This has been one hell of a year. The shape of this year was one of spectacular highs and heartbreaking lows. At the end of 2016 I realized, as did most, that the world was in for a rocky go. We braced ourselves for the Trump and May (Brexit) disasters, knowing full well that a shit show was about to happen. ‘Glum’ is a good adjective for the state of the english speaking world in January of this year.
But as the spring started and the winter faded my personal life was moving in a direction of incredible life dreams finally coming true. Having daydreamed about living in Portugal for decades I was finally buying my own plot in paradise. 4+ acres or so of wild mountainside just below a village of 50 people. A dozen fruit trees, 100+ olive trees and 90 grape vines buried under 3 meters deep of uncut bramble thorns. Two stone buildings like something out of Tolkien hidden under the growth, red clay roof shingles and all.
By May I had actually become a land owner, and the thought of this phase of my life finally beginning filled me with a sense of adventure and hope that helped me combat the landslide of fucking idiocy that was happening on the world stage all around me. The Pumpkin Spice Dictator like a ghost haunting my dream come true, Theresa fucking May lingering over every airport TV screen, a parody of Britain more ironic than Gilliam or Cleese could have ever envisioned. (‘Tis only a flesh wound…)
In July I raised funding from a crowd sourcing campaign of postcard sized paintings to build a tiny cabin. I didn’t actually raise as much as I needed for the whole cabin, but it was enough to do the concrete foundation piers and sort out some other things on the land. The trip down was hot, and the experience not an altogether pleasant one. While the location remained a daydream come true, the reality of our host neighbors became socially awkward and our spirits took a hit. Sometimes people come from different mindsets in life and find that despite common interests they are vastly different in their approaches to living.
But the local village people remained friendly, and having a neighbor you think is off a bit isn’t so bad when you are out in the middle of nowhere. So we got on with what needed doing and returned to London because the fall meant art world requirements were approaching.
Upon our return an August break from reality was put in place as my daughter came for the summer. Much nonsense occurred, ice cream was eaten, bbqs had, and somewhere in the middle I managed to paint a few dozen paintings.
But then as September nights got shorter and the things one could pick from the garden and eat fresh scarcer October came around the bend. And finally, after waiting in full for the “other shoe to drop” on my day dream of Portuguese living things turned dark.
At the beginning of October I went through Frieze week. Its the part of the year where being an artist is very much, painfully, a job. You go places you don’t want to go, talk to people you’d rather not talk to, and play a role you can’t fucking stand because hey, it pays.
Over the course of Frieze I had a few mental episodes. Moments of outrageous internal panic that filled me with flight feelings in public events. Had to skip an important opening I was invited to by a collector and cancel a dinner the next day for similar reasons. I am not sure if its age, my normally reclusive behavior or the state of the world but I am increasingly filled with social anxiety. Frieze week this year was the absolute worst anxiety experience I have had. Not fun. But then it was over and all of the collectors had flown away back to LA and Berlin and I would be able to enjoy the coming Halloween. But this is 2017, so nah.
The fires in Portugal started in August, and over 60 people died mostly due to bad planning. Like California the hot dry air of the summer is turning parts of Portugal and Spain into infernos. Thousands of hectares of land leveled by fires. In October the Atlantic hurricane Sophia that hit Ireland dragged a lot of North African desert air up into Portugal, and an already hot and dry summer without rain sparked fires all around the tiny village I had decided was going to be my dream.
Suffice it to say all of my land was destroyed on the night of 15 October. 100+ olive trees, grape vines, a dozen fruit trees, oak, pines, every single thing was reduced in a monstrous blaze to charcoal that now coats the earth like a blanket of despair.
I spent the next weeks of the autumn fretting and thinking about the land. My mother in law arrived for a visit, which was distracting, and some projects were finalized and then in early December I was able to visit the land in person.
When I first set eyes upon my land in October of 2016, it was a green lushness that was so thick you couldn’t actually see the shape of the land at all. A year later it was now ‘my’ land and burned. November rains had washed away the dust and left only the burned fingers of blackened trees clawing the sky as I stood there looking into a drizzle grey afternoon. I could see the shape of my land now with no obstruction, but that vision was one of bleakness. The beauty of the scene was cinematic for sure. The ancient (some 500 years old) stone walls of the “Soito de Aldeia’ or ‘pasture of the village’ were exposed. In places thick slabs jutted from tall walls form free standing staircases. The vines were black snakes that ran along the edge of the stream I had until now only heard, never seen.
I took over 500 photos of the land and spent the afternoon in the misty rain under a grey and bleak sky on that Edward Goreyish hillside. Macabre, the fallen down ruins of my Tolkienesque buildings, the water running down the mountainside sounded like the laughter of trolls. In the absence of the bramble the crows have returned to the land to roost for the winter. It was an invitation born of a likeness of colour to the land, and of the exposure of soil that might harbour some tasty morsel that had long been covered and was now exposed and raw. It was no longer the pasture of the village, now it was the valley of the crows.
I felt full of the pain of the landscape around me, but had more business to attend to that day. I visit another neighbor and then popped into the local cafe in my tiny village. I was told, through a person who happened to be there to translate for the proprietor, that the government would be able to help me replant my trees and support the regrowth of my land because it was a natural disaster. My grim hopes rose in the face of their enthusiasm that my farm would come alive again.
But this is 2017, so when I returned to London and began making calls and doing research I found that the deadline for application was 22 December, on the 14th. I tried in vain to get the lawyer who did my property work to help me sort out the application, which required interaction with the Department of Agriculture, to no avail (she is 30 weeks pregnant and her mom is in the hospital). My many emails to the Dept of Agriculture (and many other organizations) went unanswered, even though written in Portuguese (by google). And after the week before Christmas passed one slow day at a time and dozens of calls and emails were sent (and the rare reply simply telling me to email someone else) the 22 December deadline to apply for relief passed and with it any chance of making the land a functioning farm without some other source of help.
But then the holidays came and they weren’t so bad. Quiet and full of books and time with M. A walk in our increasingly encroached upon local London woods, a mushroom pie and a lamb, visits with some friends.
Its been a hell of a ride 2017. My rise and fall in terms of life goals has been as extreme as most any year I have had on this planet. My outlook for next year is just to forge ahead, make more art, try to survive and hope the land heals. The trees are dead, but the soil is fertile, I suppose. Now I have to figure out what things I want to plant next year.