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Flower for Flyers, 1999

(1 March 1999, Playa del Carmen, Mexico)

fish bright

“Should write about last night before it’s gone. Made about 30-40 little watercolours of flowers, some fish, a few butterflies. What I ended up doing was an Anonymous Fairy Act, with Janice [Anderson]’s help. I drew and painted the little pictures on the beach, cut them up in the hotel room. The smallest was about 1 cm square. So. Very small. Put them all in one of the twenty-peso, woven purses I’d bought, a yellow one. I called the purse my ‘portfolio.’ I borrowed masking tape and took the little watercolours around the hotel. Some I photographed and took away, some I left where I installed them. I put a tiny watercolour on the risers of the circular staircase, where they were nearly invisible. But not quite.



I dressed for the occasion and locale: early evening on 5th Avenue in ‘downtown’ Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where Playa locals hustle and hand out hundreds of small flyers every night: for restaurants, tours, etc. Visiting Playa as a tourist, I found the hustling and the flyers at times funny (Buanita blondie! Special price for you! Hey honeymooners [to me, Janice, and Michael all together]! Welcome K-Mart shoppers!) and at times invasive (Sexy! Come here, buy, buy, buy!). Annoying or funny, they have to do it, to make a living. The bus for locals in the countryside was a flatbed truck, no roof, no seats, wooden planks for sides, compared to our $50 US bus tour, which was a roomy, air-conditioned bus with seat belts, ‘personal comfort settings’, etc.

flower sketches cropped

All this was in my mind as I prepared my portfolio and myself for the performance to come. Anyone on 5th Avenue who wanted to give me a flyer or sell me something would receive a small watercolour and a smile. Started slow. Reactions:

– bleached blonde Mexican man, young 20s, looked at me with wide-open amorous eyes and kissed my hand

– a little girl of about three years accepted the painting and calmly put it in her mouth

– a nun collecting for missionary work seemed startled, but took the watercolour

– a man on the beach selling maracas asked what it was, and thanked me

– an aggressive man in front of a restaurant wouldn’t take it in his hand, as he was too intent on trying to physically pull me into the restaurant – I tucked the painting in his shirt pocket as Janice pulled him off my waist

– a child of about seven or eight took a painting from Janice solemnly and wordlessly after solemnly and wordlessly giving me a flyer

– a man of about twenty-five or thirty, selling hair braiding, asked what it was and then said thank-you, seeming pleased and surprised

– a man ran after me asking why was I giving him the painting, did I like him? I tried to explain the project – giving something to people who were working hard to sell things

– I gave a painting of a tiny fish to man selling blankets – he asked, ‘what is it?’ I answered, ‘a fish. He said, ‘thank-you.’

– We put a tiny fish on a display of food outside a restaurant called ‘100% Natural’ and a flower painting in the change slot of a red payphone


Most people accepted the paintings without registering surprise. Most said thank-you. No-one rejected the watercolours. Obviously I was offering the gift as a substitute for the normal system of exchange (see Mauss). The interactions were fleeting and based on my presence as a tourist, which shaped the way that merchants and vendors viewed and approached me. In almost every case where an attempt to sell was being made, my offering of a painted flower, fish, or butterfly temporarily halted the types of language used. Stopped the jovial beseeching and pressure to buy. Instead, people on the street said ‘thank-you’ or ‘that’s very nice.’ And I guess I did it to be nice, but more to do something that would reorient the moment, the relationship, to give something other than money, which I did not in fact have to give, but no doubt would have been preferred, and probably better in all practical senses.”

From my journal, March 1999.’

sketches cropped

Flowers for Flyers was a flawed project. One might say that I did the project to make myself feel better about the irreducible economic differences between me – a student, broke, but not so broke that I couldn’t afford a plane ticket – and the local people, who have little choice but to pressure tourists for small amounts of money that will make a big difference to their daily quality of life. This was my first experience visiting a developing country as a tourist, and like many others I was struck by the proximity of poverty, need, and generosity, openness of spirit, as I had been in Brazil. But as my primary point of contact was the street, and the economic basis for communication, the best means I had to engage was through the experiment of finding out what would happen if, instead of bringing out a wallet of money, I brought out a “portfolio” of tiny works of art to give away. But Flowers for Flyers was an important step in my developing approach as an artist, to take the place or site in which I found myself, and respond and react to its particular circumstances, and invite that space’s users into my experiment.