Weaving artists together into a creative society
“This place chose us,” said Nok when asked about the location of their project. “It all began with five of us who shared the same interests. We thought craftsmanship was very interesting and felt that it would be great to have a creative space where lots of people could exchange knowledge and share ideas. We could use it to promote the value of crafts by holding exhibitions and giving workshops on the hidden processes used to create them.”
Weave Artisan Society is a hub where artists, artisans and craft lovers can meet and is the brainchild of Julian Huang, who is a special lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture, Chiang Mai University, his partner, Nok-Sunadda Huang, who acts as manager, and their three designer friends.
“It was Julian who noticed that most local artist groups and workshops were not located in the city, and that tourists who come to Chiang Mai don’t usually have enough time to visit workshops in such disparate communities,” said Nok. “He wanted to bring artisans and visitors together in a community, allowing artisans to get to know each other, and tourists to get to know the artists and learn about crafting through handicrafts activities and workshops at Weave Artisan Society.”
Nok explained that the project’s name “weave” invokes the idea of weaving artists from different fields together into a strong and cohesive community that, rather like fabric is soft, is gentle in the way that it brings everyone together.
The pattern takes shape
“Weave Artisan Society is in the heart of the Wua Lai cultural community between Wat Nantaram, Wat Muen San and Wat Sri Suphan,” said Nok. “We looked at many places to start with, but each had its problems, so eventually we came back to look at this one again. Most people know Wua Lai Road as just a walking street, but it is really part of a silverware making community that displays handicraft production at a temple. It is also known for its rather good food,” Nok said.
“Originally this place was an ice factory for 45 years, but then it was abandoned,” said Julian, who has been involved in several Chiang Mai-based initiatives like Creative Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai Design Week and TEDx Chiang Mai. “Renovation took almost a year. We kept the original structure and things like the terrazzo floors, ice machine stands and so on, and then added new things to them.”
“The Wua Lai craft community is well known for its silverware, lacquerware and jewelry. Weave Artisan Society wants to connect stories from the past of places like this and bring them into the present. And then through creativity we can take them into the future. The histories of communities like Wua Lai represent the past. The present is the work we do in this building to help create the future of crafts in Chiang Mai,” he said.
“Weave Artisan Society’s core concept is ‘process driven design.’ We don’t pay so much attention to the end-product; we’re more interested in the process by which it is created. Each beautiful work of art requires a lot of thought and processes to make it. Making outsiders aware of how they are created will help them understand the value of crafting,” said Julian.
Nok said, “We want to make Weave Artisan Society a destination for travelers while serving as a platform for artists. We would love to have the opportunity to engage the community in our space. We’ve been operating for three years now, running workshops to bring people in to participate in our activities. We organized an event with Chiang Mai University to display silverware and lacquerware. Those who attended learned about this community and joined a workshop. We organized another event involving a walking path through Wua Lai community, following the alleys where the silverware, lacquerware, carvings and other items are made. However, during Covid-19, we had to quit these activities.”
Nok said that in their second year Covid-19 prevented Weave Artisan Society from realizing its initial goal to bring in artists to show their work and hold workshops. Everything had to be cancelled, leaving only a café with a takeaway service. As creatives, they turned to an alternative, which was to start developing and producing works with artists, but with the advantage of having a team of young and international designers as partners to work together with local artists. They focused on creating products combining the traditional with the modern for contemporary use, putting them on sale both on and offline.
“The arrival of Covid-19 forced a change in our business model,” said Julian. “Target customers were no longer tourists but local people from Chiang Mai. We extended our business from the existing café to a bar, gallery, restaurant and barbershop. We could do this thanks to our brand and the followers we already had in Chiang Mai.”
Weave Artisan Society now consists of Taste Atelier café, Green Smoked Restaurant, which serves soul food, and Yellow Pug Bar. Studio Gallery Design for Life is a gallery space and Weave Selected Store sells products that Weave Artisan Society designs and makes with artists. Hair House is a creative barber shop by Adam Chan from Hong Kong—reservations are required.
“Our presence was something quite new for the surrounding community, who were not used to seeing people coming and going all the time,” said Nok. “However, we listened to what they had to say and explained what we were doing, so now they feel more relaxed about what we do.”
Nok said their creative space is not a place for displaying the work born out of the ideas of a single person, but rather it is a place for many people to share ideas and create new things together.
“A creative space is a matter of mindset, of being open-minded and having the courage to think and experiment in new ways. Creativity requires being flexible and having the freedom to think outside the box. This why Weave Artisan Society gives complete freedom to artists who work with us. We support and encourage them to be their most creative,” said Julian.
Nok and Julian mentioned an exhibition called “Woven Forest” that was sponsored by the British Council Thailand as part of a cultural exchange between Thai and Scottish artists. Weavers from San Kamphaeng were invited to the event to show how they worked, which created great interactions between artists and inspired all who were involved.
Another event held in the form of a seminar and workshop was “The Living Room Project”, which was organized during Covid-19 to display works from Chiang Mai’s textile brands to reflect the changes involved when people had to stay home and turn their living spaces into workplaces.
“A craft is about much more than a piece of work. It is about culture and lifestyle. It is about the story behind the work. It is about life,” said Julian.
For Nok, a craft can be anything made by hand. “If we want a craft to have more value,” she said, “we must convey the meaning and identity each artist puts into their work.”