The Dogs’ Breakfast Group

It does my heart good to hear non-Hungarians talking in terms of giving back to the country that has become their adopted home. I’m a firm believer in social responsibility and the importance of doing what you can to bridge the divide between Magyarok and külföldiek. I’m all for the cross-cultural pollination of ideas, perspectives, and customs.

For many, though, living in an expat bubble is common enough. And while some support charitable causes and others volunteer with local charities, few attempt to start something that will live beyond them when they leave.

I had a coffee recently with Australian-born Robyn Flemming. We met in person several years ago when her nomadic life brought her to Budapest, and we’ve been aware of each other virtually since then.

Amongst her many passions, which include photography, travel, running, and writing, Flemming is a Dog Lover. Those capitals are deliberate. Currently dogless, she’s embarking on a new venture in Budapest that will give lots of dogs the chance to meet other dogs and lots of dogless dog lovers the chance to meet them, too. It’s her way of giving back. ‘I’m incredibly grateful to Budapest for opening its arms to me.’

Years ago, in Australia, Flemming had a dog-loving friend visit on holiday from Canada. To entertain her visitor, she invited all her dog-owning friends to bring their dogs to a breakfast. They met at a local dog-friendly café and had a blast. The Dogs’ Breakfast Group was born. ‘Naming something is very powerful. It gives it energy,’ she said.

Robyn Flemming isn’t a woman who does things by halves. She’d contacted local businesses to sponsor doggie bags for the dogs involved and generated enough buzz to get the attention of the local press. They made the papers. At that first Dogs’ Breakfast, 13 dogs showed up with their owners in tow. After a few months of regular meetups, the numbers grew. The group moved to a leash-free park with BBQ facilities. Everyone brought sausages to cook for the dogs. The clue is in the name – the dogs’ breakfast – it’s all about the dogs. Like humans, dogs make friends. And like children, it’s important for puppies to learn to socialise with other dogs, too.

The concept took off. Flemming put together a regular newsletter, The Border Tail. It featured dog biographies written by owners in their dog’s voice. There were profiles of local veterinarians. Devo the Wonderdog had a movie review column, and the Style Hound gave fashion tips in a column called ‘Fur, Fangs and Fashion’.

Flemming organised an art exhibition called The Dog Show and asked local artists to contribute dog-themed pieces. It caught local, state, and national attention with coverage from press, radio, and television. Riding the Calendar Girls phenomenon, she initiated a photoshoot of some of the group members (including the city mayor) with their dogs. The photo, entitled The Hunting Lodge (The Dogs Breakfast Group) shot by Jules Boag, was shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2007. The group had reach.

(c) Jules Boag. The Hunting Lodge is a portrait that references the Old Masters. The sitters pose in a style reminiscent of a Velázquez subject. The chiaroscuro reminds the viewer of Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Overall, the unusual shallow variable focus and perspective unnerves the viewer on a subconscious level and asks the viewer to consider David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. The viewer looks for clues: who are these people, why are they gathered, why are they so dressed up and why is the woman naked in the middle?

When the local council wanted to turn part of the off-leash park where the group met each month into a children’s playground, they were consulted – the Dogs’ Breakfast Group had become a stakeholder in the local community.

Flemming left Australia in 2010 to travel the world. When she first visited Budapest in 2013, she fell in love with the city, its people, and its dogs. ‘Budapest has grabbed me by the ankles and won’t let go’, she said.

Dogless in Budapest, Flemming is missing canine company. So, she’s decided to start a Dogs’ Breakfast Group here, too. When we spoke, she was planning the first one for the last Sunday in September. The plan was to meet at Hősök Tere by the statue at 9:45 a.m. for a walk starting at 10. I don’t doubt for a minute that she got a crowd and that it will continue. As she says herself: ‘If you put enough energy behind something, it can’t not go somewhere and generally, if it’s well-intentioned, it goes somewhere good.’

Joki. (c) Robyn Flemming

I’m dogless by choice. When I was still wearing knee-socks, we had a dog, a Corgi called Rinty. He was run over by a car on my granny’s farm. Then we got another dog, a Jack Russell called Monty. He ate poison that had been laid for stray dogs preying on a neighbouring farmer’s sheep. After that, I was dogged out. My relationship with dogs since has been very superficial. Those I’m around a lot grow on me, though – some more than others. Truth be told, they fascinate me. We recently stayed in a house with six dogs, including two Dane Mastiffs. The smallest of the six, a Dachshund, was the Lead Dog. No one had told her she was tiny. No mental limitations there.

I can see a Budapest Dogs’ Breakfast Group gathering momentum. The dog owners I know in the city are a breed apart. They recognise in each other that same unbridled love for their canine friends. Through their dogs, they strike up instant friendships that pay little heed to skin colour, religion, or political persuasion. It’s all about their dogs. In truth, they’re an example to everyone. If we all made life about something/someone other than ourselves, how much better the world would be.

Interested? Reach out to Robyn Flemming at [email protected]. Facebook: Budapest Dogs’ Breakfast Group.

Next meeting of the Dogs’ Breakfast Group is on Sunday, 27th October meeting at 9:45 am at the statue in Heroes Square to start walking at 10 am.

First published in the Budapest Times, October 2019

 

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In abstraction: Jim Urquhart

On 20 August, Hungary celebrates its foundation and remembers St Istvan (St Stephen), its first king, who was inducted into the ranks of Hungarian saints by Pope Gregory VII on 20 August 1083.

Let’s fast forward to 20 August 1993, when Scottish painter Jim Urquhart arrived in Budapest in search of something new. It’s understandable that he was a little taken aback by the celebrations. He drove in, too late for the fireworks, and was left to make sense of the teeming crowds and the smell of cordite. Twenty-six years later, and recently inducted into the ranks of Hungarian citizenry, he’s still enjoying the mystery of everything Magyar.

Photo by Borbely-Urquhart Julianna

Urquhart’s life to date reads like a series of chance encounters and happenstance, each linked by his insatiable delight in the ordinary and an innate curiosity that has him opening doors others might walk by.

His friend, travel and art writer Michael Jacobs, had suggested he contact Árpád Szabados, then head of Magyar Képzőművészeti Egyetem (Hungarian University of Fine Arts), when he arrived in Hungary. Szabados’ mother was Scottish and had met his father, a Calvinist minister, when studying in Edinburgh. During Urquhart’s first week in the country, at the behest of Szabados, he joined a football team made up of artists and writers and other creative sorts. One introduction led to another and pretty soon he had found somewhere to live, somewhere to paint, and that special someone he’d later marry – his wife Julia.

Back in 1968, his time at Edinburgh School of Art was cut short – he wasn’t the type of student they wanted on their books. Not that he lacked talent, but more that his political opinions weren’t exactly mainstream. Urquhart left Scotland for London where his days were spent labouring on building sites, his evenings at his easel. In 1975, he graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from the Central School of Art and Design, which through many marriages is now the Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design. Ever the pragmatist, he went on to do a post-grad in teaching and then, in his mid-thirties, found himself Head of Department and teaching art, painting with his students in the classroom and having conversations with himself wondering how he’d gotten there. He describes the whole experience of teaching art and being an artist as ‘somewhat schizophrenic’.

When he turned 40, Urquhart decided that administration wasn’t his forte. Some people are cut out for working 9-5, five days a week, with a few weeks off for good behaviour throughout the year. Not he. But wishes and dreams don’t pay bills or buy paint. He compromised by working as a supply teacher, subbing for full-time teachers when they took unscheduled breaks.

He continued to do this after moving to Hungary, returning to the UK to teach for 4-6-week spells, earning enough to keep him in paint and palinka for 3-4 months. Around 1997, things really came together. Gábor Andrási invited him to exhibit his work at the Óbudai Pincegalériá. Andrási’s endorsement would open even more doors for the Glaswegian.

In 2000, Urquhart was one of the few foreign artists invited to exhibit at the Millennium exhibition in the Műcsarnok (Palace of Arts), confirmation indeed that Hungary thought well of her adopted son.  In 2011, when artist Ilona P. Boros, curator of the Falumúzeum (Village museum) in Törökbálint, founded Asztal-Társaság (the Table Company), Urquhart was the only non-Hungarian invited to join the group of eight. Although no longer a member, Urquhart credits Boros’s excellent organisational skills for the invitations that followed to exhibit in Hungary and abroad.

It was a busy time. Soon, Urquhart found himself painting for the next exhibition. But when his mum passed away six years ago, his subsequent regular trips to the UK to check in on his dad played havoc with his schedule. Not that he begrudges a moment of the time he spends over there – he enjoys his old man and Hughie certainly seems quite the character. The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I first saw his work hanging in the apartment of a mutual friend. The piece was from his train track series. When he lived out by Kobanya Kispest, Urquhart would regularly cross the train tracks, rails of steel that clearly defined the space around them. They made him question the underlying matrix, the mathematics of the physical world, as it were. I still covet that painting and each time I visit my bad self harbours notions of spiriting it away in my purse but never remembers to bring one big enough.

Back in his late teens and early twenties, Urquhart was a true believer in abstract. He was a fan of the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, and for a brief while, Jackson Pollack. Then he came across the figurative work of David Hockney and found it very ‘disturbing’. Okay, he thought, figures have their place in a historical context, but in contemporary art? And drawings of everyday life at that? Hockney’s work sent Urquhart in another direction, one that married everyday observances with abstract thoughts and figures.

In his telephone box series, the abstract representation of a telephone box is set off by a dress of the same colour in a shop window in the background. The dress is his nod to the idea of a person – but when you put a person in a picture, they become the focus and this wasn’t what the series was about.

(C) Jim Urquhart. Used with permission.

Urquhart’s bathing series is his take on a historical concept and context. Rather than painting cherubs in the sky, his bathers have that same angelic sense but in the water. ‘Abstraction’, he explained, ‘the colours and the content…they’re like the vocals in a piece of music.’

(C) Jim Urquhart. Used with permission.

I’m particularly taken by his vapour trail series, inspired by his musings on where everyone is coming from and going to. He sees the streets of Budapest as valleys, sided by tall buildings, creating a triangle of blue intersected by the white aeroplane path – something akin to the Kandinsky triangle, and the abstract concentration of power.

(C) Jim Urquhart. Used with permission.

Rachel Lebowitz explains it well in an Artsy editorial:

Kandinsky’s philosophy about spiritual life and art is founded on the idea of a three-tiered triangle containing all of humanity […] The triangle is slowly—nearly imperceptibly—moving forward and upward, towards a higher level of enlightenment. […] The most spiritually elevated people exist in the top section and are, as such, the smallest group; they see today what others will not understand until tomorrow.

The apex of that same triangle is also seen in Michael Angelo’s The Making of Adam when God and Adam touch fingers, he told me. His art classes must have been interesting, I thought.

Commissions aside, Urquhart paints for himself. ‘It’s difficult enough to guess what people like to eat, let alone to try to second-guess what they’d like to buy’, he said. He sold one of his metro steps series to someone who had just recovered from a serious illness. In those steps, leading out of the darkness of the underground into the light of day, they saw a visual connection with their own escape from death.

For Urquhart, success isn’t measured in high-priced canvases or rave reviews. He’s not searching for international acclaim, although his paintings hang in rooms around in North America, South America, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, and the UK. He paints what he sees. His work chronicles the every day, the mundane, but at his hand, take on a new life. He loves to paint and paints what he loves: life as it’s being lived. His measure of success is being able to do what he wants to do on a daily basis.

In September, Urquhart will exhibit alongside two other Budapest-based British painters, Michael Pettet and David Stuart Sutherland. The one-night show, hosted by the British Ambassador to Hungary, Iain Lindsay, and his wife, Bridget, at their Buda residence, is sponsored by the British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary (BCCH). Each of the artists will have their own room and will be available to chat. Don’t expect to see too much by way of a written explanation of Urquhart’s art, though. As he says himself, ‘If galleries have to say a lot about your paintings, perhaps you should consider writing a book instead.’

 

First published in the Budapest Times

 

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