It`s HUGE!!!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Saga of the Marble Skull

Creation for me has always been a solitary exercise. Writing. Sharpen your pencil, pick up the notepad, decide on your subject, and put the lead to paper.. Oil painting. Stretch the canvas, roll out the sable brushes, pour the turpentine, lay the colors on a palette and begin the sketch. Photography. Find the subject, frame the picture, note the light and snap.

Casting bronze was my first artistic collaboration. Working the black wax with my fingers and delicate dental tools to create the forms, then taking the figures to the foundry where a mold is made, placing the mold with the wax figures inside a roasting furnace, and filling the melted void of wax with molten bronze. The mold is then removed from the furnace, broken open and the now bronze figures removed. The figures are assembled together, with my instruction and a patina is applied.

I began thinking about marble.  I sent my Burmese friend up north to Mandalay and then on
 to Sagaing where pure white marble is quarried. He returned to Rangoon with a block about one foot square, no cracks or imperfections with the fresh maw marks still evident on the sides. The quality of the marble was as fine as any Michelangelo or Bernini has ever brought from Carrera Italy.

I knew of a master carver in the outskirts of Rangoon and brought the block of marble to him. I had photographs of human skulls and even a real one which my friend a medical student procured from his medical studies. I visited many times to inspect the progress and finally after eight months when the skull was complete, even being hollowed out with thin walls of marble, it looked real. So real in fact that customs in Burma made me remove it from the case where I had it packed to show them that it was stone and not bone.

A crown of interlocking nude women in decreasing sizes was made in wax, and then I had a jeweler who had worked at Cartier Paris cast all twelve of them in sterling silver. The combined weight was 1,750 grams or one and three quarters of a kilo of pure silver. The smallest figure would have her legs curving into one of the eye sockets and the largest reclining woman laying back with her arms out stretched would be holding on to something. All of the twelve figures would encircle the marble cranium.

The other eye socket should contain a replica eyeball. I found a Brazilian gem dealer in Hong Kong who had a spherical star rose quarts of 97 carats. I bought it. The crystal was perfectly clear rosy pink with a strong golden star. To create the effect of an eyeball I needed a cornea and an iris with a pupil. I had a polished eyeball quartz agate which I had purchaced years ago in Brazil. Every eyeball in the agate had an extending crack except one. I had that one cut out, drilled the rose quartz, and anchored the eyeball agate into the rose sphere. It was set so perfectly a fingernail could not detect a ridge.

Then I molded a wax eye socket with upper and lower eye lids, cast it in silver and then plated it in over 15 grams of thick pure gold. The edges of the eyelids were lined with white tapered baggette diamonds, and another row of black diamonds to emphasize the shape of the eye. In the corner of the eyeball I set a pear shaped ruby.

The largest of the twelve reclining naked women with her arms out streched would hold a double phantom  quartz crystal from Sri Lanka. The dark black double phantom within the crystal imitated the outer hexagonal pyramid shape. I polished the quartz crystal as clear as glass. Then the crystal was sunk into a silver bed of fifteen Japanese sea pearls.This silver bed of pearls was then gilded. I made a stalking panther in sterling silver encrusted in African orange sapphires and bright green Tsavorite garnet eyes. I had the jeweled panther roaming across the bed of pearls at the base of the phantom crystal.

My biggest collaborative effort to date, more than two years in the making, from the quarrymen to the carver, the molder, the metal casters, jewelers, stone setters, gemologists, conceptualists, dreamers, and madmen, here you have one of the most remarkable works of art ever assembled. Welcome.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dangerous Songkran

Songkran is the lunar New Year water festival held in April, the hot season. It is celebrated in many countries in this region, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Yunnan China, as well as far away Sri Lanka. Songkran is essentially a fertility ceremony offering water as a blessing for the upcoming monsoon rains in the hopes of an abundant rice crop. Scented water is poured over the hands of parents, teachers, and the elderly, as well as rose petaled water poured over the images of the Buddha. Lately however, at least in Thailand, the emphasis has changed from a gentle event into a raucous street party packed with drunken revelers throwing buckets of water on everyone. It is fun. It is also dangerous. For three days Thai music is played continually. Girls scream with glee, high powered water guns spray in water warfare. Open trucks drive by with hoses shooting those on the sidewalks. People put talcum paste on your cheeks. Children shoot sprays of water in to your face. The inebriated crash on the roadsides after being struck in the head with ice cubes.
My friend, his girlfriend and I were on Soi 22 at the corner of Washington Square getting soaked and throwing buckets of water. The girls look great in their wet tee shirts hugging their well rounded contours. Last year three teenage nubile dancers stood up on the back of a truck, stripped off their tops, egged on by the crowd and danced undulating glistening topless.
Now as we stand drinking beer, buying rounds, soaking wet in the hot sunshine, all of a sudden across the street, four or five swarthy Thai men come running down the sidewalk chasing another Thai man. They knock him down and begin kicking him in the ribs. Brandishing guns, they point the pistols in the air, blam, blam, blam, blam, blam. Everyone is paralyzed. Nobody moves. Some car pulls up like in a cheap "B" movie and they throw the guy inside and take off. One of the men, thick and serious, walks past us with his chrome pistol stuffed in the back of his belt. When it was over seconds later, everyone continued to drink and party as if it never happened. I pick up a 9mm copper casing off the sidewalk and plunk it in my pocket.
When I got back to my room, I took off my drenched black tee shirt which I noticed has a talcum powder hand print outlined on the back in white. I put the bullet casing on the void of the hand print and took these photos looking like something between the gangster John Dillinger meets Christ's last bathrobe, the Shroud of Turin.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mayhem in Kataragama

The day we arrived in Sri Lanka, February 14th, Valentines Day, we heard news that some crazy Iranians accidentally blew the roof off their rented house in Bangkok fifteen minutes from our house with C4. Two guys ran out and one was caught. Then another staggered out, dazed and confused, he tried to catch a cab, but nobody would stop, so he lobbed a grenade at a taxi which exploded. The police came and he threw another grenade at them which bounced off a tree, ricocheted back, and blew off both his legs. Silly terrorist.

The news in Sri Lanka was that a road crew digging a new highway hit pockets of fine sapphire crystals near Kataragama and the gold rush was on. Thousands of ants marched to the honey jar. Fights broke out between the locals and the interlopers. Broken arms, bloody noses. My partner along with a minister went to have a look. They managed to get 415 ct.of glassy blue crystal before the army came in with rifles.

Today we drove back to Kataragama from Balangoda. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also put a man on the moon. We wanted to see the area of Thammannawa where the crystal came from. My wife and I as foreigners were not permitted to enter, and by recent court order our Sri Lankan friends found that neither were they.

All of the hotels in the area were full, from five star to no star, there was no accommodation. However, our friend, who is the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the Maldives, has a beach bungalow nearby Yala National Park, just a few kilometers from Kataragama. Yala has the largest number of wild leopards per land mass in the world.

Fifty meters from our friend's door is the warm Indian Ocean with shell covered white beaches. I found a cowerie shell with the top missing. All that was left was the bottom opening which looked like a toothy smile. Our friend unfortunately is away in the Maldives where they are having a coup after removing the president at gun point.

The bungalow is very funky with matching deer heads outside flanking the chairs on the verandah hung with kerosine lanterns and a monkey skull impaled on one long horn. The window slats are painted blue, yellow, red and green stripes. There is a black carpet of flies at my feet and needless to say the wife is not thrilled. The wind rips off the ocean but flies are tenacious.

Some of the boys walked to a local fishing village and bought 6 kilos of lobster. One friend won't eat them because he saw them crawling around on the porch. We drove back around sunset in a three vehicle caravan of high speed land rovers on thin roads through tiny villages when suddenly a pebble flew off the tire ahead at about 140 kilometers per hour, hit our windshield and cracked it. My partner slowed down and we lost the convoy.

"Anybody got a sapphire crystal" I asked. A strange question except with this group as, naturally, everyone did. I took one sharp crystal from Manju, got out and cut a circle around the crack to keep it from spreading. Unfortunately it didn't work as the glass was laminated and the crack increased like a spider web.

Things heated up in Kataragama as the court order was still in place barring entry to everyone. The government Gem Authority had the idea to auction off small parcels of land but that fell apart quickly. Our partner went out again with the minister who is from that area, and has clout. Yesterday the army was overwhelmed and withdrew. 25,000 people streamed in to the area and they expect that number to double. An article was published Thursday February 16th in a newspaper called "Lanka Truth" regarding our friend the minister titled "Wijeyamuni Soysa declares war to plunder a gem mine". The article goes on to say that he is infamous for gem rackets and is engaged in illegal gem mining in the area. Apparently the newspaper is communist.

Back in Balangoda, the minister lay outside in a hammock tethered to palm trees with his servant fluffing his pillow. My partner was sitting in a chair on top of a grassy knoll. I came out to join them, sat down sideways in another hammock and fell out on my back with my legs sticking straight up in the air. A moment to relish.

This morning my wife is putting on her makeup when a scowling fang baring macaque came to the open door upstairs, raising his intimidating eyebrows, and threatened to come in. She screamed and I chased him off. Got to get a baseball bat. Now at dusk the downstairs living room is filled with flying termites. The two German shepherds, Blackie and Bulla run around snapping at the air. If you google attractions in Balangoda, you will find there are none. No museums, no movie theaters, not even a damn bar. Each buffalo here seems to be assigned one and only egret as a personal valet to pick off ticks and other undesirables.

The government land auction for potentially gem bearing land is back on for tomorrow February 24th. My partner along with many of the major gem players will attend. The 49 allocated plots were auctioned off each being about 3,000 sq feet, some plots sold for more than $200,000 each. The plot that my partner bought was supposedly the lot where the land was first removed for the road, and the original blue crystal was found. The gem authority sold all the plots for a total of $2,700,000 dollars.

Now we wait and see if there is anything actually there. Since there is no source for water, the soil all must be moved to a place where it can be washed. We will know in a few weeks what if anything is found.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, how easily it rolls off the tongue. Ceylon until 1972, before that Taprobane and also Serendib where the word serendipity comes from, meaning to find something wonderful unexpectedly.

Sri Lanka is truly a magical island. Hanging like a baroque pearl at the bottom of India. To the West is the Arabian Sea, to the East, the Indian ocean, and to the South the first land mass one would encounter is Antarctica.
In the south-central part of the country are the towns of Balangoda, Pelmadula and Ratnapura, literally Gem City. All are geologically rich gem areas yielding hexagonal crystals of sapphire in every color, stars, catseyes, zircons, spinel and garnets.

Much of this gem crystal has been washed away from the primary sources by millions of years of monsoon rains into rivers which, over the course of time, have shifted direction and left the alluvial water tumbled stones in gem bearing gravels called illam which are the sedimentary gem gravels. From this illam stones are mined.

King Solomon was said to have gotten his gems here as he wooed the Queen of Sheba. Marco Polo describes this gem land in his travels. Sinbad the Sailor was lifted high into the air by a giant bird called the Roc which left him in a deep valley with walls so steep he could not escape. This valley was filled with rubies. Gem merchants threw fresh meat into this valley where no man had ever set foot. The meat rolls over the precious stones which stick to them. Eagles pounce on the meat and carry it away in their claws to their nests. The merchants run to the nests, frighten away the eagles and collect the rubies.

Sinbad thought that he would never get out of this valley, but then he had an idea. He gathered the biggest rubies and filled his pockets. He went to the largest piece of meat in the valley and tied himself to it. An eagle came, picked up that meat in his strong claws and took him away to the mountain top and left Sinbad in his nest. Sinbad escaped the eagle's nest and in this way made himself rich.

Sri Lanka has an abundance of gems. In fact, Sri Lanka has the highest density of gems (compared to its landmass) in the world.

Earlier this year in August, I decided that I should get back into doing one of the few things I was really good at, gems. We traveled back to Sri Lanka to re-establish old contacts and become involved again in the business.

I first came to Sri Lanka in 1980 and met a very influential man and his father, both of whom were land owners and gem miners. At that time the influential man's son was an 8 year old boy in short pants. The grandfather built a beautiful ginger bread house with carved eves and moldings high in the foggy hills of Balangoda in 1924. Human bones of Homo Habilis found in caves near here prove that Balangoda has been inhabited for 70,000 years.

I was in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka in July 1983. In the north of the island near Jaffna, a Hindu Tamil girl had apparently been raped by a Buddhist Singalese soldier.
In reprisal, a convoy of Singalese soldiers was ambushed and 13 were killed. In revenge, the Singalese went on a killing rampage in Colombo, hacking Tamils dead in the streets, burning Tamil businesses, some of which had employed them. I saw a bus which had been petrol bombed with people at the windows screaming in flames. Horrible. That smell of burning flesh never leaves your nostrils.

The killing spree went on unabated for 4 days and nights without intervention. This was the beginning of a civil war which would last 26 years and claim at least 100,000 lives. The war was only ended in 2009.

The young son had moved his family away to Australia after a bomb had exploded near his family. They left for a few years to escape the violence and had only just moved back to Sri Lanka.
So, when I came back here to re-establish myself in the gem trade, the timing could not have been better.

The cut and polished end of the gem business had lost its allure for me. The stones that I was interested in, the really fine natural fantastic beauties that I loved buying and selling had become difficult to obtain and prices doubled and redoubled with new players coming into the market such as the Indians and Chinese flush with cash. Demand far out-striped supply.

Meeting the younger son's children, I had now known the family for 4 generations, and was in a sense a part of it.

Mining is exciting. It is the most exciting aspect of the business. You never know what the earth will release to you. Much of mining is luck, and my luck has always come from the earth.

The son introduced us to two of his partners from the nearby town of Pelmadula. They were young men of great luck who had uncovered 10 million dollars worth of sapphire crystals when they had excavated the foundations of their house.

In September, we all traveled together to Hong Kong for the Gem Show to view stones and develop a common gem language of color, beauty and what constitutes value. The slightest difference of hue can mean thousands of dollars of value and spell the difference between success and failure.

In October, my wife and I had been in Japan and only returned to Thailand in early November when Bangkok and our house was threatened by floods. Our house manager and other friends laid sand bags, as did most businesses and residences in central Bangkok to protect from possible floods, which had already inundated outer Bangkok with water up to 2 or 3 meters. By late November central Bangkok had been spared from the worst, and by early December we removed the sand bags to the shed, and returned to Sri Lanka.

December 10th 2011.

We woke up to the sounds of Buddhist chanting, rhythmic and continuous from somewhere far below the hills we were on top of in Balangoda. I pushed the mosquito net open and looked at the river down below which was swollen from yesterday's rains. From the verandah we are surrounded by fruit trees, jackfruit, guava, mango, and bananas. Birds flit through the branches like living jewels, orange, yellow and red. Some birds are so thick and fluffy as if covered in fur rather than feathers. Groups of macaques come to forage fearlessly and stare back at us. Then the drums begin. It is a full moon tonight and there will be an eclipse.

The dogs came in tonight after being outside by the river. Small pools of blood glistened on the white tile floor where thick grey leeches which had attached themselves to their paws, inch across the floor and looked for a way back to the foliage. A gecko on the ceiling, walking upside down, lunged at a luminous firefly but missed.

We drove out of Balangoda in the Landrover where many prehistoric monitor lizards scampered into the jungle. A long cobra slithered away. We stopped near a water fall below which were narrow terraced mud rice fields which we slowly walked over toward a river. Occasionally crystals of sapphire, blues, yellows, pinks, violets and the rare orange could be found on the banks of this river after heavy rains.

Huge circular wrinkled indentations showed where wild elephants came to forage at night. The miners had built a rather large concrete box shaped structure with a pit in the center which they jumped into and hid when challenged by marauding elephants. When the elephants trundled back into the forest, the miners raised themselves out of the pit with the help of over hanging branches.

Back in Balangoda, I showed my partner an old Dutch coin that I kept in the coin pouch of my thick ostrich skin wallet. I bought the coin in Colombo and it was dated 1791 during the time when the Dutch occupied Ceylon. My partner said that his father had dug up a clay pot with many coins like this and he wanted to show them to me. From the safe he brought out a bag weighing several kilos which he poured out jingling on to the table. They were all dated from the early 1700's to the late 1700's, the newest dated 1789. Many were covered with a green patina so thick that the dates couldn't even be read.

Late in the afternoon the marauding band of macaques swing through the trees, jump on the verandah upstairs and try and force open the doors of our bedroom. The sky explodes with thunder and rain as black as steel and make over ripe jackfruit, thorny and rotten red at the stem, drop to the ground with a mushy thud like swollen basketballs.

Early the next morning I noticed that there had been a migration of thousands of pure white egrets which had all landed together about a kilometer from here. Looking out at them, it was as if the jungle had been covered with snow.