My Gulangyu Studio

2009 – Colette Hosmer
The small room of the old servants quarters had been thoroughly abandoned. This was evident from the years of accumulated dirt and the smell of mildew and old rodent pee. A swarm of tiny bugs exploded into dark crevices when I introduced light to the interior of the dark, moldy refrigerator.

Perfect. I quickly noted a double sink with running water, a stainless steel worktable, shelving and a working light – absolutely perfect! Luckily, the ancient tile floor had settled and heaved so the hundreds of gallons of soapy water I used to christen the new studio collected in low spots and could be swept out the door into a convenient granite conduit.

I purchased all necessary studio supplies — plastic pails and basins to hammer and chisel, from those impossibly tiny Chinese retail establishments. They all carry the same cheap merchandise and each shop is crammed so full that it is rational to imagine that when the doors open in the morning the compressed contents spring onto the sidewalk where much of the stores’ goods are displayed.

My art medium comes from the local markets, the grandest of which is just a few blocks from the ferry landing on the mainland.  Long crowed alleyways and streets, lined with vendors selling everything the sea and earth can locally provide, converge on an intersection jammed with flower sellers, fish gutters, caged-bird traders, food-vendors, cleaver sharpeners and sugar cane ladies. I love entering the huge covered market through this wonderful, unruly bazaar. Bordering the long meat isle are lines of tables displaying pig, beef, chicken, duck and goat – all laid open, sectioned up, with various parts, hung or arranged creatively, as in concentric circles of chicken gizzards that remind me of lotus blossoms. The last of the meat-merchants gives way to three additional market lanes — two of which traffic in seafood, much of it alive and animated in big aerated tubs. Vibrant mounds of vegetables, medicinal herbs and fruit spill down the third corridor. This market has the largest selection of seafood in all of Xiamen and is extraordinary in its diversity.

Even though I NEVER (not rarely) but NEVER see another foreigner in this market, I have now become more notorious for my purchases than my big American appearance. Vendors compete for my attention…call me over to show me especially meaty pigtails, a nice rack of goat ribs or the reduced price because-it-didn’t-sell-yesterday shark fin. Look at an item with interest just once and you have become a potential customer for life.  I love carrying the thick red plastic bag that is the identifying badge of a wet market shopper.

During morning market, the crush of humanity engaged in the rhythm of chopping, bargaining, begging, hacking, stacking, shouting, laughing, gutting, plucking and shucking is staggering. Picture wall-to-wall people in these narrow passageways. Now add bicycles, motorbikes, delivery carts – sometimes cars, vans, and even trucks and you have an idea of morning market in China. And it all works seamlessly.

This morning I got up early and walked down to the Gulangyu market. I had breakfast in the street – a curry-vegetable stuffed bun cooked on the inside wall of a sizzling hot 40 gallon barrel and a big glass of fresh squeezed orange juice ($1.00 total). I bought 7 pig hearts from various pork sellers. It is common for the heart to be displayed still attached to the lungs, an unexpected but beautiful composition. I then found the beef seller and negotiated with her to have a whole beef heart in her stall tomorrow morning. Easy as that — and I am exhilarated!

I discovered years ago that these markets are an easy fix for me. There is a palpable energy that permeates everything and when I participate I get caught up in it.

Coming home with this cornucopia of art material has proven to be beneficial for the other residents of the villa. Fresh meat from the market is not to be wasted so I share when it’s appropriate. In the case of the goat ribs, the bones were all I was after so I offered the meat to Lao Liu, the caretaker, and his girlfriend. I had already been feeding scraps to the live-in dog (who has come to love me deeply) when Lao Liu’s girlfriend entered the studio to collect dinner. An hour passed in the tiny space as I trimmed the lean rack — every hand movement, each slice and chop, was followed with rapt attention by four eyes — two at knee level and two at my left shoulder.

Working conditions here at the villa are primitive, partly by choice and mostly by necessity. My mold and casting materials are also fundamental – plaster, clay, water. I like to put myself in situations like this because I am forced to work in a straightforward, simple manner. My choices are limited, the work is less complicated, the intellect takes a back seat and the art flows more easily.