Rob Pearce: An Artist's Day

Rob Pearce came to In­done­sia in 1990 as an English teacher and has since then be­come a sought-af­ter, in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised artist. His work is in­spired by his en­vi­ron­ment and by the ma­jor events of his life. He tells us his unique and fas­ci­nat­ing sto

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS -

Iam a very lucky per­son. I am where I want to be, do­ing what I love to do. Although I of­fi­cially re­tired 18 months ago, I seem to be busier than ever. But it’s a nice busy that leaves me won­der­fully tired at the end of each day, and I sleep like a baby.

I only have three emails to deal with to­day, and they are rather pleas­ant ones. A let­ter of thanks for a paint­ing of mine that sold for Rp75,000,000 at a char­ity fundraiser. I of­fer to help hang it as it is 2m x 2m. It’s good to see where my pic­tures are hung, to know how they com­ple­ment a room. It’s of­ten a tricky process and I have found my help is re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated. A large part of why I cre­ate art is to com­mu­ni­cate, and I don’t just mean vis­ually. When some­one buys a piece from me it’s an op­por­tu­nity for us to get to know one another. Af­ter all we now have some­thing very per­sonal that binds us to­gether.

My sec­ond email is to Brian Gilkes, a ge­nius of a printer who lives just out­side Mel­bourne in Aus­tralia. We have been work­ing to­gether for sev­eral years now. His print­ing skills help bring my pho­to­graphic art to life. The large for­mat pho­tog­ra­phy I pro­duce, although it is a shrink­ing per­cent­age of my artis­tic out­put, is still what I con­sider to be my best work. It has al­ways been my craft. In­done­sia’s in­creas­ingly er­ratic im­port laws have hit pho­tog­ra­phy hard. With Brian in Aus­tralia I can have full reign on choices of pa­per and ink, and I can utilise his life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence in print­ing. My en­quiry with him to­day is about costs for print­ing on Hah­ne­muhle Fin­eart Rag pa­per at 75cm x

75cm. This is for a mixed me­dia piece com­mis­sioned by a dear friend of mine and his sib­lings, which in­cor­po­rates the love let­ters of their par­ents. They had writ­ten to one another ev­ery day for seven years, the fa­ther court­ing the mother more avidly with each writ­ing. His courtship was suc­cess­ful, and they mar­ried and went on to have ten chil­dren to­gether.

My last bit of ad­min­is­tra­tion is a let­ter con­cern­ing another com­mis­sion re­cently com­pleted, and it’s rather ex­cit­ing. We are now in the fi­nal stages of a pro­posal for an ex­hi­bi­tion of my work, which in­cor­po­rates the nov­els and po­ems of a re­cently de­ceased Aus­tralian au­thor. It’s an ex­cit­ing project for me as I will be able to fea­ture both my pho­to­graphic art and my more re­cent move into mixed me­dia. I will need to make about 25 pieces over the next year and a half. Lovely.

The as­pect that unites all of my work is that ev­ery piece is made of pa­per glued upon more pa­per, some­times up to twenty lay­ers in depth. The pa­per al­ways con­tains printed words. My main tool is a craft knife. I cut into my work look­ing for hid­den words and mean­ings. Paint and inks might be added be­fore or af­ter I pick up the knife, de­pend­ing upon the piece. To­day’s work is made up of a book of In­done­sian po­ets who were ex­iled af­ter the events of 1965.

I put the raw ma­te­rial for to­day on my work ta­ble un­der­neath one of the large av­o­cado trees. Soft morn­ing light dap­ples some of the po­ems and I read the words di

malam se­juk di Ci­batu. I think Ci­batu is in West Java, some­where near Suk­abumi. Maybe I passed through it when my dear friend Andy and I used to ex­plore the area most week­ends on our mo­tor­bikes. This was in the early 1990s. And it was while on these mo­tor­bike jaunts that I first started to take my pho­tog­ra­phy se­ri­ously. By great good for­tune I seemed to have a good eye and be­fore I knew it I was pho­tograph­ing for travel mag­a­zines as well as tak­ing on more com­mer­cial jobs within the ho­tel in­dus­try. It was a won­der­ful ap­pren­tice­ship, made all the bet­ter by the fact that I was my own teacher.

I pick up my craft knife and make the first in­ci­sion of the day, which is into a bam­boo leaf. If you could see my gar­den you wouldn’t ask, as so many peo­ple do, what in­spires me. It’s all around, just look. Ferns are my favourite plant and my gar­den is full of them. I have about ten va­ri­eties. I don’t need to look far for an idea.

It’s these hours that’s I love the most. The birds are in full song, the school rush hour has passed, and I can lose my­self cut­ting into and through words on pa­per. Lit­tle thought is needed as I lose my­self in my work; I fol­low my in­stinct, mak­ing some­thing both beau­ti­ful and in­ter­est­ing. Work that ap­peals first to the eye, then to the mind and then to the heart.

The piece I’m work­ing on this morn­ing is for an up­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion in Novem­ber at the Hanafee gallery. I have 12 pieces al­ready, but I feel I need some­thing for the cen­tral space. I have this idea of hang­ing twirling planks of wood from the main gallery with its very high ceil­ings. One of the com­forts of mak­ing art is that you can see the progress at the end of each day. One has the feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ment at the end of each hard day’s work. That’s a rare oc­cur­rence in the many and var­ied jobs I have had in my life. By about 5pm I have had enough, the light is fad­ing, and so I clear up. It’s been a good day.

I greet my neigh­bours while wa­ter­ing the gar­den at the front of the house. It’s a time of day when ev­ery­one is out chat­ting and re­lax­ing. As the only for­eigner I do at­tract a cer­tain amount of at­ten­tion, but af­ter ten years here in this house my “ex­otic­ness” has less­ened, and I seem to be re­garded as some­thing of an ec­cen­tric, one who prefers to read rather than so­cialise. I like it that way.

Wa­ter­ing the back gar­den is a big­ger task. On some of the walls sur­round­ing the gar­den are the rem­nants of the art­work that used to cover them. This work was cre­ated in the time af­ter the death of both my mother and fa­ther within a few weeks of each other. They had been di­vorced for over 40 years but de­cided some­how to cross the fin­ish­ing line to­gether.

In the early 2000s I re­turned to In­done­sia af­ter a pe­riod back at univer­sity study­ing pho­tog­ra­phy. One of my first projects was pho­tograph­ing ad­ver­tis­ing posters that had been fly pasted onto walls on the street and in un­der­passes. This se­ries I named “Ripped Faces”. It’s on the web site if you care to look. Even­tu­ally I just started to rip them off the walls and take them home, where they stayed in my garage.

Af­ter my par­ents passed away I started to paste these posters on to my gar­den walls. I would make sil­hou­ette im­ages of my par­ents, imag­in­ing them when they were in their prime years. Their deaths were still very re­cent, I missed them enor­mously and I found I could have imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tions with them, ques­tion­ing them about why they had done this or that. I treated the im­ages as shrines, lay­ing out of­fer­ings at cer­tain times of the month, flower petals and in­cense. Jakarta’s cli­mate soon weath­ered them and gave them a patina that only seemed to beau­tify. Then I would hire top of the range cam­era equip­ment and pho­to­graph them, and then I would start all over again. Some­times sim­ply past­ing over what was al­ready there and, if the pa­per was too rot­ten, strip­ping the walls clean be­fore past­ing again. I started to use Chi­nese joss pa­per, then pho­to­copies of books I had once stud­ied at univer­sity in the early 1980s. Clif­ford Geertz The Re­li­gion of

Java be­ing a favourite. He sym­bol­ises for me how lit­tle the West knew of Java and re­minds me to be care­ful not to rush to judge­ment.

This frenzy of cre­ativ­ity in the wake of my par­ents’ deaths went on for about three years, or 1,000 days. The pe­riod of mourn­ing that most of Asia knows is nec­es­sary to com­plete the cy­cle of mourn­ing. Their deaths, the pain I felt and the so­lace I gained through mak­ing the im­ages has led al­most di­rectly to the work I do now. If you visit my web site you can see the pro­gres­sion quite eas­ily.

On a cou­ple of walls there are still some of these im­ages, now cov­ered in roots from plants that have some­how grown out of the con­crete. I still leave of­fer­ings at their feet. Other walls I have dec­o­rated with Chi­nese joss pa­per and into some of them I have carved mo­tifs. As I wa­ter the gar­den I some­times find my­self drawn out of my daily world and up into a kind of “Never Never Land”, a place where I am at peace and where I feel most con­tent. In­done­sia has given me this. If I had stayed in the UK I am pretty sure it would never never have hap­pened.

Af­ter a shower I pre­pare my reg­u­lar sun­downer gin and tonic. I take it back out into the gar­den and light some joss sticks and can­dles to place around my work place. The smell of newly wa­tered earth, in­cense and the rich, al­most pun­gent smell of jas­mine fill the air. I spend an hour chat­ting with friends on the phone, friends who I have known here for nearly 30 years. We can laugh at our mis­for­tunes, share the pain of lost loved ones and of hard­ships faced and over­come. My dogs are with me and all is right in my world. I truly am a lucky per­son. I am where I want to be, do­ing what I love to do.

To see Rob’s work or to con­tact him please see www.rob­



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