I have a weakness. I have several weaknesses in fact, but more than any of the others, this one I find impossible to resist. You can keep your wine. You can have your chocolate. You can save your flowers. What gets me every time is bread. Fresh bread. With a wad of Irish butter. There is nothing tastier. It works. Every. Single. Time. And it’s not just an Irish thing, it’s a Hungarian thing, too. Well, maybe not the butter. Read more
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.
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.’
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.
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
I’m writing this from Balaton. Not the Balaton. But the one and only Balaton in the United States of America, a small town in southwest Minnesota. I’m not quite sure how I found the place, but once I discovered it existed, I couldn’t not go visit. The additional 640 km (400 miles) it would add to my trip were of little consequence. Curiosity had gotten the better of me. Read more
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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
The French philosopher Voltaire is reputed to have said ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.’ Presumably, he was talking about the French. Some three centuries later, the British in Hungary are looking in that direction, too, this time for ideas on how to revamp the long-established British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary (BCCH). Enter Duncan Graham, one of the city’s best-known Scotsmen, and recently appointed Chair of the BCCH, the first non-Hungarian to hold the position in 15 years. Read more
I was a fan of the 1980s American TV series Hotel, which opened with establishing shots of the legendary San Franciscan hotel The Fairmont. I’ve a great photo of a much younger me and my bestie Lori sipping Bloody Marys in the bar hoping to catch sight of Anne Baxter, James Brolin, or Connie Sellecca. Read more
Eons ago, I hung out with a guy who, as a teenager, lost the use of his legs in a shooting in New York. Wrong time + wrong place + stray bullet = life in a wheelchair. Cursed as I am with a brazen curiosity, I asked more questions than considered polite when we first met. I was horribly patronising in my effusive admiration of how well he got around. He was simply living his life and there I was congratulating him for getting out and about! I cringe when I think of it. Earlier this year, I was introduced to World Shooting Para Sport (WSPS) European Champion Gold Medallist Krisztina Dávid. My admiration this time wasn’t for the fact that she gets out and about in her wheelchair but that she’s an international shooter, winner of Hungary’s first European Paralympic Gold in a sport I know nothing about. We met up last week for a chat. Read more
Last year, Hungary made the international news because of a controversial decision to pull a production of Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot musical branded gay propaganda in Hungary and cancellations follow, said the New York Times. Billy Elliot musical axes dates in Hungary amid claims it could ‘turn children gay’, decried The Guardian. Hungarian State Opera axes Billy Elliot shows after homophobic campaign, noted The Telegraph. Read more
Of all the questions expats ask of each other, what do you do is probably right up there as the most common. I’m in finance. I’m in sales. I’m in publishing. Package expats, those working in Hungary for a multinational, are a breed apart from the freelancers, the English teachers, the artists. And while the paid pensionable positions significantly outnumber less lucrative take-the-work-when-you-get-it (in my experience), there’s an undercoat of artistry and creativity seeping to the surface.
I first came across British artist Michael Pettet a couple of years ago. At the forefront of digital art, Pettet embraced the challenge of imbuing the product of technology with soul. He showed me how his canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop. He approaches his digital paintings much as he did when he used traditional materials. The end result evolves from the interweaving of thought and inner dialogue and, as with any art, the magic lies in its interpretation.
With his environment a major influencer of his work, Pettet’s portfolio can be categorised by location. One of my favourites, Lament, harks back to memories of his childhood holidays in Scotland, a series entitled Scapa Flow. Another, one I still covet, is from the Sala de Uyuni (salt flats) from his time in Bolivia.
A huge fan of his work, I was intrigued to hear of his Chernobyl Diaries, most likely because Chernobyl is the bogeyman in my life, the personification of a danger that has indelibly tainted the power of nuclear in my mind. In the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Irish activist Adi Roche went to help with the children who had suffered the consequences and in 1991, set up Chernobyl Children International. That the environment was damaged is a given. But the lasting human scars, the legacy of that radioactive explosion, removed from the abstract of news reporting and made all so real to the Irish of my generation by Roche’s work are something nightmares are made of. It may have happened over 30 years ago, but the disaster that is Chernobyl isn’t going anywhere.
The CCI website says:
Two million people in Belarus, of whom 500,000 are children are high-risk, still live in heavily contaminated zones. Continuing low dose exposure through the food chain remains a huge risk for the populations: Some areas of land will be radioactive for 24,000 years, as much as 1 million hectares cannot be farmed for 100 years.
Pettet recently visited the ghost town of Pripyat. What he saw there left a lasting impression, an impression he has diarised in his art, covering the explosion and its aftermath and the faint attempt at rejuvenation. But his artistic commentary isn’t limited to one incident and its consequences. Pettet’s latest series holds up a mirror to our global self-indulgence and reflects the consequence of our failure to adjust our lifestyle to mitigate climate change.
That we are ignorant of what might be in store is no longer credible. The evidence is there. Science has spoken. That we are ignoring the signs of what the future holds speaks either to a seriously misguided optimism that it’ll all work out or a carpe diem lassitude that takes living in the present a step too far. Twenty-first-century hedonism has little regard for consequences. Consumerism is our new mantra, smartphone screens our preferred landscape. We’ve eschewed both the broader picture and the microscopic viewpoint, preferring to live in echo chambers of our own making. Our complete disregard for nature, our wanton destruction of our natural habitats, and our reckless depletion of our natural resources mark us as misguided idiots, at best. For Pettet, Chernobyl embodies the
conflict between humanity and nature, how we are going to manage our existence with ever increasing energy demands and how things can go horribly wrong if we cut corners or become complacent.
The pieces that make up the Chernobyl Diaries include broad sweeping images of an empty world and smaller compositions of the minutest detail that suggest atoms at play. Each one speaks to the viewer and positions itself in their memory, coloured by their recollection and knowledge of what happened in 1986. Pettet deliberately plays to our fears, tapping into the concerns that riddle our collective consciousness.
Although no stranger to the topic of war and disaster [most of his work is about conflict, even his portrait series, which deals with internal conflict as we enter the age of real vs virtual existence], the Chernobyl Diaries are more about the tenacity of nature rather than the horror of nuclear disaster.
I decided not to challenge myself to deal with the horror as above all I wanted to impress that whatever we do to the planet, it will survive us. It may take many thousands of years to recover from our parasitic consumption of its abundant resources, but nevertheless, recover it will.
Viewed through this lens, this body of work is both inspiring and chastening. Each piece, like a single diary entry, can be taken alone, but together, they tell a story of evacuation and desertion driven by radiation and destruction. They tell a story of reclamation and rejuvenation. They tell a story of resilience, of how the planet will recover, of how it will survive, despite our best efforts to destroy it.
The Chernobyl Diaries are the result of a conversation between the artist and his subject. The exhibition facilitates a conversation between the viewer and Pettet’s art. At first glance, they’re gripping. But when viewed a second or even a third time, something shifts. It’s this fluidity that marks his work as special. Through this body of work, Pettet’s ‘realisation of just how small and insignificant we are and yet how dangerous and threatening we have become’ shines through.
On exhibition at The Studios, BrodyLand (Vörösmarty utca 38) until 23 April, Chernobyl Diaries then moves to Fuga Art Gallery (Petőfi Sándor utca 5) opening 4 May and running for three weeks. One not to be missed. Check him out at https://www.michaelpettet.com/
First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2019
First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2019
St Patrick’s Day this year falls on a Sunday, which is perfect for the St Patrick’s Day Parade, the ninth annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds celebrating one of the patron saints of Ireland. When the first 546 people showed up in 2011 for the inaugural St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest, I wonder if they had any inkling of how popular an event it would become. Participants, now numbering in their thousands, will start gathering around 12 noon at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like, with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. There’ll be live Irish music on a stage with majorettes twirling up a storm. 6:3 Borozó will be running a bar, a food truck will be whipping up 100% Irish beef burgers, and Guinness will be on tap to pour you a pint of the black stuff. You’ve no excuse. Come for lunch! And don’t worry if you don’t have your green; there’ll be plenty of Paddy’s Day t-shirts on sale. Read more