Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, October 2002)


Last month saw a massive search and rescue mission for local ceramic’s pioneer Brent Hesselyn who went missing, while diving off Nusa Lembongan, on the first day of September.
As we go to press there is still no news but Brent’s support group of friends—Leonard Leuras, Rio Helmi, Carl Burman, Marie-Claude and Didier Millet, Ade Wawo Runtu—and his Balinese family—Nancy, Doug and Ana Macy—have been tireless in their efforts to find him. A pall has descended over Sanur expatria, Jenggala Ceramics and the Balinese art world as one of the golden oldies is presumed dead. Please read on:

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I grew up with Brent on the back lots of Batujimbar during the years 1975 – 1985. It was a golden decade for us young Australoids caught in the jet stream of Sanur’s Salad days, when Bali was still sublimely beautiful. Brent, as A.D.C., court photographer (seconded from Kay It, the artist-potter in Mengwi at the time), wine-taster and graphics genius to Don Wija Wawo Runtu, our patron, was firmly in front of the green baize door. As gardener and redhead I was firmly behind it. Brent was star boy at the Tanjung Sari Hotel (ground zero jetset in the glorious 1970 and 80s)—a man with a mission, and a mug of palm toddy. I was the hippie gardener with attitude. We would meet daily to compare notes. They were glorious days filled with discovery, Bali magic and a pioneer spirit.
Our street gang included scholar David Steward-Fox, film-maker and poet John Darling and a very stylish, slightly lame black woman, called Roz Allen, who was the first (after Don Wija and Australian publishing Mogul Kevin Weldon) to recognize the muse in the Kiwi muscleman. At Kevin and Roz’s insistence, Don Wija built a kiln for Brent—ceramics was Brent’s true passion—behind Australian Donald Friend’s compound, on disputed land. I gave one of my two assistant gardeners to the fledgling factory: Lenny remains to this day with Jenggala.
In 1979, Brent formed a strategic business alliance with Ade Wawo Runtu, much-loved daughter of our late liege lord and U.D. Jenggala Ceramics was born (there was a cheaper category than the U.D. at the time but Brent threw caution to the wind, invested N.Z. $15, and the rest is history). It was as if Brent had bought his own freedom. (it was years before we lesser serfs were forced off the teat by the Don’s henchwoman Tisna, “the (blonde) ethnic cleanser”).
Brent had the first converted rice barn (1982) and that’s all he had. Apart from Lenny. And the kiln, three packets of Kansas cigarettes and a bottle of arak. Brent slept on the loft’s timber ledge and slaved all day making decorative tiles for the Tanjung Sari swimming pool, his first commission. He worked with passion and dedication. It must be noted here too that his extra-curricular activities were approached with similar verve: it was around this time that Brent founded the Black Star Club with his great buddies Frank Morgan and Peter Jennings of Jakarta. It was an exclusive club with strict age restrictions and a fierce initiation ritual involving frog masks, a Jacuzzi and various love potions. I was the club’s gardener. It was my job to ensure that thick planting obscured sliver views to the al fresco water sports section. Years later Black Star Club Hall of Famer Bill “The Beast” Bensley discovered 4,720 miniature Vodka bottles (all empty) in the vicinity, while building a shrine to Rachel Hunter.
In 1985 Brent amazed us all by moving to Praya in Central Lombok to work on a noble conservation programme—to preserve and promote the unique earthenware traditions of Bali’s poor cousin. He stayed there for years and no one ever visited him, so grim did it sound, but the programme was a great success. So successful, in fact, that the New Zealand government took Brent’s good groundwork and gave it to some Kiwi arrivistes. Brent was devastated. Altruism drained from his blood and he embarked on a new commercial life as the Red Adair of tableware.

In 1985 Brent met lovely Nancy Macy, an astute businesswoman and sweetheart who was Brent’s anchor for the rest of his life. Together they created Taman Mertasari, a fabulous garden compound of aesthetic bachelor pads (and one family home) which, under Brent’s patronage, served the best food and booze on the island. Brent was a shy Marion Davies to Nancy’s William Randolph Hearst. Her family became his. No one ever raised their voice. U.D. Jenggala prospered. Brent affected a cigar and Nancy produced more siblings for the betterment of Mertasari. Together they were major sponsors of John Forsyth’s health care charity and patrons of various laudatory initiatives.
In his final decade Brent developed a love for cigars, olive oil making, scuba diving, reef fishing, Moroccan cooking, neo-fascist architecture and fine wines. Through his art gallery at the new Jenggala Megamall in Jimbaran he became a dedicated patron for all the arts of which he was a master— photography, pottery and calligraphy. The openings at Jenggala were beautifully organised and presented. He was a meticulous communicator in all the ways he liked to communicate. He never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. He was a player, a shaker and a mover without hogging any limelight. He built up a client base of admirers that included some of the finest hotels and ceramics connoisseurs in the world.
Now that he is missing in action his achievements are measured by the crater he has left.
I loved him most for his wicked sense of humour: a dirty mind is a joy forever.
Farewell funny Kiwi – you are sorely missed.

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Monday 9th September, 2002, My best friend’s mother dies in her Sidakarya home after a long illness
Many years ago, before the potato famine, nice Neil Jacob’s, then G.M. of the fabulous Four Seasons Resort, Jimbaran, asked me to design a book of bedtime stories for their guests. I wrote about my own tooth-filing and a piece about a saintly woman I had grown to worship called “Meme”, my friend Putu Suarsa’s mother.. Below is an excerpt from the essay:
“ I have watched Meme weave her basket-loads of offerings for twenty-seven years, through all sorts of emergencies—nursing two terminally ill siblings; or dashing to the Sanglah Hospital when offspring have collided with motor bikes—and watched her always return to her platform “post”, knife in hand, fingers dexterously weaving palm leaf posies, like a tropical Madame Defarge.
I have never disturbed her with idle chat, although she loves being sidled up to. She is always at her post but every once in a while—say, on a feast day, when Putu and I share a yarn on Dutch dining chairs in the ceremonial pavilion next to Meme’s kitchen—she will adjust her headdress, tighten her sarong, approach our pavilion and close the curtains around the platform to keep away the dogs. Her son will then ask her, with a kindness that touches my heart to record, if she has “taken the pills the doctor gave her” and she will answer him, softly, then shoo the dog away and go back to her splicing, weaving and pinning.”
One year ago Meme was diagnosed with terminal liver disease. Over the next sixth months she slowly moved off the offering platform that had been her daily pre-occupation for ninety good years into her adjacent bedroom, where the T.V. played 24 hours a day. Her son, Putu, found a faith healer—a Brahman wizard, called Ratu Aji Gina—who performed the most amazing surgery on Meme, to arrest the disease’s spread. The “surgery” involved Meme holding two black stones (“which shone like brilliants” Putu said) as the healer stabbed horse syringes into her abdomen, drawing out pints of liquid “the consistency of coconut water.” Two buckets would be filled each visit and then the “punctures” sealed, as if by magic. A band aid was also applied. Putu told these stories of sorties in lurid detail: we listeners would just gape in disbelief. But Meme was always spirited, after these visits and a glimmer of hope would return to Putu’s eyes.
Over the last months the trips to the healer were every four days: Meme, now just a bundle of bones, would be swept up by her loving son and driven to Kediri, near Tabanan, at 4 a.m., to join a long queue of hopeless cases.
Last month, on the night of the family’s house temple anniversary, I observed that Meme’s platform had gone: I rushed to see if she had too. But she was there, barely conscious, watching “Who wants to be a millionaire.”
“When did you come” she asked gently.
“Yesterday” I replied.
“Eat something first” she offered politely.We then had a chat about Putu’s coming birthday and how this was the first odalan she’d ever missed.
Her life was all about duty. To her five children, after her husband was brutally murdered during the communist coup: to her family, who grew from five to five hundred over her lifetime, and to the village gods.
When she finally slipped away, peacefully, the village remembered her devotion. Meme’s final journey to the cremation grounds was accompanied by a fierce bleganjur marching band. The whole village loved this woman and she was afforded full ceremonial honours.
As the body burned, an unscheduled procession swung into the grounds: 30 maidens bearing one offering each on a silver tray preceded a full angklung orchestra bursting with soul-soaring harmonies and broad smiles Putu’s face showed no emotion but I’m sure his big heart swelled with pride.
The ashes were dispersed off Mertasari beach before sunset and we returned, exhausted, to the family compound for some well-deserved down-time. Barely had the ice hit the gin glass than the banjar head came screaming into the compound: “the Banyan tree in the cremation ground’s on fire.” (In the excitement of the day, the post-cremation burn-off had not been properly supervised). We raced to the cremation grounds to find the biggest Banyan tree engulfed by flames.
I feared for the temple buildings nearby, and the entire village to thenorth as a brisk southerly wind was blowing. Exhaustion and despair and disappointment were dispersed when the brave men of the Denpasar fire brigade arrived in form-fitting red and black leotards, nozzles fully extended. The rusty pumps coughed into action, a thousand back seat drivers barked instructions and the banyan tree was saved.
God Bless Meme

[Photos of Reception of Guruh Sukarno Putra]

Full Photos Coverage of Putu Suarsa's Mum's Cremation

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