials and equipment were possible) but I knew I couldn't make enough in the three months. And besides, it was also a holiday!

Once back in Cornwall I was completely fired up and began the batiks straightaway. But somehow I got sidetracked into furthering the water movement series I'd started before I left, inspired by streams and rivers here on the moor. I managed to work the two projects side by side for some years, concluding the rivers work with an exhibition in the Indian King in Camelford in 2003. This show was an eye-opener for me, indicating that the way forward definitely was (though I hate the commerciality of the phrase) themed exhibitions. More than that, exhibitions themed around rivers. And I was halfway with the next, the Mekong...

But in 2004 I found myself starting a part-time PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education, post-16 education). Although an existing artist-PGCE student advised I should forget about getting any art made during the course, I foolishly felt I would be able to keep some batik going. But in the first term I was throwing away so much dye - not being able to get back to it before it 'went off' – that I consciously stopped batikking. The PGCE ended in 2006. And my headspace was elsewhere. So elsewhere that I haven't been able to pick up the Mekong thread from where I left off. I have tried several times to re-inspire myself... well I am inspired to do it but the art would be coming from completely the wrong place. It would no longer be emerging from within but would be created from a detached, external, emotionless place. And I just can't do that, I need to feel, breathe, live my work not do it as something like a mathematical equation.

So my dilemma: I have half an exhibition made, and the chance to show the whole caboodle in a good wildlife gallery in 2009. Should I force myself to complete it – maybe even going back to Mekong country to get re-invigorated - or should I just admit defeat, that time and circumstance has lost me that opportunity and just as my practice is evolving all new work should also reflect that I have moved on.

I do know what I want to do next, it has been hanging around ever since the moorland streams exhibition, just waiting for Mekong to complete.

I know the answer. I just don't want to feel I'm letting down the wonderful people of Sang Khom. Not that they are expecting anything, but the exhibition would be my gesture at giving something back. A recognition and respect for what they have and who they are.


MusEditions said...

Robin, your work is beautiful. I imagine that work created over a number of years might begin to feel stale--or at least out-dated from where you are today. I don't know what it takes to put on such an exhibition, but are there peices that still insipre you? And are those most of them? Good luck with this.

Robin Paris said...

Thanks Mus. It's not so much that the work feels stale more a combination of my techniques having moved on making me feel somewhat compromised if I was to continue in the same style... and that the existing (and future) work is very much based around winter of 1998 and 1999. Things may have changed in that place and I don't feel able to present work with enough "this is how it is" conviction. It was so long ago I was living there. And I'm here now.

Definitely I want to show the pieces I've made, I'm still 100% happy with them. But I have to decide whether that should be sooner, or leave it a while until they slot in when the time and place is right.