Weekly Local Biography

  Patricia Cheesman

By Basil McCall

Patricia Cheesman’s calm face belies an exciting past, including a shipwreck, and a brush with death following the birth of her first child. Elegant creator and owner of Naenna Textiles Gallery, she is an extraordinary lady, and so indeed is the story of her genes. Her British father came to Bangkok with the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in the late 1930’s, when business trips to Chiang Mai were made on elephant back through the jungle from the Lampang railhead.
If WWII had not happened, he would not have met Patricia’s beautiful half-Chinese mother, but in a twist of fate, both were taken prisoner by the Japanese: she whilst trying to escape from Shanghai, he in the occupation of Singapore, where he had been transferred from Bangkok. They were sent to the same camp in the Philippines, fell in love, and were married behind the wire by a clergyman fellow prisoner. After liberation, he rejoined the bank in Singapore, where Patricia was born.
The next posting took them to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in British North Borneo, (now Sabah) where home was a grass hut on the pristine beach of Tanjung Aru. The British primary school there held little allure for Patricia. “I spent almost my whole childhood on the beach” she confesses with a wicked smile, “And it was absolute paradise.” Part of that idyll was sailing, but one day they were caught in a fierce typhoon which nearly ended their lives. In the crashing waves, Patricia’s father and her older brother were swept overboard. Patricia and her mother clung to the boat, and were washed up on a small island, where they survived like Robinson Crusoe until rescued. Providentially, her father drifted to the mainland, and her brother was saved out at sea by local fishermen.
Paradise however, was not waiting for ten year old Patricia when the family arrived back in the UK on a winter’s day, and she was only enticed off the ship by the promise of seeing what was called “snow.” She recalls the grey, damp cold, “I just couldn’t believe how anybody could live in such a climate.” Formal schooling was another challenge, “After my years on the beach I could hardly read or write” she admits, “But I was like a dry sponge – I soaked up studies fast.” So fast indeed, that she passed her “O” levels at 15, and left school “to be an artist.” This horrified her Victorian father, who enrolled her at a secretarial college, dropping her off every morning to ensure her attendance. He did not realize that Patricia “Went in the front door, and out the back door” to secretly study “A” level art elsewhere, an exam she passed after just one year, instead of two. Further studies in Switzerland and back in England saw her graduate with top honors in ceramics, and painting.
Patricia married, and set off for Asia with her English hubby in 1973, finding adventure working on an archeological dig in Sulawesi, and nearly another shipwreck aboard a filthy, overloaded illegal boat on a three day horror voyage to a dirty town called Nunakan. “I was sure we were going to sink,” she recalls with a shudder. “And in Nunakan, the only place to sleep was in the brothel – you cannot imagine the noises we heard all night!”
The couple arrived in Bangkok during the October 1973 uprising, and sped on to Vientiane where Patricia taught pottery at the International School, and later worked with the UN on a kiln project until the revolution of 1975. At this time, she was nine months pregnant, and suffered stalled labor for three days, with no doctors on duty at the local hospital – they had all been summoned by the revolutionaries. With not even a midwife present, Patricia walked 4 kilometers, frantically trying to induce the birth. Although now fully dilated, serious complications continued, and things became desperate. Coincidentally, a second year medical student appeared, recognized the emergency, and cleaned up a rusty unsterilized suction machine, which he used to successfully deliver a baby girl, named Tara. Patricia somehow survived the two life-threatening infections that followed. “I just had to, after enduring all that,” she says with a grim smile. Two more daughters were to follow, Lamorna in 1978, and Susie, in 1987.
Patricia continued teaching in Laos until 1981, with her love of ceramics now paralleled by a fascination for the unique hand-woven Lao textiles. She began collecting pieces, and carefully studied the weaving and dyeing methods used for their production – a task which often took her to very remote villages. Using this knowledge, she worked in Bangkok as a free-lance writer for a number of art publications, before proceeding to Australia in 1982, where she lectured, worked with Laotian refugees, and studied for her Masters Degree. The latter necessitated a research trip to Chiang Mai, where an immediate affinity for the city persuaded her to settle here in 1985 as a lecturer on ceramics and textiles at Chiang Mai University. Her intimate knowledge of Laotian textiles and the success of her first book “Laos Textiles: Ancient Symbols, Living Art”, not only engendered a strong demand for her lectures, but also for her products.
This led to the 1986 opening of a small “Studio Naenna” shop in Nimmanhaeminda Road, and the formation of “Weavers for the Environment” - a group of women in trained in the “weft ikat” (mudmee) technique, creating an opportunity for them to learn a valuable skill, and a good income. Patricia’s artistic flair saw the company grow into one of the most respected suppliers in the world of high quality, hand woven natural fabrics.
Today, Studio Naenna is located next to Patricia’s beautiful teakwood residence, where she also grows indigo and other plants to provide the natural dyes used in all her products. A second outlet called “Adorn with Studio Naenna” opened last year, near her first location, in Nimmanhaeminda Road.
Patricia is now author of three books, and co-author of another five. She has handed most of the day-to-day operation to daughter Lamorna, and in semi-retirement wants to create sculptures using a combination of textiles and ceramics. “I’m building a separate studio behind the house for the purpose,” she says excitedly, with clear, smiling green eyes.
“And what advice would you give to an aspiring young artist?” I ask.
“Identify your passion,” she replies intently, “And give it absolutely everything you’ve got.”