Local batik artist shares lessons learned in India

MAKE AN IMPRESSION: Asheville-based batik artist Jessica Kaufman, left, prints hot wax onto linen fabric with hand-carved teak blocks in Bhujpur, India. Woodblock carver Anwar Khatri, right, shows his work. He shares a name with the master batik artisan with whom Kaufman studied in India. Photos courtesy of Kaufman

Local fabric artist Jessica Kaufman is dedicated to her medium. The owner of Waxon Batik & Dye Studio, which teaches classes in batik (wax-resist dyeing), tie-dye and other decorative arts, Kaufman has a master’s degree in crafts education. But as much as she loved batik, she was also aware that it wasn’t part of her heritage. What started out “with a fair amount of white guilt, like, ‘I’m teaching someone else’s art form,’” she says, led to the idea to travel to the parts of the world where batik originated: Thailand, Africa and India.

Kaufman just completed a three-week study in Bhujpur, India, with Anwar Khatri, a fifth-generation master artisan of traditional batik block print. Leading up to the trip, Kaufman thought, “I’m going to India and I would hate to come back and just keep going about my business. … I want to put on [an exhibition] and show all the work I did.” The resulting showcase opens at Pillar Rooftop Bar on Wednesday, April 11, with a DJ spinning Indian music, door prizes and Kaufman’s work on view and for sale.

Khatri’s tutelage, at the business he runs with his family members, opened up a new world to Kaufman. “Previously, in my work in Asheville, I’d been using the Indonesian method, which is a tjanting tool — a small pot on a stick — that I’d dip into the wax, and then I’d slowly draw [the design].” But Khatri comes from a tradition of stamping wax onto fabric with elaborately carved teak blocks, a method that allows the artist to “cover meters and meters and meters of fabric, depending on how experienced you are,” says Kaufman. While she was in India, she commissioned 13 stamps, based on traditional designs.

“Now I’m going to start including this type of batiking into my Asheville classes,” Kaufman says. That was part of her original mission, and once she secured permission from Khatri to visit and study with him, Kaufman set about securing methods of documenting her time in Bhujpur, from photography to videography.

Kaufman met Khatri on the Batik Techniques Facebook group. He’s based in a small village in India’s Gujarat state, off the beaten path of tourism, with no hotels. So, Kaufman stayed with Khatri’s family, eating her meals with them, taking bucket baths and sleeping on a mat in the living room, next to the grandmother and 10-year-old twins. “I was lumped into the family, so I threw myself into it,” she says. There was no privacy or personal space, but there was full access to customs and creative inspiration.

Pieces that Kaufman created during the trip are wall hangings. One, in shades of brown, features three mandalas made by using triangular-shaped traditional stamps in a circular pattern. Khatri told Kaufman that the resulting design is one his family would never think to create, though, to the Western North Carolinian “it seemed natural. So we sort of collaborated — I used Indian materials to create Ashevillean designs.”

A purple and navy piece with a central motif and borders also received approval from the Indian artists. Their industry, says Kaufman, is built on creating three-piece matching apparel sets of a top, a bottom and a shawl. And they use the same colors over and over. “So, something I want to do, because I do it here all the time, was ‘Let’s invent a new shade.’ … It excited the [Khatri] brothers.” She later noticed that Khatri posted a piece in the resulting mustard yellow hue on his Instagram account.

What if some of Kaufman’s ideas take root among the Bhujpur designers? “That would be wonderful,” she enthuses. “Art is life-changing and [this experience] could be career-changing for both of us, because it sends us in new directions that [we] didn’t think of before.”

One downside to the story is that when Kaufman offered to host her mentor and his family should they visit the U.S. at some point, she was reminded that the Khatris, as Muslims from India, are unlikely to be granted visas to this country. Still, Kaufman hopes the three weeks they spent together can have continued positive effects.

“When I was there, I kept thinking [what] can I do to help this tradition stay alive?” Kaufman recalls. “I think the answer is just exposure — featuring them on my Instagram page, teaching those kinds of classes” and suggesting that others interested in batik also make the journey to study with Khatri or a similar traditional artist.

The outcomes of the Bhujpur-Asheville collaboration and cross-cultural exchange are still being revealed both in the creative and business arenas. Kaufman welcomes the possibilities, saying, “It’s exciting to plant a seed and sit back and see what happens.”

WHO: Jessica Kaufman batik exhibition, waxonstudio.com
WHERE: Pillar Rooftop Bar, 309 College St.
WHEN: Opening reception Wednesday, April 11, 7-10 p.m.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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