Winterline Sky

So it was almost a month ago that we had our opening up in Mussoorie at the Winterline Centre for the Arts, a gallery and residency started by Steve Alter and connected with the Woodstock School.  (A lot of links in that sentence!)  And it is only now that I have the wherewithal to put these images out to the world.  (Here you go, world!)


Power Puff ladies with Steve at the reception

Carrie and Jeff framing her large rickshaw photos

Installation of my small paintings with custom-made cushions below

Jenny getting all sari-ed up before the opening

Jenny and her monkey drawings at the opening

Lily in front of her painting installation

Carrie's rickshaw photos


Wearable art

Another installation shot


Stunning views from where we stayed


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Project Recap!

Electric Orange

Since it’s been a while since I’ve posted, and since I’ve now come full circle with the project I set out to do, I thought I’d post part of my final report that I wrote for Fulbright.  After many weeks of mad dashes to finish the block prints and small paintings, as well as present at the Fulbright Goa conference with my fellow artist collaborators, and install our Super/Power show (more pictures to come in a later post)… well, now I’m in more of a reflective mood, and wanting to make some sense of the past 6 months.  So here is the official recap of my time in India (with some pics thrown in for visual aid):

Getting busy on the print table


September 2010—We arrived in Delhi on September 21, and in Jaipur on September 24.  For the rest of September, I established myself in Jaipur, including establishing contact with my advisor, Rachel Singh, Head Designer of Anokhi.  I also found my way around Jaipur, including getting a cell phone, internet access, searching out food resources, and generally acclimating.

Girl Printer, Bagru

October 2010—I began my research in earnest from early October, which included making multiple visits to textile collections in and around Jaipur (City Palace Museum, Albert Hall Museum, Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing).  Specifically, at the Anokhi farm and factory, I went through their entire archive of block patterns, which includes thousands of prints, both traditional and contemporary.  I also spent many hours and days reading through their extensive research library, both on-site and at home.  I established a home studio in which I developed and worked on my own patterns through sketches and small paint studies.

sketch for rug design

November 2010—In addition to my continued work at Anokhi and in the studio, I spent 3 weeks studying miniature painting with Ajay Sharma, master painter, learning the process of pigment and paper preparation, burnishing of the paper, order of pigment application, up to final inking.

Concurrently, I continued my work on the development of 4 distinct block patterns, with 4 colors each.  By the end of November, I had finalized my designs.  With the advice and help of Rachel Singh, I translated them into 4 separate colors to aid the block carver in the pattern.  I also met with carvers and explained to them the exact instructions of the design.  In November, I also took trips to surrounding print farms and centers, such as Sanganer, Bagru, and Jahota, where I spent several days experimenting with mud resist and indigo printing.  I also established contact with carvers and printers in Bagru, and took a weekend trip to Pushkar.

December 2010— I made contact with a rug manufacturer to consult with him about translating some designs into rug form, to be included in an art installation.  I also received back the blocks from the carvers (17 blocks in total, from several different carvers) and began sampling the blocks with various colors, patterns, and block combinations.

Block Sampling

Puzzling the pattern

I was able to use the master printers at Anokhi, and worked closely with them during the sampling process, printing many of the samples myself, as well as with their guidance.  It was a wonderful collaborative experience to see my designs coming alive in block form on fabric.

In mid-December I did a mini-residency in Ranthambore, near the tiger preserve.  This involved observing and photographing the rich bird species in the area, and I completed a total of 10 watercolors in about 12 days.  Three of these I donated to the non-profit Tiger Watch, and I also visited a local school and sat in on classes. Over Christmas, I spent several days in Udaipur, where I visited the City Palace there, a rich source of pattern and color, and with a remarkable miniature painting collection.  Right after Christmas, we went to Gujarat.  There, I visited with the head of the textile department at NID (National Institute of Design)in Ahmedabad, Aditi Ranjan.

Handmade in India book cover

She is an incredible source of textile information, and is the co-author of the recent publication Handmade in India, a tome-like encyclopedia of all the many crafts and textiles in India.

Kite string preparation in Ahmedabad (no pictures allowed in Calico Museum!)

I also visited and toured the NID campus with fellow Fulbrighters Abir Mullick and Kathryn Myers. One of the most memorable and anticipated experiences was going to the famed Calico Museum, one of the world’s most amazing textile museums.

Modern-day indigo dyer on the mobile

After Ahmedabad, we took a nine-hour bus ride to Bhuj, in the Kutch region of western Gujurat.  Besides the museums in Bhuj, we spent 5 days touring around the region and visiting cottage textile centers, often in artisans’ own homes, including Ajrak block printing at the famed block printing farm of the Khatri family, the only Ajrak printers in all of Gujarat (there is only one other such center in India; otherwise, traditional Ajrak printing is mostly done in Pakistan).  We also visited weavers, embroiderers, and the wonderful NGO Kala Raksha.  I met with Judy Frater, the founder of Kala Raksha, and learned more about the work being done to help preserve the village textile traditions in Kutch.

Kutch woman hauling wood

January 2011—On January 3, we flew from Gujarat to Fort Kochi, where I began an artist residency at Kashi Art Center.  I stayed in a small cottage, where there was room enough for a studio to work in for the month.  With my block samples to work from, I began a series of small paintings that combined the miniature painting techniques with repeat patterns.  I mixed and grinded pigments that my painting teacher had given me.  I also found a local screen maker, and had several of my block patterns translated to silkscreen.  I printed these myself on paper, often working over them with watercolors.  I found some stamp makers, and had some stamps made of smaller patterns that I could work with on smaller drawings.  I also researched traditional dhurrie patterns, and incorporated some traditional dhurrie designs into the small, minimal paintings.  As well, I worked on the repeat for another block pattern.

Studio shot

Works in progress

February 2011—After several days spent traveling through Tamil Nadu seeing some temples, and a short trip to Auroville to see the small block print outfit they have there, as well as visit their textile NGO Upasana, we flew back to Jaipur to continue working with printers here.

Ladies in saris behind one of my blocks

The remainder of February was spent sampling and printing meterage from the existing blocks, and had one last design made into blocks.  I also prepared work for a group exhibit entitled Super/Power, with 3 other Fulbright artists.

March 2011—After completing the printing and finishing of the meterage, I traveled to Goa to present a group PowerPoint presentation at a conference panel. Immediately following the conference, we flew up to Mussoorie to install our show, have an opening, and give talks at the Woodstock School Art Department classes. (More on that in the next post!)

Super/Power ladies at the airport

Color samples

And thus we come to the present day!

(So much for shorter posts!)

Master dyer with some of my fabric

More print sampling!


Yet more print sampling!!!

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Catch-Up, with Elephants



Girl getting blessed by an elephant in Madurai, with little girl looking on

Elephant ceremony in Ernakulam

Okay, so here is the catch-up, starting from the beginning of 2011.  My challenge: to recap each place in 7 words.  My new year’s resolution: to write more frequent, pithier blogs.  No more histories of cotton!  No more blah, blah, blah!  More pictures.  Less gabbin’.  (For the time being, anyway.)

Big-bearded Jeff blessed by temple elephant

Bhuj.  Textiles galore.  Bad food.  Cows everywhere.  Tiger in a box. (Okay, that was more than 7 words, but I just had to fit in the phrase “in a box.”)

Textile granny!

Ajrak printers in Bhuj



Talking to the weavers

Country cows of Bhuj (more laid back than city cows of Jaipur)

Hand embroiderer from the village

Tiger in a box!

Fort Kochi, Kerala.  Rustic cottage.  Studio.  Houseboat.

Working at my studio desk in Kochi

Jeff making chapatis at our cooking class


Red skirt and green grass along the backwaters

Light on water from the houseboat

Next post: Madurai, Pondicherry/Auroville, back to Jaipur!

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Funniest Monkey Ever

Oblivious Lady Painter (with women toiling away in the field behind me)

I promise I will show you the funniest monkey picture ever (well, at least I find it the funniest), but before I do that, let me explain.  We spent about 10 days in December in a tent next to a tiger reserve.  My mission was to do a bunch of bird paintings, and maybe, MAYBE see a tiger.  But I was really down on the whole tiger fetish.  Truthfully, I find it rather odd that people travel from all over the globe to pay money to get in a vehicle, be driven into the jungle, and spew diesel around trying to get a glimpse of a tiger.  Once they find one, they go absolutely ape.  It seems a bit tactless, or overwrought, or something.  Kind of like going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and finding yourself in a mad hysteria over plastic beads.

Tent Sweet Tent

We spent many days hearing from our fellow tent-dwellers about whether or not they saw a tiger, how well they saw a tiger, if they were going back the next day to try again to see a tiger, etc etc.  I noticed that people seem to take it as a personal failure if they didn’t see a tiger, and would seem depressed or even angry – like junkies who didn’t score.  I, however, was content, and truthfully felt a bit morally superior, to be spending my days taking unobtrusive walks, observing the birds and being a quaint lady watercolor bird painter.

Pretty lake where pretty birds congregated

For birds, the idea is not to roar around in a loud vehicle, but stay very still and wait for them to come to you.  Very civilized and quiet-like.

But we finally relented and booked an early morning safari.  I kept telling myself, and whoever else would listen, that I really just wanted to see more birds.  Maybe a deer or a wild boar at best.  Absolutely not attached to seeing tigers.

In the Jeep!

However, once the chill of the dawn and the excitement of the open jeep was upon us, in fact I found myself getting increasingly attached to seeing a tiger.  Truth be told, as we entered the park and started our drive, I was almost annoyed at the birds and the deer and the boars.  There was an intensely competitive vibe in the air, and I found myself seeing other vehicles and wishing they would go away, and I certainly did NOT want them to see a tiger.  I became greedy and quasi-manic for tigers.  In fact, there are only 30-odd tigers in the whole of the reserve, an area of roughly 800 sq. miles, so the chances of seeing one are really the luck of the draw.  It’s kind of a Russian roulette of tiger-viewing.

Very Exciting Tiger Print

Our guide thought he heard the alarm call that sounds when the birds, monkeys and other animals start going berserk and trying to warn that there is a tiger near, so we did an about-face on the road we were on and went off in hot pursuit.  After a bit of roaming about and no tiger in sight, we did manage to spot a tiger print in the dust – going in the wrong direction!  I must admit that even the footprint got me pretty excited.  Resigning myself to no tiger sighting, we start down the trail again and after several minutes see two canter jeeps stopped in the road.

Before I see anything, however, I can tell that there is a tiger in the vicinity.  (It actually reminded me of the time I was in the Hamptons and Gwyneth Paltrow turned out to be next to me in line at a café – the minute I walked in the door, even before I saw her, I detected a charge in the air that was distinctly atypical.)  There IS a tiger there, but he has gone off into the woods, and though Jeff catches a glimpse I still can’t see him!  Our driver illegally goes off-road for a better look, and there he is!  A big, beautiful, kick-ass tiger, just hanging out like it’s no big whoop.  WOW!!!!  Truly a graceful, elegant creature.  I’m all a-twitter.

Butt of the Tiger (taken by Jeff)

That night, around the campfire, I acted all casual when I asked people, “So, did you see a tiger today?”

Aside from the more glamorous tiger, I was delighted by all the birds, particularly the Red-Vented Bulbul.  Before this month, I didn’t even know what a Red-Vented Bulbul was, and now it is my new favorite bird.  I love them!  Every morning they would frolic and sing and eat berries off the bush outside of our tent. They’re endlessly fascinating to watch and aren’t as skittish or shy as some birds.  I find their funny black heads and dramatic red-flared butts rather droll.  I made 3 paintings of them in all, but this one is my favorite:

Red-Vented Bulbuls: The Best!

And, now, without further ado.  The Funniest. Monkey. Picture.  Ever!!!!!!

"Hey. I'm a monkey, sitting with my friend. No big whoop."

(Pretty good, right?)

And here’s some more random shots:

View from our tent

Jeff Practicing Tablas

Watercolor Palettes

Me at Breakfast

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Christmas in Udaipur

Udaipur at night

Nothing says Christmas like glowing snowmen!

Lo, after many weeks of non-blogging, here it is Christmas and I have a backlog of travel and adventures to document.  But first, here are some pictures from Udaipur, the Venice of India.  (Actually, now it is New Year’s Day and we are in Bhuj, a small town in western Gujarat and a veritable textile paradise…but more on that in a later post!)

View from the City Palace

The palace here in Udaipur is big and decadent, and is a reminder of why Rajasthan was and still remains so damn poor – these wheeler-dealer maharajas were conspicuously high rollers and living off taxes extorted from the masses.  The palace has a dizzying maze of little rooms that were added on at various times over the centuries.

Maharaja's Weighing Room

The palace is a hodgepodge of styles. I imagine that these maharajas were the Donald Trump of their time, flaunting their wealth and power in their extravagant decor.  I picture them saying to their decorator guy, “I want a room that is covered all in flowers, and then put in there a chair that is actually a big scale, and when I’m feeling generous I will weigh myself and then distribute my weight in gold to the starving masses.”  (This is actually what happened, more or less.)  I equate it with Bush giving us our piddling tax break.  A nice public relations move, but ultimately meaningless and pretty chintzy, when you think about it.

Crazy Maharaja Disco Room

More Insane Trump Decorator Details

View of Lake Palace from Our Hotel

View of Lake

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Sunrise in Pushkar

So before I go into the whole history of cotton in India, as promised, a few updates:

I am still working on the same painting after many days of lessons with Ajay, the miniature painter.  This one painting, which I will reveal when I finally finish it, has a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in it.  I don’t think the actual painting verily deserves it, but seeing as I am learning the technique and process, and not focusing on the finished product, this is okay.  To wit, here is a picture of me working away, looking very serious and studious with my guru Ajay.

He will often say after a lengthy silence and with great seriousness and thought, “Rubecca [Indians often pronounce my name this way], suppose you make those flowers in the carpet red?”  As if this is the most important decision I will ever make.  I love it.

Sketch of possible block print design

I am slowly getting my designs to the point where they will be ready to hand over to block carvers.  I am working on these repeat patterns that involve electrical and cell phone towers.  It’s been a while since I’ve done repeats, so I’m getting myself up to speed again on the technical aspects.

Indigo swatch that I made

Printing some indigo samples

Now onto cotton… one of those topics that you could write an entire book about, like those books about salt or cod that explain all of world history with one singular topic.  (I will also present unrelated photos throughout this little history so that you don’t get bored.)

[Throat clearing noise.]

Cotton is a plant that is native to hot climates.  India, being very hot, has grown cotton for a long, long time.  Apparently, there are fragments of woven cotton fabric from the Indus Valley dating to around 3000 BC—which proves that they were already spinning, weaving, dyeing, and printing cotton then—but there is evidence that cotton was cultivated over 7000 years ago.  (One big problem with textile history is that plant and animal fibers—unlike say, stone—don’t tend to last very long, historically-speaking.  Pests love to munch on the cellulose and protein fibers, and heat and humidity also do a number on them.)

The little girl's shirt says "Surfer Dude"

Weaving is also a craft that goes back a long time, as far back as Paleolithic times (this according to the internet, so don’t quote me).  The idea of a warp and weft—some kind of loom technology—is found in every culture throughout the world.  In India the mythology goes that the warp threads are the sun, the weft threads the moon.  In the Indian sagas this is how the world is created, the sun and the moon weave the celestial tapestry.  They call the warp “tana” and the weft “bana” – and like to think that the strict geometry of the horizontal and vertical grid molds itself onto the minds of the weaver, so that weaving was actually considered a fairly exalted craft.  Weavers were so prized that they were often taken from one Indian kingdom to another as part of a bride’s dowry, or given over as spoils to a victorious conqueror.

Sacred cow -- probably some relation to cotton

India has been trading their cotton wares for a long time as well. Cotton prints from Gujarat were found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Alexander the Great, during his war campaign into the subcontinent, apparently introduced Indian cotton to the Greeks and Arabs.  One ancient Greek traveler wrote about Indian “trees that bore wool, surpassing in beauty and in quality the wool of sheep; and the Indians wear clothing from these trees.”  The Romans were fairly addicted to the stuff, referring to the breezy Indian muslins “nebula” (mist) and “venti” (winds).  Under Pliny the Elder, the trade in Indian cotton cost the Roman Empire 500 million gold sesteri annually.  Later, the invading Mughals were also cotton-crazy.  Under the Mughal emperor Jehangir, the royal court in Delhi required one million pieces of muslin a year.

Me at monkey temple -- no relation to cotton

The India of antiquity was able to trade handsomely on cotton fabrics, and even under Mughal rule there was an element of mutual exchange (ie, the Mughals were consumers of cotton, thereby keeping the industry alive).  However, under British colonial rule the Indian handloom industry was nearly strangled (as I’ve already talked about in a previous post).  The cotton that was previously hand-spun and woven on Indian soil was now being brought raw to England and processed mechanically in English mills.  (Also, along the way the American South started cultivating cotton and supplying it to England for even less and so for a time they didn’t even get the raw cotton from India.  Remember 8th grade American History?  Good old Eli Whitney and the cotton gin of 1793?  “King Cotton,” that fueled slavery in the American South?  Well anyway, that cotton was being bought and processed and printed and then sold—by force of British colonial law—to India.)

Colorful saris

By the early 20th century, a core part of Gandhi’s independence movement centered around khadi, the term used for homespun, handloom cotton cloth.  He boycotted English-produced cottons as part of his swadeshi policy, an economic strategy to take away British power and to become more self-sufficient by reviving domestic cottage industries.  Since he deemed it ludicrous (indeed it was) that any Indian should wear cotton made abroad, he himself mastered the art of spinning raw cotton into thread, on the charkha (spinning wheel) and wore only a white dhoti, or loincloth.  In the color-coded, caste-conscious culture of India, to wear white khadi was a sign of poverty and low caste—this would have seemed shocking for an Oxford-educated, upper class Indian such as Gandhi—however, white also symbolized both purity and mourning.  So he found a perfect symbolism in this dress: he simultaneously was criticizing the caste system, expressing the dignity of poverty, and so marking the purity of his inner conviction as well as his mourning for his nation under foreign rule.  That’s a lot of significance to put on a simple white piece of cloth!

After independence, the Indian Constitution included the protection of khadi in the creation of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which would provide home spinners in even the smallest village with cotton, and then buy the yarn and distribute it to weaver cooperatives.  They established shops, or khadi bhandars, that sell the cloth at a fair price.  You can still walk into a khadi shop today and find a picture of Gandhi proudly featured on the wall.  Every year for Gandhi’s birthday they sell khadi at a discount for about 3 months—from October 2, the day of his birth, until January 30, the day he was assassinated.  You gotta love a country that does this kind of thing!  So poetic!

Another thing you gotta love is that they have a Textiles Minister.  An actual Minister of Textiles!  (Who, of course, presently is immersed in some kind of government corruption scandal, but still!)  True, the government’s management of khadi has become notoriously shabby, and there is a growing movement to try to free khadi from the bottomless pit of bureaucracy.  But I still love the fact that you can walk into a khadi shop and get handspun, handloom cloth, just as Gandhi dreamed.

I’m sure what I’ve just written is a much-simplified picture, but you get the idea.  In sum: cotton is a big deal here.

And now, more pictures!

Ladies at the monkey temple

Sketch for a possible rug design

Jeff and I had dinner at our rickshaw driver Kumar's house

Sketches for designs

Woman and kids at indigo printing farm

Monkeys in Pushkar

Jeff and Kumar at the monkey temple



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Lousy Enlightenment


Camel in Sanganer

It will probably take me several blog posts to get caught up, so much has been going on since the last post.  Perhaps I should learn the art of shorter, more frequent posts.

The past month in brief:


Mud resist printing at a farm

— I have made several trips to printers in the area, and have begun sketching out some ideas for block prints.  I took a trip to a natural indigo printer in the countryside, as well as to check out Sanganer, a printing town that features a sort of “block carver row,” in which every other storefront is a guy sitting and carving his little blocks.

Block carver row


Sanganer kids

Mostly, I got followed by kids who find Westerners endlessly fascinating, and giggle with delight if you so much as glance in their direction.  They also like to practice their English phrases (How are you? Where are you from? What is your name?), as well as shout out, a propos of nothing, “Harry Potter!”

Fabric drying in the sun, indigo dye bath

Balls of yarn at the rug manufacturer

— I have also made contact with a handloom dhurrie producer who is willing to let me do a custom order, meaning I can give him a design and coloration, and then several months later there will be a rug!  I am quickly realizing that this could become a costly and addictive habit.

Dharamsala tree

— Jeff and I took a trip up to Dalai Lama-land and meditated for 8 days straight at a Tibetan Buddhist semi-monastery.  There were some bona fide monks and nuns, but then also some laypeople looking for a quickie spiritual trip (ourselves included).  Mostly, we watched the monkeys. We also didn’t speak for most of that time.  I met a lot of great people, or at least got to semi-know a lot of people by not speaking and projecting my discursive mind in their general direction.  When we were finally able to speak, here’s what emerged from our innermost minds—from me, an idea to make a t-shirt that says: “I went to India, and all I got was this lousy enlightenment.”  (I think it could sell like hotcakes at the Delhi airport.)  Jeff came out with a pun: instead of “Om Mane Padme Hum,” he was limping and chanting “Oh My Knee Oh My Knee…”

Stupa in the hills

In all seriousness, it was pretty mind-blowing, though I had a lot of pain and agony in my body that took many different forms.  I think I was still recuperating from a low-grade version of the same godawful virus that Jeff had.  I looked it up, I think I may have solved the mystery of our illness: it’s called Chikungunya.  It doesn’t have anything to do with chickens.  Its distinguishing feature is a lingering symptom of painful and stiff joints (wikipedia says it can last weeks, months, or in some cases, YEARS!), and a disturbing body rash as well.  What with sitting for days at a time, I became intimately familiar with every ache and pain, and therefore the Buddhist First Noble Truth: suffering.   We were taught some of the specifics of Tibetan Buddhism, and though I agree with many of the principles, I can’t wrap my head around reincarnation.  I just can’t.  That said, we did have an amazing guided meditation that lead us through our own death and re-emergence through a series of lights and smoke.  Good times!  One of my favorite quotes from the teacher: “The cause of death is birth.”  It reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings: “Life is like getting on a boat that sails out to sea and sinks.”

Enlightened people plus two enlightened dogs

— I took my first couple of miniature painting lessons with Ajay Sharma, master painter and lovely person.  The artist Julie Evans, who did a Fulbright here in 2003, put me in touch with him.  They made some collaborative work for a New York show that just opened – check it out!  Gorgeous.

— We celebrated Diwali, sort of.  Diggi Palace-style.  There were elephants, fireworks, folk dancing, puppets, and delicious food.  Diwali is the Festival of Lights, in which you light the way for the god Ram from his 14-year exodus (from where I’m not sure), and to celebrate the victory of good over evil.

Next post: COTTON!

Sanganer hog

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