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Salvation through Street Art: a conversation with Judith de Leeuw
Photo provided by Judith

Photo provided by Judith

Two years ago, Dutch artist Judith de Leeuw spotted a street corner in Amsterdam that captured her attention. The location was perfect. It was the wall of Boulangerie Le Mortier, at the corner of Vijzelgracht and Fokke Simonszstraat, right in Amsterdam’s Central district. She created a solemn portrait of a Amy Winehouse.

The wall was covered in ugly graffiti, and the owner of the building was more than happy for Judith to paint over it with a new creation. This wall was the perfect opportunity to express herself in a public space, right in the center of the city she loves.

This new creation changed her life.

Over beers at a little cafe in central Amsterdam, we spoke with Judith about the inspiration for this mural, how it transformed her career, and why she thinks art saved her life.

Photo provided by Judith

Photo provided by Judith

When did start making art?

I’ve been drawing portraits since I was four years old. I still have a portrait I drew of my father when I was five years old. As I got older, I started doodling in class. I’d always get poor scores on my Biology tests because the teacher didn’t like my drawings. To be honest, no one really liked my drawings back then.

How did you start doing graffiti?

Around 13 years old I became a pretty big problem child. I was smoking too much weed and at one point I just stopped going to school. I became more and more rebellious until I found graffiti. I found a paint shop around the corner called HENXS, which I still visit every week. I was so nervous at first, because I thought graffiti was something associated with criminals and aggressive behavior. I was so nervous when I walked in that my hands were shaking. In the end I chose a color that doesn’t work well at all. I chose pink and painted arrows everywhere. That was terrible and pretty shameful but oh well, you’ve got to start somewhere!

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I then found a group of friends through graffiti. All we did together was drawing, painting, and graffiti. When I look back on it, I think it saved my life. If I didn’t find graffiti I think I would have done something else that would have taken me down a bad path.

How did you go from painting arrows to creating amazing pieces all over the world?

I started studying art education and began to combine my love of portraits and graffiti. For the first time I tried making portraits with spray cans. At first it was really bad. When people see my work now they say, “how do you do that?” but they don’t know that it’s taken years of practice to get here. The past few years, I’ve been using spray cans pretty much every day and every night.

Then I did the Amy Winehouse painting. At that point in my life, I was just doing it for myself. At that time, I was just a very shy start-up. Then that portrait changed everything. It was the biggest moment of my life to have people appreciate my art for the first time.

What was the inspiration for it?

I watched the documentary on Amy Winehouse, and was listening to her music a lot. Even though she had died a few years prior, she kept coming up again and again in conversations I had. I realized that most pictures of her were when she was smiling, before she got addicted to drugs. I wanted to leave a portrait of Amy as she really was. But it was also to express my own state of mind. It was a number of things that all came together at this one focal point. It’s the first true creation from my heart and soul.

It’s crazy because I didn’t expect anyone to like it. When I finished it I thought I had messed it up, so didn’t even take a picture of it! The piece becoming famous is really weird, because I was just making something for myself.

Photo provided by Judith

Photo provided by Judith

What’s the latest project your excited about?

Last week I had the opportunity to do a mural at Rotterdam’s Central Station. It’s really insane! I had been dreaming about doing a huge building in such a prized location. It’s weird when you dream of something for years and years and then are standing there and doing it in reality!

What’s the street art scene like in Amsterdam?

It’s pretty complicated. It’s difficult to get a wall in Amsterdam for a piece, because all of the houses are protected monuments. Mostly you have to do stuff semi-illegally, or wait years until you can get a wall in Amsterdam. As for now, Rotterdam is a much easier place to create a public art piece. When I think of street art and innovation I think of Amsterdam as the rich whining person and Rotterdam as the young playful one, throwing candy everywhere. But my best friends are here in Amsterdam, my colleagues, my best friends. A lot of my colleagues are older but I can instantly talk to them and there has never been a problem of them accepting me. I get along with them really well. That’s how you know when you belong somewhere I guess. If it wasn’t for people helping me along the way, I’m not sure it would have happened.

What are your dreams for the future?

I accomplished one of my dream one week ago at the Rotterdam Central Station!. It would be amazing to paint something in the center of Amsterdam. I mean a really big mural. I want it to be in the center. I really want that. Maybe I should do it, just like I did with the Amy Winehouse portrait.

Keep an eye out for Judith and her stunning portraits. She has a number of international plans on the agenda, so who knows - she just may be in your city! You can find her work on her site here: www.jdlstreetart.com and on Instagram.


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Will Phu Quoc become an Island for Art?
Sunset at The River Mouth (Dormstay Riverside Hostel), Phu Quoc

Sunset at The River Mouth (Dormstay Riverside Hostel), Phu Quoc

Will Phu Quoc, Vietnam become an island dedicated to contemporary art? Peter, owner of The River Mouth and The Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art (GOCA) certainly hopes so. 

Lying on a hammock by the river, Peter tells us about his dream. He imagines that the hostel we’re sitting at will offer artist retreats and that his gallery and bar will promote both local and international talent. The ultimate vision is for others on the island to follow suit and start their own artistic spaces, making Phu Quoc a true art destination. 

Community dinners hosted at The River Mouth, Phu Quoc

Community dinners hosted at The River Mouth, Phu Quoc

He’s not far from this vision of building a creative community.

Today, a visit to The River Mouth usually includes a community dinner below twinkle lights, prepared by an amazing chef and drinks expertly crafted by Hiep (who also helps with the gallery and bar). Both Peter and Hiep are passionate about what they hope to build. The Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art already attracts visitors from across the world. While we were in town, the gallery featured an impressive range of modern sculpture, mixed-media photography and paintings. Even the design of the space itself was a delight!

Unfortunately, there is an alternate path for the future of Phu Quoc. As tourism is picking up across the island, trash has become a serious issue. While some beaches are far enough off the beaten path to remain (relatively) clean, most are not so lucky. Massive resorts and hotels are lining the beachfront and dumping waste straight into the ocean. Tourism overall is on the rise, but return visits are low - something that would be necessary to compare with the likes of Naoshima Island in Japan.

We're not completely pessimistic though. After spending a few days with both Hiep and Peter, we felt inspired by their commitment to making Phu Quoc a destination for the arts. Only a quick 30 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Phu Quoc is well positioned to become an international cultural hub, artist haven, and art tourism destination. The question remains: can artists save a place from human filth? We sure hope so!

To stay at The River Mouth Phu Quoc (currently under renovation, but back soon)

To visit the Phu Quoc Gallery of Contemporary Art (don't miss out, have an expertly crafted cocktail while you're there)

Starfish Beach, Phu Quoc

Starfish Beach, Phu Quoc


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Kiwi Hops: a Conversation with Brewer, Jess Wolfgang

After a beautiful hike on the Rocky Mountain track near Wanaka, we had one thing on our mind: a refreshing beer.

On our way back to town, we stumbled upon Rhyme and Reason Brewery. Started by Jessica Wolfgang and Simon Ross just seven months ago in a warehouse space on 17 Gordon Road, they are already producing some of the country’s best beer. We couldn’t believe both the quality and quantity of beer they’ve been produced in such a short time. We were delighted to come back later in the week to share a beer and chat with Jess, Head Brewer and Co-Founder.

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What got you into the brewing industry?

I love beer! I’ve always loved beer. Unfortunately my dad never had any good beer in the fridge, so I didn’t find any good beer until I went traveling. I never thought about brewing as being a job, didn’t even think of it as an industry I could be a part of. But I’ve been in hospitality for over 15 years. When I came back from traveling overseas I thought I’d go and learn how to make wine because there was a pretty famous local wine region near where I was living in Newcastle. I drove around and went to a lot of amazing wineries and also drove past a little wee brewery and that got me thinking “a brewery, of course someone’s gotta make beer! Why do I want to make wine? I don’t really drink wine! I’m going to have a look at this wee brewery.”

It was just serendipity. They had an assistant brewery leaving...and I said “hey, I love working in hospitality and in bars, and would be quite keen to see how beer is made.” I ended up just starting there, power hosing the floors and [helping] with lots of breweries and tastings. I eventually got invited to do some brew days and just got hooked!

What made you start the brewery seven months ago in Wanaka?

Wanaka is an expensive place and you can’t just work in hospitality and pay off a mortgage, or even pay for petrol here. We needed to become business owners to be able to afford to stay here.

We’ve always wanted to do our own brewery...he (co-founder Simon) has lots of friends here, and we’ve been visiting Wanaka snowboarding off and on for the last 14 years.

We finally saw summer here, and we found it was insanely busier than the winter and just as much fun. There was almost more activity in the summer...we thought, “this place is brilliant! We can ski in the winter, mountain bike in the summer, float, camp hike—it just ticked so many boxes.

New Zealand has such an epic beer scene as well, so it didn’t take too much arm twisting to get us to stay in Wanaka. It was just about finding a premise once we decided to stay here and start a brewery.

How did you find the space you’re at now (17 Gordon Road, Wanaka)?

A carpet cleaning company was moving out of the premise, so we just swooped on in...got on the phone with the landlord and said “we want to start a brewery, lease us your place!”...they thought, “well if you’re starting a brewery, you’ll probably keep it really clean. You guys can have it!” They were actually excited that we were starting a brewery and a bar.

Can you tell us a little bit about the rise of craft beer in New Zealand?

Even when I first started brewing eight years ago, you were constantly talking people into trying new (craft) beer and explaining why it’s a bit more expensive than the off the shelf commercial beer. That wasn’t that long ago.

I think New Zealand is a little bit ahead of Australia, the scene is a bit bigger over here even though it’s a smaller country. In the last four years it’s really taken off (in New Zealand). The number of breweries that are growing is on the increase. Commercial beer has hit a plateau but craft beer is rising.

Why do you think that is?

I think people are more careful about what they are eating and drinking these days. There’s so much knowledge and information that people can make the choices as to what they want to drink. That’s good for us.

What’s the brewing scene in Wanaka like?

It’s good! Wanaka has six breweries. Everyone is quite small, we’re a 1,200 liter brewery, I think Wanaka Beerworks are about 1,000 liters, Ground Up just bought a 1,200 liter brewery. There’s a couple of garage operations as well. Ground Up is just across the road from us which is pretty cool. We’re constantly borrowing bits of equipment and ingredients from each other.

We’ve brewed a couple of beers together. One of our most common guest taps is from Ground Up. I keep saying that we need to apply to get the street name changed here to Brewery Lane! Brewery Lane has a real ring to it.

How does collaboration in brewing work?

Brewers love to collaborate! Brewers have so much fun together and it’s always good fun brewing with other people. There’s always new things you pick up, whether it’s mixing those hops with these hops, or even new techniques in processing. It’s always a fun brew day if there’s a couple of extra brewers around. It’s always a bit wacky!

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I’ll let the dog run around and go crazy and then just come up with the recipe there, just sitting in the back of the car. The dog is happy, and the ideas start flowing!

How do you come up with ideas for your beers?

It comes from everywhere! It comes from reading cook books to reading funny names on things. Things will pop up when you want to brew a beer. You could try a cake or even a dinner and think “okay, we can turn that into a beer!”

We’ve got the Christmas pudding beer on tap right now (December 2017), and that came from wanting to brew something for Christmas and then having a look at what’s on the Christmas lunch or dinner table. I love ham, but don’t really feel like making a ham flavored beer. And then there are all sorts of things, like Christmas pudding. I looked at my mom’s and grandmother’s Christmas pudding recipes and thought, “Yep, honey can go in there. Yep, I can get some chocolate in there, yes figs, plums, raisins, all of this stuff can go in there.” It’s just about figuring out what part of the process it’s going to be best to add it to. Normally with fruits and spices I like to add it to the end of the boil. That way it actually gets cooked up, the flavors get released, and it gets sterilized so you don’t end up with any bugs getting into the beer with the brewers yeast. The Christmas pudding beer is on tap now and it’s literally like a liquified pudding, which is cool.

I want to do a beer version of Jamaican spiced rum. I want all of those beautiful spices that are in there. We want to serve it in a daiquiri glass with a pineapple wedge on it. I want to do it so I can call it Jamaican Me Thirsty. I’m pretty much making this beer for that name!

Where do you find your inspiration in Wanaka?

Everywhere! I used to come up with recipes while cleaning kegs. But I find it really hard to think while I’m cleaning kegs in the brewery because now I’m thinking mostly about business stuff. So now I need to leave the brewery to come up with new recipes. Normally I’ll grab some old books and recipes that have some information I need to create this new idea. I’ll grab my dog and choose a place either at the lake, or down at the forest, or at the river, or wherever I feel like at the time. I’ll let the dog run around and go crazy and then just come up with the recipe there, just sitting in the back of the car. The dog is happy, and the ideas start flowing!

What is the creative community of Wanaka like?

Lots of creative people here. Like I said before, it’s an expensive town to live in, but it’s because everything is on your doorstep…so people want to stay here and you have to get creative to figure out how you can afford to. That’s why there are a lot of people with their own little businesses. Lots of web designers, graphic designers, occupations where you can work from home or from a shared office space. Lots of creative and talented people around.

What beer are you most proud of making?

The Kiwi Kolsch. The Kiwi Kolsch is so delicate, and approachable and non-offensive. Every brewery should be making a Kolsch. It’s the go to beer. It’s a beer that you can have for breakfast, when you’re hungover, when you’re celebrating, when you want a session, everyone loves the Kolsch. Everybody thinks the Kiwi Kolsch has Kiwi in it though, so we might have to change the name to the New Zealand Kolsch. It’s just a beautiful style.

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It’s a really simple recipe. I’ve been brewing Kolsch for eight years...I’ve probably brewed more Kolsch than anyone outside of Cologne, Germany. You just need good ingredients. All German malts, it’s pretty traditional, except that I’m adding New Zealand grown hops. No one really notices, but I usually change the hops every time I brew this beer…this beer is an ale brewed as a lager. So it is an ale yeast, but we’re using a lager malt, which is lovely and clean and has a beautiful, sweet honey flavor to it. We use cooler lager fermentation temperatures and it just throws this beautiful, fruit-salad sweetness into it.

The Kiwi hops we use kind of have Sauvignon Blanc type gooseberry flavors to it, and that works out because I find the Kolsch to be the champagne of beers!

What would you want people to say about Rhyme and Reason?

I want them to say it’s fun! It’s all about the atmosphere here, we want to create a venue for conversation. Somewhere that’s a little bit different. Wanaka is a very busy town, so this is a place for someone to find a chilled out spot that’s a bit of a hideaway. You can come and escape here, hang out with the bartender. The bartender quickly learns your name and your drink. It’s about the experience here, and the beer is good. And it will keep getting better!


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Kilomet109 seamlessly blends traditional techniques with contemporary fashion.

You likely own clothing that was made in Vietnam (brands like Target, H&M, Gap, and Zara all manufacture clothing here). But there’s more than fast fashion coming out of this country. Fashion label Kilomet109 is leading the charge with traditional artisan techniques adapted for contemporary design. Bigger than a trend, they are setting the stage for a new, sustainable fashion movement across Vietnam.


After winding through narrow streets in a quiet northern section of Hanoi, we knocked on an unmarked door and hoped for the best. Taking off our shoes as we entered, we were greeted by people sitting at sewing machines and arranging textiles. Relieved, we knew we were in the right place.

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We carried on upstairs to where designer, Vu Thao, and her family live. Sitting at the table with Thao and her husband, we drank a cup of tea, ate Mung Bean Cakes, and chatted for hours. Later on, we toured her museum-like racks of traditional clothing and her label, Kilomet109’s previous collections.

About six years ago, Thao decided to take the leap and started her own fashion label, Kilomet109. After two years of intense research Thao launched her first collection in 2012. Like every collection since, each piece preserved traditional artisan techniques while blending contemporary, functional, and attractive design. Her 2014 collection, SEEDS, marked her first hand woven “100% sustainable collection, [using] home grown fibers and natural dies. A – Z made by us from planning through the end.”

Early Days: There Was No Word For Design

“In Vietnam during the 80s and 90s we had few choices. We had to make our own clothes. Everybody developed self-made skills from parents and grandparents and others in the community. I grew up with that.” Despite “always having a really strong connection with textile,” the thought of becoming a designer never entered her mind. “Design wasn’t a viable career. You could make something, but you were a laborer or tailor. It was more about making, not about the idea generating of design. We actually didn’t have a word for that at all.”

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A major turning point for Thao came in 2000, who was working at a magazine at the time. When “open policies in Vietnam were passed, it changed the whole scope of how Vietnamese dressed. Society was changing a lot and people started to pay attention to appearance [as a way to] express yourself.”  It was then that she decided to return to school for fashion design. After graduating, she worked for other designers and also taught at a fashion school. Teaching her students about sustainable design inspired Thao to do it herself. “I knew Vietnam could be a leader of this movement [of sustainable design], and that I should be one of them.”

Named in homage to Thao’s hometown, situated 109 kilometers from Hanoi, Kilotmet109’s designs appear to be effortless, simple, and high quality. To be clear, simple does not imply boring or thoughtless—quite the contrary. Each button, color, and thread is a thoughtful decision; every decision is a negotiation between design, functionality, and traditional craft.

The art of Thao’s work is in naturally “weaving together the message of protecting local [craft] in a contemporary form.” She hopes her work will help Vietnamese people realize “we can use what we’ve got and transform it in a modern version. It’s not the fashion from the past, it’s the now fashion. It’s the future.”

Blending contemporary design with traditional artistry comes with its fair set of challenges. But, by forging strong relationships with the artisans themselves and working through issues of communication and process, Kilomet109 has not only gained global recognition, but has set the standard for integrity, quality, and collaboration between old and new.

The Design Process: Experiments, Shifting Mindsets, and Play

Thao is the sole designer at Kilomet109, but she works closely with artisans in nearby villages who have passed down their craft for generations. Collaboration, particularly with a language barrier (each of the villages near Hanoi has a different language), is a delicate art. “In the beginning [when I suggested new designs] they were quick to say no, it won’t work. They would do it, but without believing in it.”


The process of adapting the Batik technique to new designs     “Batik is a technique that I applied in our latest collection. I spent two weeks with the group of Blue Hmong observing six women sit around like we are, in the kitchen. They make designs of flowers and animals by looking at each other and doing the same thing. It takes so long to make one piece and they use five to ten tools for each one.    [At the end of our time there] I asked them to use only one tool, whichever one they liked. I gave them a simple sketch of geometry, lines and dots, and told them to play around with it. The young girls were okay trying that, and the older ladies just laughed. All of them thought this [exercise] was only for the moment, not to make to a design.    Later when I came back with the design for the collection, they couldn’t believe I used this work. They were shocked and thought ‘is this design from that day?’

The process of adapting the Batik technique to new designs

“Batik is a technique that I applied in our latest collection. I spent two weeks with the group of Blue Hmong observing six women sit around like we are, in the kitchen. They make designs of flowers and animals by looking at each other and doing the same thing. It takes so long to make one piece and they use five to ten tools for each one.

[At the end of our time there] I asked them to use only one tool, whichever one they liked. I gave them a simple sketch of geometry, lines and dots, and told them to play around with it. The young girls were okay trying that, and the older ladies just laughed. All of them thought this [exercise] was only for the moment, not to make to a design.

Later when I came back with the design for the collection, they couldn’t believe I used this work. They were shocked and thought ‘is this design from that day?’

To try and overcome this challenge, Thao spent more time in the village in order to better understand the subtleties of process and tradition. Quickly, collaboration improved. “When you are willing to spend time with people, the relationships are so much easier on both sides…they know I make an effort to work with their tradition…now, we really inspire each other. Sometimes I have ideas that are too ‘out there’. I can make experiments in the studio, but when it comes to cost and production, their input is really valuable.”

The biggest shift Thao observes is that “[the local artisans] are not saying no when I have designs. They ask for it! ‘What do you have next, what’s the next?’ Before it was [resistance] but now they talk about next idea, next collection, next project. It’s really nice to see.

Hanoi: A Village within a City


When a young woman noticed a glass button on Thao’s dress, she invited Thao back to her house in search of buttons handmade by her late father years ago. After hours of searching in a dark room, they found and admired the stunning collection. At the young woman’s request, Thao took home the buttons. “She said her father wanted the buttons to go to someone who loves them. Hanoi has these kind of surprises. Even for someone like me who’s lived here so long, you always find something that wows you.”

“There are so many hidden places where people are making things. It’s very helpful for my design. Whether it’s simple silk thread or hand make glass buttons, we can make them ourselves here. It’s a really wonderful thing that we still have here. It is like a village that exists within a city.

 I’m so fortunate to live here and work in the countryside. Hanoi provides a great balance for my personal life and design. I love the speed of Hanoi and how it’s always moving.

When you live in the city you have to consider so many things – traffic, air, movement. So my design considers that. When I make a jacket, I have to think about how to get on a motorbike without the material bunching up. The city is so many things at once. Even the colors of Hanoi are really inspiring. It’s endless visually.”

We’re excited to watch as Kilomet109 continues to pave the way for fashion design in Vietnam. Shop their past collections here: http://kilomet109.com/shop/


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Vietnam Creative Essentials
 

What is indispensable for creative life in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City?

We asked designers, musicians, writers, and artists where they feel inspired, where they collaborate, and where they create. From their answers, we have created a list of the five essentials to creative life in Vietnam.

 

Red Plastic Chairs

Sitting on a red plastic chair, watching the world go by.

Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee

Fueling your day with coffee, served hot or cold

Motor Bike

A Motorbike

Finding that perfect moment when traffic is light to hop on your bike a explore a new area of the city.

Creative Cafe

A Creative Cafe

Discovering the perfect nook in a hidden cafe for a brainstorm, an impromptu gallery opening, poetry readings or concert.

Beer Bia Hoi

Bia Hoi

Keeping the creative juices flowing for happy hour and enjoying a glass of bia hoi (fresh beer) with friends.


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