An Artist’s Journey to Bali By Betty Reynolds

Written and illustrated by renowned artist Betty Reynolds, An Artist’s Journey to Bali is a travelogue sketchbook that captures the culture and life of Bali in a succinct and colorful 48 pages.

In this beautifully illustrated artist’s journal, the author shares her good fortune of meeting many Balinese who allowed her to witness important aspects of their lives. With the sharp eyes of a watercolorist, Reynolds was thus able to participate in numerous religious rites that mark the passage through the major stages of a person’s life.

Judging from the cover, readers might first think that this is a children’s book but it actually contains a wealth of cultural lessons accompanied by breezy watercolor drawings, starting with full page bleeds of Bali’s most iconic symbols – a panorama of a duck herder, wet rice fields, a woman laying offerings at a shrine to the rice goddess and a tall tapered decorative bamboo pole placed outside Balinese Hindu homes during religious holidays, all set against the background of a looming volcano.

The thin volume also serves admirably as a reference book, which can help readers decide what to explore and discover. The two facing opening pages, which encapsulate the author’s own experiences, provides a first-rate starter checklist of what to do and see on Bali. The book will not only deepen your understanding of a remarkable ethnic group but also equip you with a basic vocabulary in the Balinese language. The author uses Balinese (not Indonesian) terms so extensively that there is no need for a glossary.

Betty Reynolds is a consultant and art director who loves to travel and draw. She has published a number of sketchbooks on Japan. Like all her other sketchbooks, the one on Bali doesn’t contain travel facts, advice and guidance, yet it will inform you about what you need to know by accurately describing the island’s cultural landscape and the context surrounding events in the form of hundreds of short, bite-sized captions that are easy to take in and remember. The plethora of odd facts and details spark curiosity and create excitement.

As the perfect complement to the text, Reynold’s watercolor paintings highlight island attractions, plants, fruits and flowers; all the classic Balinese dishes and how to prepare them; accoutrements, clothing and gestures used in worship, parts of a temple, house compound and typical village; agricultural implements; names of gods, goddesses and demons; types of dances; gamelan orchestra instruments; arts and crafts; terms used in ceremonies, festivals, rituals, performances and customs, well-known temples and places as well as the daily spiritual routines of its people.

The special strength of watercolors is their directness in capturing an artist’s initial creative impulses and their on-site response to a scene. This lends these intimate glimpses a vitality and spontaneity that is not often seen in finished paintings that use other media. Watercolor sketches are also more modest in scale and intention as the artist has to very carefully observe and then swiftly render a specific object, close-up portrait, figure study or outline a larger scene. This immediacy makes watercolors more personal. There are instructions on how to wrap a sarong, don headgear (udeng) for a ceremony, how to behave and pray at a religious event, how to make a bamboo offering, etc.

In just several hours, one can find imaginative and descriptive answers to scores of puzzling questions that you might have about this fascinating island: What are those decorations in the rice fields? What is that procession to the beach? What is the meaning of those ornate poles? What are those voodoo hats on temples? Why are those stones honored? What does chaka-ka-ka-chak mean? Are the instruments only played by men? Can filing the teeth lose bad habits? What do the old coins mean? Why is that offering placed lower than the others? Why are funerals so raucous and not sad? How can a woman carry such heavy loads on their heads? What is that fruit with the lizard skin called? What is so special about the Dadap tree?

An Artist’s Journey will make an unique souvenir or gift for a friend. Though a small book, it contains so much new information that it takes more than one sitting to absorb it all.

If a tourist buys the book it on their first day in Bali, it will illuminate many aspects of their stay in a strange land that is far from their usual comfort zone. With its painstakingly scrutinized and subtle images, it’s ideal especially for children who know absolutely nothing about this small Indonesian island.

This is a book that you would want to have in your possession to refresh your memory or to share your story about your travels with friends and family. A sensible and low-priced introduction to the island, An Artist’s Journey to Bali is a treasure for anyone who has embraced the people and ways in Bali. A true keepsake!

An Artist’s Journey to Bali: The Island of Art, Magic and Mystery by Betty Reynolds, Tuttle Publishing 2010, ISBN-978-080-484-0439, hardcover, 48 pages, dimensions 27.5 cm x 22.5 cm.

Review by Bill Dalton
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