On June 10th, 2017, Maida Gayle had her first solo exhibition in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was a significant date for her. One year early, on June 10th, 2016, she had been hospitalized, on the other side of the Pacific, following a stroke.
Motivated, in part, by her scare and the painful recovery that followed, Maida put it all on canvas and took painting from a hobby to a side-hustle to much more than that.
I met Maida back in 2013, in Busan, South Korea, where we were both teaching english and using freetime to moonlight as creatives. She has since moved to Hanoi and established herself in Vietnam’s art scene. As her work develops, she is synthesizing her abstract painting with her performing arts background and her work with a women’s NGO. The result is incandescent and contagiously positive.
Plenty of people, especially expats and nomads, like to talk about “life embracing.” Maida is one who actually reaches out and grabs life with both hands.
You got into painting while you were teaching in Korea… Because you didn’t have room for your keyboard, is that right?
My journey into painting started when I decided to move out of Busan city life in Korea to the countryside of Gimechon.
With a quieter environment and less people to mingle with I had a lot more extra time than I ever had in Busan.
Playing music and singing had always been the only form of art I used to express myself. It kept me company when I didn’t have the people to do so. Unfortunately living in a small apartment, I had no space or money to invest in a keyboard and didn’t have the confidence to try any other instruments out. There was also no music scene like Busan… so I felt kind of stuck.
There was an art supply store that had stationary supplies I got for teaching and always noticed the paint and canvas in the back corner. I thought, “what the heck, let’s just try and splash some paint on canvas.” It was a weird urge that I never had before… and I went with it.
When did it become more than a hobby?
The unofficial start into getting more serious was when I was selling my things before leaving Korea and a friend asked to buy one of the paintings.
At that point I didn’t think the paintings were good enough or worthy of showing to anyone. They were just diary entries on canvas, a place for my emotions to rest.
The transition started officially in Hanoi when a friend of mine, Paul Salnek, asked me to live paint for Signal Flair. This is an arts event that started in Bangkok. Funnily enough, the guy who put that together just contacted me, and I’m happy to say they will be flying me out to Bangkok to live paint an event they are throwing!
But with the encouragement of that sale and Hunter’s push to show my art, I started posting them on facebook.
What’s going on in Hanoi?
Hanoi is special.
Never have I been in a community that fosters creativity so much as this. Literally everything about the expat community revolves around pursuing your art, encouraging you to find your niche in art.
There are ample of opportunities for art here because
a) supplies are cheap
b) the community is small but not too small.
Literally, anything you want to do… you can most likely do it here and the scene will nurture and support you.
The friends you make are super encouraging. Travis Risenurr, a close friend of mine is a great example of this and a huge reason why I have pursued my art here in the first place. I met him at a festival back in Korea but didn’t really get to know him until I moved here in 2015. He has been such an inspiration and a personal motivator for me when it came to delving deeper into my art and pushing the boundaries. He’s helped me and so many others believe that they are really capable of anything if you just try. Never again will I say things like, “I can’t draw” for fear of the weird look I’ll get back from him.
He holds ‘Art Night for Grownups’ every two weeks at a café called Clickspace. Here, he provides people with the space and materials to express themselves through coloring and painting. He’s also successfully established his own brand, ‘Phlerp Designs’ and it’s been amazing to see how his art has grown from fun little stickers spread across Korea and Hanoi to extremely beautiful (huge) art installations at Quest and his most recent endeavour, psychedelic wear/awesome clothes! I owe this guy more than he realizes. Thanks Trav!
Where did the scene get started, is it connected with the local arts, or just a bunch of expats doing their own thing?
I’m not exactly sure where it started but I do know that because Hanoi keeps to more tradition than Saigon, this has somehow influenced the artistic culture here.
Old French architecture is kept untouched and remains beautiful. You can tell they care about aesthetics and keeping the original beauty of the city just from the lakes and trees and green everywhere.
It’s not just the foreign scene that is creative, it’s not just a few artists, it’s the whole city itself.
Hanoi is known for it’s amazing fabrics and streets dedicated to making clothing, costumes and all of the sort. There is plenty for us to use in the city to help us in our artistic endeavours and that’s why I think people come … and stay.
To give you a picture of what I mean… in America, the supplies to paint one painting might cost well over $100. Over here, maybe $10 at most.
You can do anything! There’s a street dedicated to glitter and gems for goodness sake!
A huge name that I think gave it a kick start for the foreign community is a team who is now known as Gingerwork. Started by a dear friend, Mark Harris, who came to Hanoi about 7 years ago dreamed about creating a space and/or spaces for expats to cultivate and harness their creative passions. And it’s happened.
Quest Festival (the biggest project of Gingerwork) has gone from about 100 people to becoming a 4000+ festival in these years. Gingerwork has also established a creative hub called The Creative Artillery (this is where I had my first exhibition!)
Hanoi is a place where it’s completely normal to see a group of people dressed up as unicorns on the weekend or holding costume making workshops for the next underground rave or party that’s happening. Costumes are not only reserved for Halloween here. It’s a lifestyle.
We all have our own talents and we come together to make an extremely beautiful and unique experience for every person who comes through Hanoi whether it be for 6 weeks, months, or years.
You mentioned Nerd Night. That sounds awesome, what’s it about?
A bunch of “nerds” coming together to talk nerdy things! I love this group because it’s different from your usual “open mic night” (not that those aren’t awesome here!).
Every fortnight we get together and anyone can present their interpretation of a topic that was pulled from a hat at the last meeting. Some examples of topics “original sin, all the small things, dystopia, music and emotion.
We’ve had several types of presentations as well.. from PowerPoints to song or dance performances, poems .. and the list goes on.
It’s held at my sweet friend, Ed’s home (which is an amazing studio like home designed by an artist I’m not quite sure of who he is). Ed is a writer/editor and has been for Word Magazine from the past. He brought hundreds of books and zines from New York and set up his home to be the official Zine Library of Hanoi.
Every Sunday it’s open for anyone to drop by, have some tea and sift through all the zines he’s collected. He’s curated the space really well – it’s one of my favorite spots to be in Hanoi.
Tell me about your first show, first sale, first solo show. What was it like growing in your own self-image–going from “this is fun” to “people want to see/ buy my stuff…damn”?
My first show–at the Creative Artillery– was a huge milestone.
I didn’t realize at this point that I had really painted enough paintings to fill out a whole gallery space.
I chose the theme –“In Motion.” I couldn’t believe the response. I sold more paintings than I thought I would and was able to curate an event and had my friends perform on opening day. Despite the rain, it was amazing. I unexpectedly was interviewed by a local Vietnamese Channel regarding the exhibition as well as the first workshop I held that same day.
First sale – first one was in Korea, when I was getting rid of my stuff, but the first REAL sale was at a charity event held by Blue Dragon.
To celebrate women’s day they wanted to display a female artists work and have the paintings up for sale as well as have live painting to later auction them off at the end of the night.
I displayed my work and painted that night.
“They were just diary entries on canvas. A place for my emotions to rest.”
My now close friend Sara Butryn (an out of this world comedian in Hanoi) bought the painting I painted at Signal Flair. I can’t even begin to describe that rush of a feeling that my paintings were… good enough and touched someone deep enough to have them purchase it.
Displaying and pricing my art has been tricky, but I’ve learned to look passed that and see it as a means for me to share my trials and joys of life on canvas. The money isn’t the goal, it’s the connection someone feels to the work… (as corny as that may sound)
My good friend and extremely talented artist, Holland played such a vital role in this transition from “this is fun” to something more serious. He was an experienced go-getter in the art scene in the States (and now here). We had countless one-on-one talks about art, the art world and how to put a price on paintings without feeling like they were being violated (harsh word, can’t come up with another!)
I was realizing that people could relate to the emotions I was putting on my canvas and that it helped them to work through their own. That alone is priceless.
Talk a little bit about your style and direction as an artist… What are you interested in? What do you want us, the audience, to pay closer attention to?
My style is a reflection of how I try to live out my life.
A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the Vipassana Buddhist philosophies and have been sitting with those ever since.
I strive to live present in each moment, working through every bump and smooth transitions.
I want my viewers to see that in my paintings. I may have a set picture of what I want a piece to look like but I need to surrender all control to my brush. Where the painting goes I follow, without resistance, without regret and without the belief that anything was a mistake. I work with what might seem to be a bad choice in color and turn it into something that can resonate with the rest…
I want people to discover for themselves what the answer is and that’s why I paint abstract pieces. I don’t want to give people a set image to decipher but rather to decipher one on their own.
As for something more mundane, you’re killing it on social media. That’s how this interview started…
Facebook and Instagram are not the devil! They’ve given me a portal to show my art across the world and the world’s responded!
Through my posts (that I never really took that seriously in the fist place) has now resulted in me sending paintings to San Diego, Toronto and Philadelphia. Who knows where next?
Friends from different lives I’ve lived have messaged asking for paintings. I love this because it reconnects me to these people I thought I would never get in touch with or see again. It’s really amazing to see who your paintings speak to. They are all so different from each other and this shows me that my work is relatable not just to one kind of sub-cultured group of people but is diverse enough to reach almost anyone. Who knew!
My social media presence is part of what led to my being featured in Word Magazine.
One of their talented photographers, Julie Vola got a message from Mark and found me through social media.. so did her head editor (Nick Ross) and they contacted me for an interview and photoshoot.
Their September edition was featuring 10 people throughout Vietnam who were living a “bohemian artist lifestyle” and they thought I fit the description just right.
My head was in the clouds here… I still couldn’t believe this was happening. Still don’t believe it did!
A family from Saigon read about me in my article and have messaged me about a painting -who knew I would get to the point where strangers are now asking for paintings!
What’s next for you? What’s now?
Oh boy. Right now my job is hectic but with this studio space I hope to just simply produce and learn through the process… I want to let my art evolve naturally into what it’s to become next.
I can’t focus my time on selling but that’s completely ok. In fact, I’m a bit relieved. My love for it hasn’t been stripped because I’m over producing and I think that’s a good thing.
Hunter and I have been talking and I think our next actual move will be to Hong Kong. Being an international city, I feel it will give me more of a platform for my art. Hanoi has helped me and will continue to help me find my place in all of this artsy stuff and I hope that in this last year here I will hone in on my style and my vision and will be clear of what I want by the time we move to HK.
HK is also a good bridge city to transition back to the West, possibly back to Cali, Portland or Vancouver.
I’d love to have my paintings up in nice venues, in families’ homes and offices… I just want people, real, ordinary people to enjoy my art.
Progressing with my duo band called Uklear Bomb and a music project I’m working on with Hunter (not going to reveal the secret just yet!).
More importantly, I want to continue to take my art into Women’s Shelters. Working with women and children who are victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence has sat close to my heart for a very long time. It’s something I’ve written about.
I have the privilege to be working with Hagar International in Vietnam now. I meet the women and children once a month and we create abstract pieces together. It’s the most rewarding thing in world. I want to build this into an established workshop that I can take anywhere in the world. So far I’ve given it a name, “Extraction through Abstraction”.
These victims have learned to work through their pain and so to be able to help them reclaim and re-identify certain emotions through activities like art and connection to other humans who hold their worth high, is simply amazing and it’s what I want to live my life doing.
… In general life’s too short to be taken so seriously, why spend it caring about money and all that.
Do what you love and love what you do. I’m sure you know the saying… I’m just trying to put it into practice!
Who should we read/ follow/ listen to/ check out in Hanoi?
Ah. Everyone. I will try to list as many as I can.
Weekly/Monthly Events and Venues
Artists w/ Links and Art Pages:
May Cortazzi – Creative Director for Eva de Eva and founder of Happiness Beauty and Skincare Beautiful and inspiring woman!
Ukelear Bomb – EP coming soon
All things Rave:
More People Worth Mentioning :
Lilianna Pedroni – SHE DOES EVERYTHING.SHE IS AWESOME. My partner in Ukelear Bomb, circus freak/ flowarts artist, musician, music teacher, comedian and the list goes on. A multitalented extravaganza of a person and friend.
Katie-May Taylor – Super Woman. Literally. Co-creative producer for Quest Festival and a producer in her own right for all things way important outside of Vietnam. Trust me. She’s wow.
Maartje Matheeuwsen – WICKEDLY TALENTED facepainter.
Mitch Brookman –a well known mosaic artist in the States who has been a great influence and mentor to me. Hailing from Cali and Texas has decided to save one blonde at a time here in Hanoi!
Tracy Johnson– flowarts, hoop dancer. beautiful woman
Aisling Feral – model, flowarts hoop magician.
Julie Vola – photographer for Word Magazine and the wonderful lady who interviewed me as well.
(There so many more in Hanoi but this just gives you a taste of the freakin’ talent that’s out here, for real! I’m going to offend a lot of people because there are just too many to mention)
*This interview has been edited for length and content.
**Photos courtesy of Maida Gayle.