Learn a New Sustainable Art While Traveling

sustainable+travel

Traveling sustainably is somewhat of an oxymoron, but what if there was a way to experience another country in a way that is more sustainable to that country’s culture and way of life.

Meet VAWAA or Vacation with an Artist. This unique company curates immersive one-on-one mini apprenticeships with master artists and craftspeople in 23 countries around the world. You can spend 7 days shoemaking in Prague, painting a mural with the top street artist in Buenos Aires, practicing calligraphy with a grand master in Kyoto or learning how to make a bamboo bicycle in India. These intimate, multi-day studio sessions with master artists around the world let you become a student of not just their art but their culture and traditions too.

In this interview, we had the opportunity to speak with two of the artists/designers to learn more about their craft, their background, and why this experience is more authentic than the typical tourist trap.


vacation with an artist

Juana Gutiérrez – Natural Textile Dyeing – Oaxaca, Mexico

Where are you based and what is your VAWAA trip/experience?

I live in Teotitlan del Valle, a Oaxacan Zapotec village known for its weavers. I am new to VAWAA and am so thankful to the organization for giving me this chance to meet new people and share our traditions with them.

What is your background and how did you get into learning about your art/skill? What exactly is it that you do?

My parents shared their knowledge with me ever since I was very young. I enjoyed working with my mother more than I enjoyed school when I was young and my parents allowed me to learn as they worked weaving, dyeing and healing with our native plants, following traditions passed down by our ancestors.

What skills/type of art do you teach during your VAWAA and what will I learn?

I share traditional natural dye techniques with my students and we talk about the colors that come from plants, how yarns spun from wool or cotton take different techniques, and how to achieve a range of shades with overdyeing. When our guests stay with us they also can see how we live, cook, and shop at our daily market.

What makes what you do sustainable?

vawaa traditional dye techniques

Our entire life here is based on a respect for our creator, our environment, and the land that belonged to our ancestors. We work only with natural dyes and encourage our community to preserve these traditions to protect our water, land, ourselves and our future. We want a better future for our grandchildren and their families and we must do this now to preserve what we have.

Why is it best to learn through an apprenticeship?

I learned by watching my parents, and by listening to them. I teach in the same way. I tell stories. I let the colors tell their stories. Your hands remember what to do.

Why is this a more sustainable way to travel?

I don't know if I can answer that but I know that everyone who comes here appreciates living more sustainably. They are also making it possible for us to sustain our culture, our way of life, and to give our young people a way to support themselves and not let our traditions die out.

Why is it so important for you to teach what you teach?

I am so fortunate to have learned from masters and I want to share what I have learned over my lifetime. We honor our ancestors and our culture with this practice but too many young people have not connected to it anymore. I want them to see there is a future for them and that they can have a good life through this work. We are indigenous people of this land, and in Mexico we are not always respected. But our culture is something we can proud of. I am proud to be a Zapotec from Teotitlan and I want the world to know who we are.


Vu Thao – Natural Textile Dyeing – Hanoi, Vietnam

Where are you based and what is your VAWAA trip/experience?

vu thao - natural textile dyeing

I am based in Hanoi, Vietnam. I lead natural dyeing and weaving workshops with artisan communities in the remote mountainous area of Cao Bang province. Cao Bang is located approximately 8 hours north from Hanoi in a stunningly beautiful, rural part of Vietnam. The workshop is 5 days long and is like an introductory apprenticeship, with apprentices actively learning and engaging with all aspects of traditional Vietnamese weaving and natural dyeing processes. Depending on the season, workshop activities may include indigo plant harvesting; forest trekking to find wild yam roots; weaving practice on traditional looms; preparing an indigo dye vat; yam root dyeing; red ant resin dyeing; fabric washing in the local wells and so much more. All of these steps include detailed explanations from myself and the Nung An (from the Nung An ethnic group) artisans so that you can learn not only the how to part but also understand the why. Apprentices will see how these processes have been done for hundreds of years as well as learn some modern experimentations that we've only recently created.

What is your background and how did you get into learning about your art/skill?

I am a fashion designer, textile artist, and owner of the sustainable fashion brand called Kilomet109. I trained at the London College of Fashion Studies in Hanoi from 2006-2008 and then worked for several international boutique brands as head designer. In 2012 I opened my own fashion label and began incorporating natural dyed fabrics into my collections soon after. I've spent the past 10 years researching and working with numerous artisan communities in Vietnam, learning different techniques and methods, and also experimenting on new techniques to create exciting new colors and textiles. These textiles are integrated into my fashion collections creating contemporary pieces that aim to push the boundaries of sustainable fashion design.

What skills/type of art do you teach during your VAWAA and what will I learn?

VAWAA workshop participants will learn a number of exciting skills, including weaving on traditional looms, identifying/harvesting/collecting various indigenous plants that we use to weave and dye our textiles, natural dyeing techniques, and so so much more! Another special aspect of the workshop is the fantastic community of talented Nung An women artisans you will work with. Their culture and way of life is truly unique and fascinating to observe.

What makes what you do sustainable?

Our work is sustainable on a number of fronts: from an environmental perspective, we use organic fibers, no chemicals, and indigenous natural dyes to create our textiles. We grow all of our own cotton, hemp, and indigo plants, and even have a small silkworm farm which allows us to ensure full transparency on every aspect of textile creation. In terms of labor practices we employ local artisans, pay them fair wages, and create both economic and creative incentives for preserving traditional artisan methods.

Why is it best to learn through an apprenticeship?

Quite simply, an apprenticeship is the most hands-on and efficient way of learning that exists, in my opinion. It engages all of the senses - mind, body, and creativity - and is thus one of the most intellectually stimulating ways to learn a new skill. By working side by side with artisans the participant gets to learn directly from masters of their craft and at a pace that is appropriate to their level. Apprentices learn so much and get to engage deeply with their craft in what is a relatively short amount of time. There is just no better or more fun way to learn.

sustainable travel with vawaa

Why is this a more sustainable way to travel?

Many of us who love to travel enjoy the excitement of going to exotic places, eating new foods, meeting people, and learning new things. It has become increasingly challenging in recent years, however, to avoid the tourist traps and have a truly authentic and unique experience. Doing a VAWAA trip, being an apprentice in a foreign country, is simply a more fulfilling way to engage with a new culture. It helps preserve local artisan communities and allows the apprentice to really immerse themselves in a deep and meaningful way. I think it is a beneficial and genuinely enriching experience for all involved.

Why is it so important for you to teach what you teach?

I love opportunities to meet new people who share a common creative interest and who have a strong desire to learn. Teaching allows me to share aspects of my culture that I am very proud of. It is so exciting to help someone learn new skills and engage their creative curiosity in a meaningful way, all while getting our hands dirty! The sense of accomplishment that apprentices feel after learning something new and admiring their creations is really rewarding for me. Many of the apprentices that have done a VAWAA trip with me have become dear friends as well. It is quite a bonding experience!