Robberies, heroin overdoses and Spain’s best beer. John Colley has experienced a lot while sketching his way along the little-known branches of the Camino (or Way) de Santiago
By Laura Vladimirova
THERE are several reasons to walk the Camino de Santiago; some walk looking for God, some for adventure, while others walk to experience the road and to meet pilgrims along the way. Then there is John Colley.
Not a religious man, the British-born artist set off on his first route to Santiago simply to see what happened. His journey had soon become a rediscovery of Spain’s alternative routes to Santiago and evolved into a project that allowed his art to flourish.
So far he has sketched, sand-sculpted, and photographed half his way around Spain and in the process raised 30,000 euros for various children’s charities by following the forgotten routes of long ago.
John has so far raised 30,000 euros for children’s charities
The network of different routes to Santiago is extensive. It arrives from all parts of France, Italy, and Spain. Routes start in different points and merge together in others, similar to small streams and brooks flowing into each other to form river systems. The most famous is the Camino Francés, which starts from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.
John Colley, however, wasn’t interested in the route well travelled, he wanted his journey to be through the heart of Spain’s smaller pueblos, the villages that still breathe the air of history on the route to St. James.
“I am a city boy,” he says. “But the small villages and seeing people weaving baskets, fishing, and growing their own food, brought back memories of my childhood in the country.” At a young age, John’s newspaper editor father and art teacher mother swapped their stable jobs for a self sufficient life in the country. “I grew up on a small dairy farm and it seems my interests have come full circle,” he says.
As an adult, John perhaps inevitably rebelled against his parents’ way. He had a thriving 20-year stint in advertising and brand design and became successful as a photographer, displaying his art in galleries in New York City, London, and Berlin.
“I was inspired to walk to Santiago after reading Tim Moore’s Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago. Mainly though, I realised that I no longer wanted to be the man who sold 20 cent soap for two euros. The idea of opting out of modern life and living on a very tight budget really started to appeal.”
Though he is well-travelled, John was drawn to the idea of living and travelling simply.
He explained: “Since beginning the journey I’ve been trying to follow the old pilgrim routes to Santiago, the truest possible path that a pilgrim would have walked a thousand years ago. That is why I travel entirely on foot and make money solely through art I produce and sell as I go. I’ve turned off the television and now I am enjoying the world and its people.”
Not a devout person, a different kind of appreciation came from the route of Santiago. “I’ve realized we need to preserve the alternative routes and the people living along them. We need to respect the pueblos and not just do things the easy, city way. We need to preserve the artisan skills practiced. This is a way of life that is slowly being lost and we may need it again.”
Along his journey, John has found support in some amazing places. Corporate sponsorship now donates 10,000 euros to a children’s charity of John’s choice every time he reaches Santiago. So far he has made the journey twice from different starting points and hopes to go on for at least another 18 months.
He has also met a lot of people who are interested in his art. John creates large sketches of central plazas in every town he visits. He usually sells them for 30-60 euros. Many people have asked to purchase them and have commissioned him to sketch specific places. “One of the best things about walking, travelling slowly and sketching in the street, is that you meet so many people.” says John
“Everyone wants you to visit their favourite place and sketch or paint, so I get told about villages and local tourist attractions that aren’t promoted in tourist information offices.”
Sitting in Granada’s Plaza Nuevo, John was waiting for a meeting with a client. “Complete strangers have invited me for a fiesta, a meal, and a bed. That part is always interesting.”
The money he collects for his art goes to his bare necessities, food, drink, and shoes. The rest of the money, he gives to charity. “The charity work is just a cover-up,” John says laughing. “It allows me to work as an artist on holiday.”
The charity work is a cover up. It lets me work as an artist on holiday
The amount of money he has raised and the interest he has garnered for Santiago’s alternative routes has paid off. Besides the charities he has helped, he has been featured on the front page of several Spanish newspapers and has gathered a steady readership on his travel blog.
Like anyone he has good and bad days. “I’ve seen a lot of grim and difficult things. One evening in Barcelona, I was sat in a small plaza watching a heroin addict get high. Later, a van drove up to collect the body. There was another incident where my few personal belongings were stolen.”
But the good times more than made up for it. “I’ve walked for up to 600km before seeing another person. I’ve been in complete solitude in the wilderness. But despite the rare glimpses of sadness, I have seen the beauty in this world. I have also made some great friends. This is a journey that continues to change.”
In particular he has really taken to fishing. “I highly recommend it,” he says, also citing the best beer he has ‘ever tried’ in a small bar in the village of Navarette in the heart of Rioja. “It’s sort of a pilsner meets a late summer red ale. Also, I saw the perfect river in which to learn all about fly fishing. I befriended a couple of local lads and watched them before trying myself. Huge trout, huge!”
Living simply and reconnecting with history has opened the world up for John.
I’m going to remain in the mountains for 12 months
He’s already thinking about his next project, an attempt to live in Northern Spain’s Ancares National Park with no cash for one year. “I’m going to remain in the mountains for 12 months. I’ll be photographing and blogging about it. I’ll be growing, gathering, fishing, preserving, and building.”
But, there is however, a slight concession to 21st Century technology: photography and his website from which he will barter anything he needs. Indeed, he will offer ceramic art, sketches, paintings, foodstuffs – chutneys and other preserves – for, say a fishing rod.
For John, travelling the alternative caminos on the Way of St. James has shaped a different spirituality than the one usually associated with the pilgrimage. He has rediscovered his childhood on the farm and found a simpler, slower way of life that might have been forgotten by city living.
To contact John, visit his blog at http://www.thelostphotographer.blogspot.com
Laura Vladimirova can be contacted at [email protected]