Artists Coming to Chiang Mai – Learn from Olivia’s experiences as an art teacher and fine art creator.

Olivia’s Background

I lived all over South Africa; my dad was in the safari side of hotels, we moved around a lot. I also went to school in Zimbabwe and lived in Botswana. I grew up in a lot of rural areas, in the bush with animals.  In Botswana we had elephants outside our house.  I grew up in nature and its kind of weird how much I love the city now. My roots are all in very rural areas.

I finished my primary and high school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  I went to University in Port Elizabeth.  The day after I handed in my thesis, I got on a plane, left, and never went back. This is going on my 8th year away.  I’ve been back to South Africa for short visits, twice.  I haven’t been back to my hometown at all. It’s so small, it was a great place to go to University but I just wanted more.

Early Art Memories

Growing up, I was always immersed in books and drawing. In South Africa we didn’t have TV all day, it was only broadcasted late in the afternoon and in the evening.  Before I even started school there was no TV to sit and entertain you all day.  We were lucky growing up in our generation (early 90s); we didn’t have cell phones and that type of technology.   My parents, my mom especially, grew up really loving art, she wanted that to reflect on me.  I even remember going to the dentist and getting a plaster of paris Disney mold, coming home and painting them.  I must have been about 5 at the time.  I remember having chalkboards at home, drawing on chalkboards and painting.  My mom was more than happy to buy me art supplies to keep me entertained. When I learned to read, I was always in the library getting books. I grew up reading The Magic Faraway Tree all fantasy books that is still my interest now, the fantasy genre. I think between playing, drawing and reading all the time at school, reading definitely helped grow my imagination.  Living in the bush, the rural parts of Botswana, traveling around South Africa to the mountains, Johannesburg and being around nature helped with that visual imagery.  I think that definitely helped grow and push my art into using my imagination, pulling visual thoughts from that inventory up there.

Support for a Young Artist
Growing as an Artist

I did art all the way through school; I was lucky that all my schools art was a subject that you had to take.   I was really lucky that I had good art teachers, I really enjoyed the subject; art and English were my favorite. I was terrible with math at school, failing math, and my mom was really concerned about my grades.  She eventually took me out of school at the end of 9th grade and sent me to an art college.  I skipped grade 10 and did my grade 11 and 12 at an art college. I studied just languages and art – drawing, painting, ceramics and jewelry design.  At the end of that, I applied for the University in my hometown, got in.  During my third year at the university I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore and applied to a film school.  I got into a film school in South Africa, my parents didn’t want me to go, they wanted me to stay and complete my degree.  It wasn’t the camera work and that type of thing I wanted to do, it was the character design and the animation side of it that I was interested in. 

I ended up staying and finished up my 4th year at the University; I did fine art and sculpture was my main major. I don’t regret staying, I think it was a good choice but when I left school, I stopped drawing for a very long time. At school, it came down to the fact that I just needed to pass because I’ve had enough of being told by professors who knew little of the world outside (South Africa), saying what you are doing is not considered this and not considered that.  This is fine art but that isn’t, this is painting but that isn’t.   Once I left and started traveling, going to Australia and England to actually look at galleries and international art is when I started to see that you don’t have to put into this box that they’ve put you in.  There are so many different ways to do art.  You don’t have to be super conceptual, you don’t have to be super technical, you have to do what works for you and find a gallery that likes your work.

A Return to Making Art

Before I came to Thailand, I was in Korea for 5 years.  Before that I was in Australia.  When I left my hometown, I started in Australia and I worked in a foundry, a bronze-casting foundry, which was may major at University.  After Australia I left for England for a bit and then I ended up in Korea to teach English.  I was supposed to stay for 2 years, stayed for 5.  I didn’t do a lot of art when I was in Korea. I became so comfortable with teaching English; I kind of got sucked into a void.  When my dad passed away was the first time I picked up a pencil and started drawing again.  The first thing I drew was a portrait of him.  I was so angry about so many things and I couldn’t talk to anyone so all I did was start drawing again.  That was a way for me to get back into it.

After Korea, I came to Chiang Mai for 2 months.  I did my CELTA for one month and then for a month I did a whole bunch of illustrations and drawings.  I really enjoyed that time because I was 100% focused on my work and myself.  I want to do that again for a longer period.

I came to Chiang Mai because my friend Connor told me about a school and that there was an available art teaching position.  I thought what better way to get back into it, by teaching my major.  I got the international high school art teacher job.  It’s been good for the fact that the students have taught me a lot of stuff.

Now, I’ m teaching art and sitting with High School students, encouraging them follow their dreams and goals, yet I’m not following that advice.  I’m just sitting in a classroom all day, which has left me very bored and frustrated with my job and myself.  I want to finish my teaching contract and go to Italy for 3 weeks.  I did this during my break before coming to Thailand to work.  Italy is the birthplace of the renaissance and baroque art; those are my two favorite periods.  Their art is everywhere from the street corners to the churches.  You are respected and admired as an artist there.  I feel in my own country, when I say that I studied art, they say why?  In Italy you say you study art and they ask do you know this artists or that artist, even a math major will know about their own artists. That’s incredible, so going back to Italy will be great. I feel that I will be able to get my back into my own way of thinking.  After Italy, I’ll go somewhere around Eastern Europe for a bit, take the time to work on my portfolio, collaborate with other artist. 

I have to try this; I don’t think I could live with myself 5-10 years from now if I don’t.  This is something that I have wanted to do for such a long time. Take the time and get back into the art world that I feel has left me behind.   

Styles
Art Scene in Chiang Mai

There are a lot of different genres here, a lot of music and visual art.  Every art industry, every expat industry has a click, how you are as a person and as well as what you create has to fit that click.  I feel that the people that come here are looking for a specific style.  As much as they are trying not to be mainstream they are very much mainstream in their own genre.  Everyone here is clap, clap, clap, participation award here you go for producing good music, well done for producing great poetry, well done for making this beautiful art piece but its kind of like everyone blowing smoke up each others ass.  One of my friends is a musician, she writes music and we went to a, well, I won’t name the place.  A group of us went to support her; they made us wait to the very end for her to perform, so that we wouldn’t leave.  In the beginning they were like so an so is opening for us lets all close our eyes and sway to his words and everyone gets high fives and claps at the end.  If you are coming from a town and this is something that has been established in your community than sure okay.  Too me, it felt very much like a cult.

Maybe I am too cynical and that’s not how I was trained at University, my lectures were mean.  I also feel like that’s the whole point, you develop that thick skin, you take that critique and you learn how to deal with it and adapt it.  Throwing paint on a canvas then throwing it up and putting a fat statement on it about how conceptually it is might have worked for Pollack.  That doesn’t work for me. I think that art should be visually stimulating as well as conceptual stimulating.  I don’t think putting up random crap and writing a statement about it covers what art is.  Everyone’s like art is everywhere, yes it is but its also very subjective and there should be a process that you follow.

Chiang Mai has an art scene, a very specific art scene and it’s not something that I am interested in. If you are giving work to a gallery or entering an art competition your work has to be specific for that genre or style they are looking for and Chiang Mai doesn’t offer that for me. 

Being an Artist in Chiang Mai

If its short term, for a month or two, coming here to block out the world and escape its fine.  If you are coming here for long term, I think you will get bored very quickly.  Its great going into the mountains and getting out of Chiang Mai but you can do that in many countries.  There has to be more than wandering around the old city or going to eat vegan food and going to the same place every Friday night to listen to poetry slams, doing high fives, closing your eyes and swaying. I feel as an artist that I am bored here; the sights are all the same.  I want to go to a gallery, see international galleries.  I don’t want to have to fly to Bangkok every few months.  In Korea, I could hop on the train and go to Seoul, where there is a new gallery exhibition from international artist all the time.  Living in England you can go to Rembrandt exhibition for free.  I don’t think Chiang Mai offers enough for artists.

It’s not a place you want to come and collaborate if you are not into the handholding, tree-hugging thing. If it’s a place where you want isolate yourself its perfect then.  If you are working online with different platforms, you are a freelancer and your clients are in other countries then yeah I can see because of the cost of living.  If you are coming here to build portfolios you might have trouble connecting with other artists.

Collaboration is important because you get it all up in your own head.  When collaborating you call out each other’s bullshit. It also a great way of networking, the whole art industry itself is about being at the right place in the right time and whom you know.  Collaboration is so important to get any where in art.

Wanting to leave Chiang Mai

I always knew that I was going to leave Chiang Mai after finishing my post graduate work but something within the last week really switched on in my head.  I am thoroughly bored with my job.  I think teaching art is great, teaching art to older students in university or adults maybe something I might look at in the future.   There needs to be a connection between who you are teaching and what you are teaching.  I only have that with a few students here.  It’s not their fault and maybe it’s my fault; I am too hard on them or too hard on myself. Recently there was definite click in my head that I really need to start looking after myself now.  Instead of making my family feel like everything’s okay – I have a roof over my head and income.  I get so jealous and envious of my friends from University who are doing what they want to be do, doing what they love.  Even if I went into a studio ever morning or worked for a company and did that art side of that.  Where I am doing something different everyday or I am getting to work on my own stuff.  Working on art everyday as opposed to trying to encourage other people who aren’t really interested in doing it.

Teaching Art at an International School

I found my 5 years in Korea teaching ESL was way more rewarding than what I have done here, teaching a subject that I am trained in.  I don’t know if it’s because I am putting too much of myself into it.  I felt ESL was more rewarding, those kids had to be in my class, they didn’t have a choice; my class here is an elective.  I had more feed back, more interaction from the Korean students than I do being an art teacher here. That really bothers me.  

I don’t know if it’s the personal side of it, teaching a subject you are trained in, maybe we are too passionate about it or know too much about it then trying to get the kids at a certain level, what we think they can do, there is too much involved in that.  In English, we get to take a step back, okay this is the structure, this is the steps to take in order to get to the end; achieve this grammatically correct sentence. With art, a lot of it is a technical skill and after that comes the concept, the two of them go hand in hand.  If the kids don’t have conceptual thinking or they don’t care about building technic, my teaching is not going to help. 

The Future, Dream Project

My dream would be to take a concept of mine and to make it into a graphic novel.  Illustrating the characters and the story.  I don’t have the skills or the style to be a graphic novelist.  I’m not under any delusions or illusions that I am a graphic novelist.  I would like to collaborate with someone that could convert my characters & story into a new realm, take them into an adult style animation or comic or film – with witty humor.  Working on a series would be something that I would love, getting out of the whole creating art to exhibit.  It’s not how I see myself as an artist. It would be a dream to work on the film side or novel side, that would be super cool, I would love that.

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