Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New art classes for 2015.

After a year of wandering around Vietnam and letting all the whispers of Hoi An, the shadows of Hanoi and the hearts of Sapa wash over and through me, I am back in this city I love so much. I love its energy, I laugh at its relentless noise and it laughs at me as a totter around on my electric bike looking for adventure! We are well suited I think.

I am based in Thao Dien and am busy trying to publish two new books  about Sapa and Saigon. The artwork for Sapa is almost finished and I have started to write down my thoughts and experiences to tell the story of my four months in the mountains.

The artwork for the Saigon book is also, nearly finished but it has been in that state for over a year now!!!  The problem is that the city keeps shape shifting. They are building an underground train network and roads have now started to disappear, buildings too and now, there is a massive, landmark statue on the move. It makes a writers job very difficult! Ha ha! 

I am happy to be giving art lessons again and I am taking on some new challenges for 2015. the first is a series of lessons about portraits. We will be experiencing that journey in Watercolour but the lessons apply to oils and acrylics just the same.

Well, nearly the same. Oils are far more obedient than watercolours. Watercolour is a a greater intellectual challenge; it simply isn't forgiving and you have to learn to 'let go' in the Buddhist way.

The Watercolour Portrait Classes run every Tuesday afternoon 2-4 at Vin Space art studios and in each lesson we will tackle a new portrait and a new style until the last two when you will work on your own subjects. details will appear on the web site soon.

The Short Drawing Course will run in Phu My Hung, Ditrict 7 from 22nd January for 8 weeks, taking a 2 week break for Tet. I am still looking for somewhere to deliver these classes so bear with me. This has always been a popular course and has successfully helped lots of students to draw even when they had believed, for many years, they had no ability. 

I believe if you can write, you can draw

The Basic Watercolour Course will run in An Phu, District 2 from January 21st - every Wednesday morning 9.30- 11.30 am. There will be a 2 week break for Tet. The price of this course includes all you materials so it is very good value.

Adult Painting classes 
which have been running in District 2 for a number of years, are being extended to Phu My hung which is good news. I don't know when these will start because we haven't found the ideal premises yet. Again, if you know of anywhere, let me know.

Drop me an email for prices, the curricula and more details. I will be delighted to hear from you.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014


My goodness it has been weeks since I last posted so I had better give you a whistle stop tour through the past four or five weeks.

On Saturday 10th May, to mark the end of my 7 months in Hoi An, I had an exhibition of my work at Ami Galerie in the beautiful old quarter of the town. The gallery is at 46 Nguyen Thai Hoc, in a listed building that will have, originally, been a merchant's home or a 'shop house'. It is a beautiful structure constructed of wooden pillars and beams. It floods to a depth of about a metre every year during the wet season so there are hatches in the ground floor ceiling to make it quick and easy to lift everything up to the first floor for dry storage.

I had lots of helpers on the morning of the exhibition to get everything framed, labelled and hung. Here are Pandy and Susan doing the framing. 

Here is Tuan (too-an), the artist from the space next door who is helping My (mee) with the technical complexities of our French-styled framing system.   On the right you can see My talking to Mikayla and Asia who are labelling all the pictures.

It was a veritable hive of activity and everyone joined in so enthusiastically. Unfortunately, Pandy had to fly back to England that afternoon so she missed the opening party that evening. 

The launch party was great! About 60 people came along and I sold 7 pieces of work. Considering how small Hoi An is and how few tourists there in town (because of the Chinese drilling rig dramas), I think it's not bad. The press and a TV crew turned up and I appeared on Saigon TV the next evening! 

Hoa serves her delicious drinks and cakes

Two children play in the doorway after their art class

Over the next two weeks, very few people came through the doors of the exhibition and no further work was sold but I got to know the local children and enjoyed the quiet streets of Hoi An.

This is the view from Ami Galerie through to the old courtyard that is used by Tuan to display some of his paintings. On Saturdays, he give free art classes to local children, in the space upstairs. 

Next ................

I cleared out the lovely little house we had been living in, stored my boxes and cases and flew down to Saigon to make some progress with my next book with my lovely Graphic Designer, Ani Petrova. Whenever I see her she always gives me more work to do that I ever I've her!  How does that work?!!  I left with a list of jobs to do while she is in France this summer. Ha ha!  The drawings are almost complete so now i must write the stories that will make the next book come alive.

Whilst there, I received a phone call from Heritage magazine (the inflight glossy for Vietnam Airlines) asking me to write an article about Hoi An and send some examples of the paintings I did there. Fantastic! I only have 4 days to do the writing but I sent it off on time and hoped it would be ok.  Two weeks later, I heard that they loved the story (printed in English and Vietnamese) and had chosen a detail from one of my paintings for the front cover!!! 

This is the second time they have featured my work and it brings such a lot of enquiries for me. Thank you Heritage!

Back in Hoi An, I dismantled the exhibition, was paid for the work I sold and prepared to move to Sapa for four months to be the artist in residence for Sapa Rooms boutique hotel in the land of clouds and mountains.

A few months ago I met a fascinating novelist from Scotland - one A.D.Scott. After only three meetings, Deborah (her real name), introduced the idea that it may be interesting for me to go to Sapa for an extended stay and told me about her friend Pete who owns a hotel up there.  

Pete, an Australian who studied Japanese, Buddhism and Anthropology at a Japanese university, opened his first business, a small hotel in Sapa, after discovering a derelict building with a wonderful view near Sapa market.  He invited a Vietnamese artist to be his business partner and together they make amazing art, delicious food, connections with Sapa communities, and differences in the lives of children in the mountains. 

It is an inspiring business model that is truly based on that Utopian ideal that 'if you do the things you are passionate about, a successful business will emerge'. So, I went up to Hanoi to meet Pete and to listen to his stories. 

I discovered that he has always wanted to write a cookbook based on the recipes used in his businesses, that no-one has published a good pocket guide of Sapa, that they need some sort of sustainable income to pay for every day running costs at the school the sponsors.

So, in a moment of pure clarity, and with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, I volunteered to make some of those wishes come true. Pete puts a roof over my head ( and a goose down duvet) and good food to eat (prepared by his chefs) and all I have to do is draw, paint, talk, write and wander around discovering things........... sorry, what I really meant to say is, produce the drawings to illustrate his cook book and design and illustrate the pocket guide.  

These two items will be sold to fund his education projects. I am also going to work with the ethnic minority children to produce some artwork (hopefully) that will be turned into good things for the tourists to buy. Then, I am going to design some upmarket products for the women to make that can also be sold to fund young futures. 

We are calling these projects 'Art for Communities' and 'Are for Education'. I am so honoured to be involved in this work and proud to be associated with this exhilarating business that touches so many lives in different ways

Also................ my dear friend Jennie came all the way from Leeds (with her mate Mandy) to find out what the heck is keeping me away from home all these months ( 20 now!!! ........ that's  about 632 days ..... oh my word).   

We had a blast in Saigon then they went to Siem Reap while I went up to Hoi An where we met once more. Then I flew up to Hanoi where I met then two days later. We 'did' the town and saw some amazing countryside. Mandy flew home and then I brought Jennie up to Sapa for her final week accompanied by Mr. Sapa Rooms himself, Pete Wilkes. 

With Jennie by my side and with the aid of a Red Dao (red zow) guide we discovered the beautiful valleys, stepped with rice paddies and topped with rain forest, that runs south west from Fansipan mountain (Vietnam and Indochina's highest peak at 3,143 mfrs). Cloud swirls around these peaks and changes the weather from moment to moment. Sometimes you can see the glory of the whole valley and sometimes you can hardly see across the street! Often it rains and sometimes you are praying for a cooling breeze. At the moment the temperature is about 70-80 degrees every day even when it rains.

Jennie also brought a wealth of experience and practical ideas to help with Pete's educational ambitions for the local people. Her college is interested in forming partnerships in SE Asia and maybe she has met some of the kinds of people who can help to make that happen. The potential is overwhelming! 

So, forgive my absence - I have been distracted by some exciting projects!  

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The beach studio

The people, opportunities, sights, sounds, conversations, stories and philosophies that I encounter each week, in Vietnam, never cease to fill me with joy, surprise me, cause me to think, stop, commence, dare, smile, give help, share, experiment and 'live in the moment' as I had hardly ever done before. 

Recently, I was offered the use of an old fisherman's cottage beside the beach in An Bang, a fishing village outside Hoi An.  The house is approached by a narrow lane lined with painted gateposts of periwinkle blue, eau-de-nile, yellow ochre, cerulean. Chickens run between the bushes in shaded gardens and neighbours sit under cool porches. Children shout 'hello' as I pass by. Two little girls in sunshine dresses are  gate.
The beach studio
the house itself may not be very old. it is difficult to tell by the style or the condition just how long the house has been there. Some of the details look like Art Deco mixed with a bit of 1960's kitsch but it may only be 20 years old. The humid climate quickly takes it toll on concrete buildings so even relatively new constructions gather the characteristic black mould that makes them look prematurely ancient.
The work space

The space inside is spartan. Deborah, who has lent me this space for a few weeks has upgraded the interior so there are fans, power sockets, a clean, even floor and brightly painted white walls that suck in the light from the garden.

Four sets of double doors open into the lovely garden with Coconut palms, avocado, hibiscus, bougainvillea, papaya and frangipani. 

This is a paradise conjured in a dream in a time long ago.

After weeks of discontent, I am much more settled and have been very productive for the past three weeks. Work on the Saigon book is progressing better and I have spontaneously produced some uncharacteristic paintings which, although not 'great' are filled with the spirit of this new found freedom.

This place is from another time. There is no WiFi, no hot water, no unnecessary decorations of any kind. The pictures are my work. There is a table, some wooden chairs, an old wicker chair and footstool and a bamboo day bed (that I use to keep my paper stock off the floor). 

A neighbour's kitchen. It looks like it's washing day.

All the village houses have these fat terracotta jars in the garden. Mainly they store rainwater or well water.

This one, in Deborah's garden' is decorative and is just here to keep the hibiscus company!

The view from behind the cottage shows the two louvred doors that open out from the studio onto the garden. Just our of shot on the left is the shower room with toilet. The owner's wife, Hue, does all her laundry in this room and often I arrive to find the garden draped with sheets and towels.

there are two frangipani trees coming into leaf and blossom very soon. The local tradition is to strip these plants of all their leaves before the lunar new year (February this year). I am not sure why.

Gladioli I think - or a close cousin.

Hue ( pronounced Hoo-way) makes lunch for me if I ask her. This is lunch Hue style. From top right - braised pork ribs, my eating bowl with a little white fish that was caught on the beach only 100 metres away that morning, A broth with carrot and cabbage and the little white fish, local rice (of course), some spicy chunks of a sturdy white fish like shark, a bowl of lettuce and herbs from my garden, a bowl of Vietnamese dip (fish sauce, chili,  lime juice, garlic. spring onion and salt. Lunch arrives on a large round tin tray covered with a plastic dome like an over-sized colander.


I use the studio for drawing lessons each week. Here is Fran experiencing her first ever drawing lesson which will be a huge success thanks to Dr. Betty Edwards and Picasso of course!

Here is Fran again - practicing her 'sighting'. This pic is taken through one of the pierced screens that allows air to move between the rooms in the cottage.

I decorated the door with a hanging of bamboo and watercolour sketches one day last week.  The bamboo sticks tapped the door all afternoon in the breeze that comes over the dunes from the ocean.

Isn't the door a gorgeous shade of blue! 

I will be leaving Hoi An in seven short weeks so I need to make the most of this wonderful gift while I have it. I will have an exhibition of my work in this space before I leave and move up to Sapa.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Love it or lose it

Central Phnom Phen

 In this part of the world, you don't have to look very hard to find evidence of the part played by France in Vietnam's history.  Many of the key buildings of state were erected by the French.

But, it wasn't until my visit to Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, that I became aware that there is some concern about the possible loss of the architectural heritage left by the French in South East Asia.  

That weekend I read, in the Phnom Penh Times, that there are two points of view when it comes to the older buildings there. One side values the history, culture and architectural beauty; the other values the real estate and the possible financial gain from redevelopment of the large city centre sites occupied by these 'grand old ladies' of architecture.

Decaying French architecture 

Of course, Saigon simply wouldn't have the same charm without the old Post Office, the Opera House, the old L'Hotel de Ville that is now home to the People's Committee.  Apart from the glory of their elegance that is evocative of another age, each one of these buildings has a fascinating story to tell.
The former Hotel de Ville - Saigon

L'Opera -Saigon

But there is a less conspicuous legacy of little merchants' shop houses that give the streets of Saigon their unique character. The oldest of these modest buildings are now 150.  

Some have been loved and maintained but many are suffering the ravages of time and crumbling or disappearing behind giant hoardings and modern concrete 'embellishments' and extensions. 

Central Post Office - Saigon

The three storey shop houses adjacent to Ben Thanh market (below)are an example of this kind of treatment. If the advertising companies, sign makers and property owners are allowed to continue defacing, disguising and disfiguring Saigon's architectural heritage, these buildings will be lost and the character of this iconic area will be changed forever.

As humans, we collect the memories and souvenirs of all the people and events that have influenced or changed our lives. It is the nature of people to want to hold on to some aspects of the past - it can give us a sense of belonging and it confirms out identities. 

For this reason, many people are unsettled by too much loss and change. Our favourite cities are just like people, they are a collection of souvenirs that represent all the different cultures, religions, political regimes, nationalities and trends all leave their traces behind as they pass through. These traces remind us who we are.

Many townscapes in the west have suffered at the hands of careless town planners who erased neighbourhoods and demolished old buildings in their town centres to make way for modern, concrete shopping malls and car parks. The wounds left behind have, still, not healed. People can feel demoralised and lose their sense of place. Sometime 'we just don't know what we have lost until it is gone'. 

But cities that have cherished their unique tapestry of architectural styles through the ages are warm, vibrant, welcoming and interesting to all.  Those who have filled their towns with concrete are regretting the loss of history now. 

Former shop houses in Singapore's city centre

In Singapore, properties like the old merchant houses that line the broad avenues of Saigon, are being renovated and turned into comfortable homes by young professionals. Maybe it will be a while before the young Vietnamese develop a taste for this style of living.  In the mean time, it is everyone's duty to preserve this cultural and architectural heritage so it can be enjoyed by the next generations.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The song of Vietnam

It has been a very noisy two weeks here in Hoi An.

Starting on January 23rd we had the Lunar New year festival, locally known as Tet which starts quietly with families burning ceremonial paper clothing, money, shoes and   poems in pots on the street outside their homes. In this ceremony they are sending the kitchen god up to the heavens to report on the behaviour and activities within the home over the past year. 

Our landlady (whom we call Auntie) came to the house with her brother and one of his daughters and the youngest son.

They brought with them a feast of whole boiled chicken, spring rolls, rice and cold meats. There were five fruits, flowers and new joss sticks for the altars in the garden, in the kitchen and upstairs in the studio.  They burned ceremonial paper goods in the lane outside the house and the kitchen good was sent off to speak with the Jade Emperor for a week.  The kitchen god  likes to ride on a red carp and some people throw fish into the rivers to send the kitchen god on his way.

  • The release of the strong-swimming carp into local ponds, rivers and lakes, is believed to transport the Kitchen God to heaven. After delivering the God, the carp transforms into a dragon.
  • It is said that the God will then report to the Jade Emperor on the life of homeowners and pray for luck, happiness and prosperity for all members of the house in the coming year.
  • The Kitchen God returns to Earth on New Year’s Eve (February 9 this year) and resume his duties as the caretaker of Vietnamese kitchens.

Throughout all this, the Vietnamese, who love to sing, hold Karaoke parties in their homes and at local cafes.  they don't care how loud or how badly they sing; they just sing their hearts out. The older generation remember a time when public singing and public music was not allowed so now they make the most of the freedom to sing and celebrate. 

Tet lasts about a week ( or so) and on the last night they really let rip! A party at end of our lane was so loud that the windows rattled in the studio and the water in my pot rippled! At 9.15 everything stops like nothing ever happened. That is the one great thing about this country - everything stops before 9.30 and the streets go quiet.  

Huge lanterns blowing the evening breeze

This week, 14 days after the New Moon, we had Full Moon night in Hoi An. I have never seen the streets so busy. We had to fight our way through the crowds to get from one end of Tran Phu to the other. On these nights there are no electric lights allowed in the streets apart from the lanterns. The waterfront was completely dark apart form the odd candle-lit table in a cafe and oil lamps on the boats. it was magical.

Table altar outside the bookshop

A gallery owner tends his altar on the street outside his shop and makes offerings.

Lantern lit riverscape
Music filled the streets and the young people and families promenade in the crowded streets to see the sights. We listened to classical guitar on one of the boats moored along Bach Dang waterfront and ate near the Japanese bridge where we watched town elders playing Chinese chess dressed in traditional silk pyjama suits.

Two days later and its time for a feast at the local temple. we arrived to see tables laid out with fried spring rolls, fatty roast pork, boiled pork and blood cakes, salad and white garlicky sausage. Larue beer flowed freely and the old men went from table to table shaking hands and topping up everyone's glasses.

Everyone in the neighbourhood gathered, took a seat and enjoyed the feast. more food was brought in waves - now baguettes, now bean sprouts, more salad and bowls and bowls of pork broth. Everyone is laughing and drinking.The old men offer cigarettes around the table.

Mot Hai Ba Yo!

Mr. Hung had been on the sauce since breakfast I reckon. With his larger than life personality he missed his calling in Chinese opera!

The lady below is 84 and has a beautiful set of painted black teeth but she was reluctant to give me a smile.  

This guy arrived at out table to show off his skills by making a bird and a grasshopper out of palm leaves. We gave them to as little boy and girl.

A woman with a beautiful voice stood up to since a traditional song without any accompaniment. Everyone was quiet for a little while.  Then the men started to sing and a boy band was formed. Finally all the singers sang a popular song and the entire party clapped along in rhythm.
Here is Phuong and her lovely husband (below). 

Their family is in the middle of a funeral. An uncle died suddenly and the funeral ceremonies last for seven days.

 The lonely wail of a single stringed  'violin' has been winding its way around our little streets for two days, occasionally interspersed with the slow drum and gong rhythm that seems to signify a vigil. 
This morning at 4.30am, the saddest song founds its way into my room; an unusually melodic song of a male choir that really chilled me. I couldn't sleep again.  

Here is Phuong with Robert and Bill. 

And.... Robert with another lovely local.

I don't think I have ever attended such a jolly party in my life. These lovely people laugh and sing with abandon. I danced with one of the girls and came close to taking the mic to sing them a traditional song from the UK. That must have been the beer!  A good time was had by all and the party continued long after we left. 

Back home, the drunken singing from compete parties is drowning out the ever-present funerary dirges which will last for another two days I believe.