The Secret Diaries of an Almost-Commercial Podenco Builder

Joana podencos
Image: Sophie da Cunha

This is the week that everything changes. This is the week that the fine line between art…and business…is drawn. This is the week that tests the possibly of doing things with commercial success – but also with heart. This is the week that love and devotion have to be measured, limited, reduced. This is the week that I must somehow define my ´price´. This is the week that I have to wrap one of my most treasured objects in cellophane and plaster of paris, not knowing for sure that I will ever actually be able to remove it.

This is the week I become an almost-commercial podenco builder.

First, they asked me if I would sell them my two podenco puppets – based on the Ibizan hunting hound brought with the Phoenicians from Ancient Egypt, several thousand years ago. The proposition was disturbing – or maybe, what really disturbed me was how an almighty institution like that could make me feel, simply by suggesting that I give to them what is dear and precious to me for personal, creative and financial reasons. So then we thought of a better plan – that I would make them two brand new podencos of their very own. But based on the available budget, I would need to make these two podencos in five days, and the original ones took about three weeks…

Suddenly I´m no longer a craftsperson doing things for the love of it. I´m going commercial – it´s time to be scrupulous, its time to be cold and calculated. Time is of the essence – as well as being experimental with my mindset, this week I am going to be experimental with my medium. It´s time to try plaster of paris…

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Monday

I´ve wrapped him in plastic and sellotape. And though it´s only monday morning of this strangest of strange weeks, I have already begun to converse with the podencos. I have told them that, this week, they have to do an unheard of thing – something I can barely believe I am asking them to do. They have to sacrifice themselves, offer themselves up, in order to give birth to a new set of podencos. We have discussed this at length. I have listened to their concerns, answered their questions. In principle, only one of them needs to be sacrificed, so it takes a while to reach the delicate decision of which podenco will be the one. The appointed dog has stepped forward, been covered with plastic and a liberal sponging of olive oil, and now he´s being mummified with plaster of paris bandages…a strangely apt ritual echoing those of his fatherland, Ancient Egypt.

But it will soon go disastrously wrong, and the first big lesson will be delivered. After three hours I realise that that embracing a new, unfamiliar medium last minute, as a supposedly quicker, more durable and convenient solution to my familiar cardboard, has been a mistake. I am left with two, irregular-shaped plaster halves of a podenco head which do not fit together, a studio covered in white powder, and a beloved podenco puppet covered in ripped plastic, white plaster stains, and a scalpel cut running down the front and back of its body. I have almost lost an entire working day to this failed mummification experiment, and I have also nearly lost one of my most prized puppets. My first day´s attempt at being a commercially successful artist has not been successful.

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Tuesday

Lesson two: only under real pressure do you discover what you are capable of, what you know best, and how to make sound decisions. With one fifth of my making days lost already, I´ve cleaned the white plaster grime out of my studio and I am starting afresh with cardboard. Today, some kind of epiphany takes place. I feel strangely calm as I re-wrap the podenco in a fresh coating of plastic and sellotape, cook cornflour paste and soak my first batch of cardboard scraps. I am seriously behind schedule, but I feel almost drugged by the bliss of returning to the medium that I know and love… it has ease and familiarity. The cornflour paste is still warm, I am somehow soothed by the earthy brown and beige tones of the cardboard as I squeeze water out of my ripped cardboard pieces. This, the world of cardboard-mache, is the world I belong in, and it was ridiculous to think of trying to jump into another one.

This morning, time is of the absolute essence, but something magical is happening – I´m in ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi´s  flow state. The pressure´s on, but I feel I´m where I need to be, and doing the thing that I do best. Never before have I been so aware of the fact that I am being paid a quite decent wage, right now, to do all of the things which used to be a weird craft obsession – ripping, cutting, gluing and pasting cardboard in a particular way, based on having done it many times, each time learning new, better ways to do it. It begins to dawn on me that perhaps this niche cardboard skill of mine is useful, valuable – that it might even earn me a living.

In a couple of hours I have literally created my first new podenco. That felt too easy. He bakes in the midday sun outside the studio, and then I cut down the front, separate the two sides, and release my old, plastic covered podenco from within. It´s a weird moment. I feel like a midwife engaged in an ancient Egyptian birthing rite. When the cellophane-wrapped podenco beneath is liberated once more, I hug it.

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The first new, post-podenco is sculpted into life by the end of the day. And I must admit, this is when one of several perplexing questions of the week arises… If it is actually so very easy to reproduce my creations on demand, for the super-rich Ibiza clubbing industry, does that mean that my original creations have less value…?

Wednesday

We are most certainly in the flow. It´s all a happy blur of Radio 4, Michael Meade podcasts and coffee. I seem to now have four podencos, and it´s still only wednesday. How has this happened? The new ones are smooth and beautiful – slightly bigger than the original ones, they seem a different breed. More meaty, stocky. Older, wiser.

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I´m giving them their own breastplate, with the Woomoon symbol, as requested, the shape of a crescent moon. And as I make these creatures my ideas about them are changing. Previously, it had felt really important to make sure that they were different from my own podencos – painted differently from my usual style, different colours – black and gold and orange? These will be the ´commercial´ podencos, I thought. I don´t want anyone to confuse them with the old,´authentic´ ones…

But now I´m realising that I cannot make two new podencos, or in fact anything, without them being some kind of authentic expression of me. Regardless of constraints of time or money, I can´t just make a ´commercial´thing. Yes, they are a very different breed, these new hounds. Their creation, their reason for being here is completely different to that of the originals….and yet they have unwittingly become two more creations that have meaning to me, whether I like it or not. They have been made solely for commercial reasons – their price and value was negotiated and fixed before they came into being – and yet they´ve still become…meaningful creatures. They might be the commercial podencos, but they have their own story – just a different story.

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Thursday

They are getting different eyes, these new, fancy podencos. I would like them to be more Egyptian, and for their original brother and sister podencos to remain the more earthy, Eivissan countryside descendants – less Anubis, more island hunting hound. These new ones are feisty, a bit intimidating, a bit sexy. Clubland will just love them.

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When I´m looking at my family of four podencos, I like to mix them up. They seem different variations of the same family. In a few days time, two of them will stay in the countryside of Balafia, San Lorenzo, whilst the other two will descend to the South, and have special boxes made for them – they will either be in their special protective boxes, or performing – parading through the throngs of fashionable people, to the sounds of house, tribal and techno music. But these two different variations still come from the same place, and are of the same family. It amazes me that these two breeds sit well together. It amazes me that even in the commercial domain, things can feel special, meaningful, even a little magical. It is possible. It amazes me that during the course of one week doing a supposedly calculated, ´commercial´ job, things can unfold which are unexpected, and which simply could not have been controlled or predicted. I suddenly realise that is what makes art meaningful, and magical.

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Sunday

I´ve headed South. I´ve put a special frock on. I am thirsty, because I wanted to buy a drink but I discovered they cost 12 Euros. But apart from that, I am happy to be here and absorb the typically Ibizan atmosphere – the distant pine-forested hills are soaked in gold, the music is tribal, hippies and shamans mix with millionaires and botoxed Instagram celebrities. A bundle of nonsensical contradictions which somehow gel together…nothing new there. Welcome to Ibiza.

A backstage door opens, and a pair of tall podenco ears emerge, then another pair. Far away, across the crowd, a parade has begun, weaving between the people. I can see my podencos approaching me – but already something has changed. On the journey South they slipped from me and became someone or something else´s – not mine. I´m glad to let them go. I am not attached to them. I think I have already lost interest in them.

*   *   *

Days later, the exhaustion has eased, and I´m doing an important thing. I mix a new batch of cornflour paste, soak some cardboard, and start the careful task of mending  my podencos – sealing over the scalpel blade cuts and wounds which were inflicted for the sake of birthing their new Egyptian, clubland ancestors. I use papier-mache to bandage over the cut marks. The new cardboard patches are a slightly different colour, so the two dogs will now have a paler strip running down the middle of their faces. And I give the hounds a gift I had promised them, a reward for all that they went through. A new element of folkloric decoration – braided palm-leaf belts, with a repeat pattern of string semi-circles above. It was important to do this, as a demonstration of what value really is, to me, even in the commercial world. Time. Attention. Love. Devotion. Craft.

And now things are much as they were before. I don´t think I have become commercially successful. It´s still a baffling subject to me. I still have two podenco puppets, and I´m very attached to them – more so than before. These days they are more decorated, and they also have an odd, pale streak down the centre of their faces. It´s a long story.

 

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When a River came back

“We are living in a strange time, right now absolutely anything – good or bad – is possible,” he said. It was mid December – that period of deep winter days when the world had recently received some shocking news, and it felt like a shadow of dread lay over everything.

On a tiny Mediterranean island, day after day of heavy rain like nothing seen before. It just wouldn’t stop. Red ochre-tinted, sticky pools of water everywhere – like the red rivulets which first brought the Phoenician settlers to the hill where Ibiza’s D’alt Villa now stands – the flowing blood of the Goddess Tanit, they had seen. And right now, her blood was all over the island, thick and claggy, hard to scrape off your shoes.

More rain. These days, at times, very little distinction between day and night. This island is a tiny fishing boat at the mercy of a lightening storm at sea. At night time I take solace in my four, thick stone walls, and listen to a storm circling above me, rattling off the sheer cliffs at the edge of the forest. I feel safe, but small. Then, in the early hours of the morning, a new sound wakes me up – a strange, low vibration. Then a bang. Some big hand has reached down from the skies and poked my roof, severing my electricity. Now I feel very, very small.

A Spring, Santa Agnes, North West of the island

I am comforted to find signs of civilisation at the Forada market – a bunch of well-wrapped giris discussing Christmas menu plans and queuing for fruit and vegetables at the only stall which is open on this soggy, red field. Nestled amongst the peppers and mandarins is an irregular-shaped, clingfilm-wrapped slab – the farmer’s wife’s homemade turron. Ground, toasted almonds, lemon peel, cinnamon, brown sugar. I buy her last piece and her eyes twinkle.

Andrea has given up on setting up her stall. Through her car boot window she shows me the warped gazebo pole, broken by the wind – she has spent half an hour wiping red mud off pots of jam and chutneys. I am thinking of taking a walk through Es Broll, I tell her. “Apparently the spring is flowing again.” We decide to go together.

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As always, the valley of Es Broll is deserted – a hidden fairytale, a lush, green gorge mapped with the water systems of the Moors, little stone passageways feeding out in all directions. Pockets of fruit orchards, trees heaving with so much fruit that they seem to have more oranges than leaves.  The place is a silent jewel, ever silent but for the humming of…something….that it’s hard to put your finger on. The buzz of satisfaction that the Moors felt centuries ago, when they used their expertise and craftsmanship to channel water and create a place of true fertility. Or the hum of contentment emanating from the scant Ibicencos living in this valley in a state of timeless, meditative harmony.

But today, there’s another sound – audible as soon as we get out of the car. It’s everywhere. It’s a sound I have never heard on this island before – the sound of moving fresh water. The spring has not just come back to life, it’s booming and roaring.

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We are on a treasure hunt of water, on our route to the heart of the valley. The water gurgles all around us, above and below. There is absolutely nobody here. A ghostly white figure stands overlooking a sloped garden – she momentarily frightens us. Her right arm is waving slowly. But she is a scarecrow, truly the only life here apart from us is the water. At the pink, arab watermill, the current shoots so fiercely through the stone channel that it is creating a new outlet through the stones beneath.

What was it my grandmother used to say about the health effects of being near moving water…neutralising ions? After re-tracing our steps back along the valley and its water course, we feel softer, lighter, better, different.

A River, near Santa Eularia, East of the island

The sky is still soggy and clouded, but the rain has stopped, and now people are leaving their houses, getting together, talking again. The river has come back. The river has come back. What, really come back, really flowing? Yes. Go and see it. See it weaving through the dried banks near to the San Joan road. Follow it along the sleepy backroad to Santa Eularia. Where previously there was a scorched dry river bed, there is now a flowing river. And…at the roman bridge in Santa Eularia, there are cascades. It’s in the news and everything. People have been swimming in it.

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So I get out onto the rural camino to Santa Eularia, the pretty route which, much of the way, follows the course of Ibiza’s long-dead river beneath the tall pine trees, to Santa Eularia where it meets the ocean. I loved cycling this route in the summer, for its tranquility, its trees, and the magical possibility of an empty river bed. Sometimes I got off my bike, leant it against the trunk of a tree and sat in long grass looking down into the empty river. I saw it as an exercise in creative visualisation, a healthy challenge. I imagined the River Dart, in Devon….a body of soft, golden water gently moving underneath the trees. It used to satisfy some kind of thirst which was hard to shake off during those summer months.

From the car it was hard to see over the river bank. I parked, and walked to the edge. There was, indeed, a river, where previously there wasn’t. I tried to imagine where it was coming from, how it worked, what was powering it, where it began. It filled me with magic, awe and fear.

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A River’s Mouth, Santa Eularia, East of the island

People are flocking to the bridge, the Pont Vell. This is like some kind of long-prophesised pilgrimage. The sound of the water cascading over rocks, beneath the Roman arches, is far louder than I had imagined. Amongst the local people gathered at the riverside there is the sense that history is being written, and something monumental is being witnessed. Grandmothers stand with their adult children and grandchildren, seeing a sight familiar from their youth, but one that they never, ever expected to see again.  There is a bizarre feeling that all the longed-for things from the past are encapsulated in this river – and now it’s back, and alive. There is joy and laughter, families and friends with Santa hats on taking selfies in front of waterfalls and a deep river. And maybe there is relief. That what goes, what dies for decades, can come back. That things we turn into grandiose stories about sadness, loss and grief… can simply re-appear one day, without any fuss. “Hello!”

So, during a very dark time, not so long ago, something rather miraculous happened. On a tiny Mediterranean island, a river came back. It’s gone again now, but that doesn’t matter. A story has been completely rewritten.

Searching for Darkness on the White Isle

They call this island the White Isle. And people travel here from far and wide to embrace the brilliance of the sun’s rays, reflecting on a million grains of sand, and making ripple dances in the turquoise waters. This island supports a religion of the light, and of the sun. As the temperatures rise, the rhythmic beat of the island grows in intensity – from the kitsch dancefloor hits booming out of the shooters bar in San Antonio in the East, to the deep, tribal rhythms pulsating in the early hours of the morning in some giant superclub temple in the island’s centre, to the rising crescendo of drummers congregating for the sunset at Benirras beach in the North. The sun’s rule dominates this island, and the people express their adoration of it in the classic way – through dance. This probably hasn’t changed for centuries.

But in the ebb and flow of this island’s yearly cycle, those days are behind us. In the winter the population halves back down to its normal number, and the Sun God withdraws, retreats, gives way… gives way to what? As the point of mid-winter approaches, I want to know about darkness on an island based around worshipping the light. The recent heavy rains have brought an abundance of mushrooms to the island’s forests, such as the one I currently walk through every morning with the two sweet, slightly overweight dogs under my care. Mushrooms – they live for darkness, they know about darkness. As does the blue-grey wispy moss that covers the branches and forest floor in certain parts that I walk through. But where else is the darkness that I crave on this island, and who else knows about it?

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Photographer unknown: Hippies cross paths with Ibicencos, Ibiza, cerca 1970.

…Well the Ibicencos, of course. They never played any part in this annual sun-worshipping frenzy that happened on the fringes of their little island – the places where land met ocean. They probably weren’t so interested in the edges of their island, apart from the promise of the fish that could be caught in those surrounding waters. Apparently the plots of land near the ocean on Ibiza were considered of least value, and often left to the women of the family (who are probably smiling now…) If you want to know about darkness, it’s probably best to go inland. So let’s go there.

It’s here that you might see, surrounded by red earth, an old Ibicenco woman dressed from head to toe in black, harvesting almonds. A woman whose traditional, heavy cotton clothing protects her from the sun, rather than exposes her to it. A woman whose interests centre not around the sun, but the shade and the shadows. Yes, she knows about darkness.

Let’s also take the little path through the woods, behind a friend’s house near San Mateu. The trees clear to reveal a little whitewashed, stone house surrounded by a wall of gigantic cactus plants. We call it the Vampire House. Why? Because it is deserted – at least in the scorching midday heat. But it’s clean, tidy, beautiful, and mysterious. Around one of the wooden doors are strange geometric designs, carved into the chalk and painted in pastel colours. Ibicenco spells to ward off unwelcome, dark visitors? And at the back of the house is a tiny slit of a window, just big enough to fit the width of your head. There, nestled within the thickness of the wall, your eyes eventually adjust to the darkness and the interior room comes into view – bare stone. Walls and ceiling blackened with woodsmoke.

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‘Casa de Vampiros’, near San Mateu, 2015

This relatively new island obsession with the sun…it has its damaging aspect. The culture which rises up to embrace the sun for about four months every year is the same culture which drains the island of its ecological resources, above all, its natural underground waters, the waters which until recently filled the island’s wells.

With the day of the Winter Solstice soon approaching, I celebrate the darkness of this island, as well as the light. The secrets of darkness are to be found deep, deep inland… and perhaps there is a place which holds the key to it all. At Can Jaume Prats, there is a well, they say, and on it is painted the symbol of the sun. On the Winter Solstice, the rays of the sun in the sky meet the sun on the well. The island’s exterior meets the island’s interior, masculine meets feminine…and the balance between light and darkness is restored.