In the Renaissance through to 1800s, studio assistants were commonplace. Artists began their careers as apprentices, undertaking menial tasks until their master gauged them dedicated and talented enough to teach. Nowadays, most artists, even relatively successful ones, can only dream of having help in the studio. We can barely afford to pay for art materials and rent, never mind the cost of hiring an assistant. Just once, in my long career as artist, did I experience the joy of working with a studio assistant - in Egypt of all places. Below is an excerpt from my recently published memoir in which I describe my experiences during an international artist symposium in Luxor.
'Once I’d set up the studio, I decided, as I’d done in France, to respond to the environment by making art from local materials and natural resources derived from my surroundings. I was assigned a studio assistant, Mido––well-mannered, fluent in English and eager to please––a streak of a young man with angular features and slick, black, short back and sides. Mido was a student at the nearby Luxor Art Institute; it was his job to acquire my art materials and assist me in any way possible. The first task I set my eager helper was to find me a palm tree trunk.
The following morning, I was woken by the sound of my name being called from somewhere outside. I jumped out of bed and ran to open the sliding glass door. The voice seemed to be coming from the direction of the Nile, so after scrambling into jeans and a T-shirt, I raced to the riverbank, met by a sight to behold. There, in a wooden skiff graced with an elegant calico sail was Mido, standing astride a big hunk of palm tree as if he’d just hunted and shot an African wildebeest.
‘Could you possibly cut it into sections?’ I asked tentatively when he’d dragged the hefty length of timber ashore, not yet comfortable with soliciting someone else to do my dirty work.
‘Of course, Miz Kasrin. Your wish is my command.’ Yes, he actually said that! before scurrying off to find an implement to do the job.
Two hours later, brandishing a bread knife and a blunt, second-hand saw, the triumphant Mido returned. That afternoon, under the shade of a leafy bay laurel, Russian tourists calling out encouragement from the passing tour boats, my sweat-drenched but uncomplaining assistant, proceeded to hack through the fibrous trunk with the flimsy utensils, supervised by his unlikely overseer. By the end of the day, both of us sneezing from the wood powder in our nostrils, I had the beginnings of an artwork.
My next request was for some slabs of limestone, like those used to clad the pyramids in Ancient Egypt. Again,Mido came through with the goods, delivering three pearly, delightfully cool-to-the-touch and irregular squares of stone to my studio. Sitting cross-legged on a rush mat on the banks of the Nile, the faint put-put sound of the river-boats heading upstream in the background, I set about carving the limestone with some rusty tools on loan from the Art Institute.
It was late in the day when I looked up from my work and across the wide expanse of river, catching the sun’s last rays as they illuminated the Valley of the Kings in an incandescent blaze of light. My back ached from bending, my fingers were blistered from handling the tools, my eyes scratchy with grit. But as I breathed in the muddy scent of the papyrus reed-covered river flats, listening to the ‘keek, keek’ calls of the spindly-legged stilts as they foraged for food at the water’s edge, half expecting a herd of yawning hippos to come floating by, I felt an overwhelming exhilaration course through my entire being. This was an existence I’d craved. Personally and artistically, it was an opportunity I could only dream of as I trudged through back-breaking days building a life in the mist and shadow of Mumbulla Mountain.
Some days, Mido turned up with classmates in tow. Standing around my worktable, chatting to each other in Arabic, the curious young students would ask questions about my art and Australia, my versatile assistant acting as translator. As visiting artists, we’d toured their Art Department and were shocked by the lack of facilities, especially considering how much the Luxor Governorate had spent on funding our symposium.
Having already produced six pieces for the exhibition, my final project was a ‘mummy painting’. Accompanying me to the local souq, Mido facilitated with negotiations over a copper-coloured wheel of raw beeswax and some rolls of muslin bandage. Back in the studio, inspired by the 1st-century BC encaustic mummy portraits I’d seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I bound a timber panel with the loose weave fabric and coated it with my warm, liquid wax medium.
Opening night was a grand affair. The Governor gave his speech and the international artists mingled with the Luxor glitterati and the media. Having integrated local materials into my work––limestone, palm tree, papyrus, muslin and encaustic, the Egyptian guests were intrigued, sidling up to me at regular intervals throughout the evening to ask questions and express their admiration. I was elated. In two weeks, despite all the sight-seeing, extra-curricular activity in Room 212 and the subsequent lack of sleep, I’d achieved what I set out to do––produce an evocative and aesthetically pleasing body of work that responded to the surrounding environment. Apart from a few red dots on the walls, what else could an artist ask for?
As the evening wound up, I went to look for Mido. Thanking my immaculately groomed and resourceful apprentice, I tried, as a token of my eternal gratitude to slip some Egyptian pounds into his hand, knowing that. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did without him. But the polite young man would not accept my gift. I knew that his family were poor, that he would’ve been paid a pittance, if at all, for his labour and that he’d probably bought some of my art materials with money out of his own pocket. Yet despite my insistence, Mido adamantly refused to take the cash.
‘I am very happy you are pleased with me, Miz Kasrin. It has been an honour to serve you,’ he said with a big smile and a deep bow.
I knew I would never see Mido again, and I wanted to give him a hug. But sensing it wasn’t appropriate, I shook his hand, brushing the tears from my cheeks as we said a sad goodbye.'
Moon & Sun_encaustic,palm tree and oil stick
Spanning five decades and as many continents, Australian artist Katherine Boland's memoir, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights is a funny, moving and compelling story of a woman whose extraordinary life is without could-or-should-haves. It is available here in paperback and Kindle.
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Find out more about Hippy Days, Arabian Nights at http://www.katherineboland-author.com