You can't miss it. Whether you're driving east or west along the north coast road in Bali between Singaraja and Kubu, the Art Zoo sign will catch your eye.
The Art Zoo is more than a gallery: it's an experience full of art, colour, and whimsy. Note the button, which is a recurring motif in the work of expatriate American artist Symon, whose brainchild the Art Zoo is. The artist also lives onsite.
I wasn't merely passing by, though. Having followed Symon's work from afar after seeing an exhibition of it in Bangkok around the turn of the millennium, I made a point of seeking out the Art Zoo. Symon still maintains a studio and gallery in Ubud, where he first made his name, but I was more keen to see his north Bali compound. It was with a mounting sense of anticipation that I climbed the steps through the gate.
This initial zone, as the sign says, is the sculpture garden. The star exhibit is Symon's button-adorned take on the the Reclining Buddha, an emblematic image in mainland Southeast Asia.
Directly behind the sculpture you can see the main buildings of the compound. The wooden building contains one of the calmer galleries.
In other gallery spaces around the compound, paintings are haphazardly stacked against the walls, sometimes several layers deep.
The adjoining temple-like building is connected by a boardwalk to the upper level of the wooden house, or you can approach it from the front.
The keyhole apertures and the blue boy sculpture give the Sino-Balinese architecture a sense of fun. If you do use the boardwalk, you're rewarded by a glorious seaview.
While my friends and I were were admiring the view, we could hear the murmur of voices and the clinking of utensils against crockery below. Right on cue, a young man appeared to guide us into the airy ground floor hall. Sure enough, Symon himself was just finishing lunch with a friend. I gushed a bit, and Symon consented to pose for a photo with one of my travel companions and me.
Symon's friend, who graciously snapped this photo, turned out to be Philip Cornwel-Smith, author of Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, which in my opinion is one of the best books about Thailand in print.
Cornwel-Smith is also the author of a monograph on Symon, Property of the Artist, of which limited edition copies are for sale at the Art Zoo.
For those not familiar with Symon's work, I can't do better than to quote from the book's back cover: "Symon's art forms a unique lifestyle, fusing East with West and realism with whimsy in the constantly reinvented playgrounds of his studios. Openness to the unexpected is the key to his creations, from inmate portraits and mythic Movie Paintings to Tablescapes and his trademark buttons."
I purchased a copy of the book, which the author signed for me.
I also purchased two of Symon's works on rice paper, but more on that later.
The young man then took us to see some of Symon's then-current work in progress (I visited in May, 2015). There were two giant canvases in the studio.
Property of the Artist explains that Symon works in the atelier manner, meaning that he employs apprentices and assistants to help create the work. Presumably, with large pieces like these, Symon determines the composition and fills in the details, while the assistants do the grunt work.
Such big pieces are beyond my ability to hang or store, so I asked about smaller pieces. The young man took us to the silk screen studio, where Symon's oil works are transferred to rice paper. The resulting pieces are very light and transportable, and of course cheaper than the oil works. I purchased two. It was at this moment that the only sour note of the afternoon crept in. An entry fee of 50,000 rupiah is charged to visit the Art Zoo, payable when you leave, but a sign out front says that the fee will be deducted from the price of any artwork you buy. The young man insisted that such was not the case, and wanted to collect the fee on top of the full price of my two rice paper works. My friends and I were already late for our next hotel check-in, so I didn't make a fuss. If you have a similar experience, though, I guess the best solution is to appeal to a higher authority, i.e. Symon. At the very least, the aforementioned sign needs changing if the policy has changed, or if any exclusions to the stated policy exist.
Nonetheless, I do recommend visiting the Art Zoo. You can find it on the northern coastal road about 40 minutes east of Singaraja. You can also check out Symon's work on his website: http://www.symonstudios.com. He also has a lively Facebook page.