As I was weaving among the crowd and stalls at Semarang’s flea market, the sight of a security guard watching a man paint at what looks like the front porch of a house caught my eye. He was focused on the wooden sculpture of a soldier riding a horse in front of him, dipping his brush into a can of jet black paint and brushing the sculpture with great care. The cup of tea next to the extension cord next to the can was neglected.
The security guard bent his waist to inspect the sculpture with great intent. It was during this moment that I decided to take a photo of this man with the security guard smiling at me and motioning at me to take his spot and get a better shot. The man in the photo didn’t even look up as the shutterbugs fluttered not once, but twice. This intent focus on his work and curiosity about the beautiful rosary draped around his neck led me to start a conversation with him.
“What are you doing, sir?” I began.
He did not answer the question. He simply scooted over to another chair, patted one that was two seats away from him and said, “Take a seat. I’ll let you paint this thing.”
I was hesitant at first. But then again the rest of my family were at the stall right across the porch, security guards were standing by so I plopped down next to him. He handed me the black brush he had been holding and said, “Dip it in the paint and just brush it on the sculpture.”
I did just that, looked at him for approval and he nodded. As I continued painting the small sculpture, getting some paint on my hands in the process, he started sipping his tea with eyebrows knitted in exhausted creases. I decided to ask him more questions.
“So, is this market a daily thing?”
“Yes,” he said. “It has been for two years.” He paused for a moment. “I’m actually the leader of the sellers here. I’ve been trying to get this flea market turned into a permanent thing with everyone having permanent stalls. It’s a positive thing.”
He leaned back against his backrest and started telling his story. “I’ve been talking to the mayor here and some businessmen who want to give fund for the market. They’re agreeing so far, now I just have to keep talking to them and make sure of it.”
I watched as I got too much paint on one stroke and the black liquid slid downwards to the bottom of the sculpture and the concrete it was placed on. I didn’t realize that I had picked the most prominent man in the market to sit next to and paint with that night.
“Do you have a stall here too?” I asked.
“I actually have two,” he pointed to one near our spot. “The other one is at the front of the market.”
As I continued painting while making a mental note to visit his stalls, my mother and sister walked up to us and asked me, “what are you doing?”
The man next to me replied instead, saying “Don’t worry, Ma’am. I’m teaching her how to paint on sculptures like men do.” I laughed at that. It was against my feminist nature, yet it was true that most sculpture artists I knew were men.
My mother apparently noticed the man’s rosary as we talked and motioned at it, asking if it was made of pearls.
“No Ma’am. This is actually silver. It’s just polished to the point that it looks like pearl,” he explained while running his hands over the beads.
I kept painting the sculpture, half-hoping I was doing a good enough job, asking him every couple of moments if the paint job was okay and getting his assurance in return. He asked where I was from, whether I was already working or still a student, what I thought about painting and art, what places I’ve been to in Semarang, and how long I was staying there.
“Two nights? That’s too short!” He said when I told him how long I was there for.
As we were talking, I also noticed he doesn’t seem to have any family or friends around.
“Sir, are you always alone, painting here every night?”
“Well, my wife is in Yogyakarta, running an arts and crafts shop. She makes really good artworks. I have one son who’s about your age too, I think. He’s in university. I let him run his own shop there too. If I don’t allow my kids to do their own thing, when will they ever learn what it means to be independent or what it means to earn their money?” He explained, looking back and forth between myself and my mother who was watching me paint.
She nodded and said, “That’s true. If we don’t allow children to grow and be their own person, if we don’t let our kids work hard as they grow up, what will become of them?”
The man agreed with her and said, “Exactly.” He turned to me and said, “You can learn so much from being independent and running your own business. You should try it too. You seem ready for it.” I gave an amen to that.
I carried on painting as he sipped tea and said hello to some shopkeepers passing by. A couple of minutes later, I finally viewed my paint job, turned the statue around to see what it looked like from the other side and said, “All done!”
The man inspected my work and said “Well done! Next time you’re here, you can paint more statues.”
I thanked him for letting me experience painting a wooden sculpture and was just starting to get up from my seat when he told me to wait. He walked to his stall, rummaged through a drawer and came back with a cloth and a plastic bottle of what looked like gasoline.
“We need to clean that hand with the black paint on it. That won’t wash easily with just water and soap,” he said while motioning for my hand. He poured some gasoline on the rag and brushed the rag on my hand. It was funny, cleaning my hand with oil. My hand felt slippery afterwards and smelled awfully of fuel, but there were no traces of paint there.
“There you go. Now you’re good to go.”
As I got up, I asked him his name.
“It’s Leo,” he said. “If you want to, you can visit my stall there. Just see if there’s anything you like, you don’t have to buy anything.”
I nodded and walked over to his stall, looking through trinkets available for sale. Nothing seemed to catch my eye though and I just wanted to enjoy the evening without buying anything. So I walked past him again and bade goodbye.
Mr. Leo waved at me and said, “Someday, you should come back to Semarang.”
As someone who loves random conversations with strangers, learning about their stories, all I could think of that night is I will definitely come back for more conversations like this.