By Basil McCall
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
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
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
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
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.”