The far end of a quiet country lane in Rayong is the remote but an entirely suitable setting for Elsie’s vision to create a supportive environment for guests to relax, explore and create. “Elsie Evans Art Retreat” is the brainchild of Scottish expat Elsie Evans, whose paintings, drawings and illustrations have delighted and enthralled Bangkok art lovers for more than 20 years.
Elsie Evans Art Retreat is, however, one of her finest works. The property is a combination of studio and classroom for students, central lounge and community kitchen, a number of indoor and outdoor relaxation and eating areas, a separate four-bedroom all en-suite residence for overnight stayers, a good-sized swimming pool, encouragingly interactive landscaped gardens with produce all year round, and land and plans for future expansion and evolution.
Most guests come to this idyllic spot to tap into Elsie’s considerable experience as an art teacher who is just at ease with kindergarten kids as with retirees. Elsie supplies all the materials, and her classes embrace all facets of art, including sketching using pencils, paints and pastels, and still life drawing. As well as the abundance of beautiful landscapes and scenes that surround the retreat, live models can also be arranged with prior notice.
For those who opt out of the classes, the relaxed atmosphere of this genuine away-from-it-all venue is a wonderful alternative attraction. So, while the children learn all about art, mum and dad can sit by the swimming pool with a gin and tonic in-hand or head off to nearby Hat Ram Pheung beach.
From the outset, Elsie has endeavoured to make the retreat far more than just an art school. As an expat in Thailand for 30 years Elsie has fine-tuned her passion for hosting, a talent she perfected years ago while running the legendary Attic Studios in Bangkok and the variety of visiting personalities, and she has taken that natural joie de vivre and transplanted it in Rayong. At the retreat, everybody is encouraged to muck in and share the entirety of the space and ethos of the venture.
Elsie moved into Art Retreat in January of this year, though the buildings were completed several months earlier, allowing her to wrap up her teaching commitments in Bangkok. The project sits on over 1.5 rai of land and through determination and an almost relentless stubbornness, Elsie’s Art Retreat has become a successful amalgamation of modern design practices fitted with antique furniture collected throughout Asia. The ground floor has more glass doors and windows than solid walls, giving it a wonderful light and airy feel, with views of the garden to inspire art students. Elsie’s bedroom, a couple of twin rooms and a mezzanine library are located on the upper floor, where large balconies look out onto the surrounding countryside and distant hills.
The art retreat is a massive undertaking as most ventures, visions and businesses are. But Elsie is a woman of enormous determination and enterprise, a fighter who has put a devastating personal loss behind her to raise a family in a foreign land. She’s not only put her heart and soul into creating Art Retreat, but also her entire worth. “I’m penniless now,” she quips with a grin and admirable candour. “So I have to make it work.”
Elsie was born 61 years ago in a small fishing village in the north of Scotland. Studying pharmacy at university didn’t suit her and switched to art school ignoring the admonishment from family. Jobs were hard to find back then, so she worked initially as a window dresser, and then sold advertising for a local newspaper “because it came with a car”. Later she joined an ad agency as an account executive.”
After falling pregnant, Elsie married her boyfriend Fred; their first son Peter arrived in 1985. The family moved to Holland not long after. “Fred had a contract to work for the oil company Unocal and we spent nine months there. I hated it. I was so homesick and was in tears every Sunday when I phoned my mum.”
After relocating to Thailand in 1986, Elsie gave birth to Michael, Richard and Andrew in 1987, 1989 and 1991 respectively. Richard is currently the only son who is unable to visit frequently “although life with four boys is dynamic and often changes”, as he works for the Association of Tennis Professionals in Australia.
The couple left Thailand in 2004 for a new position with Unocal – by now renamed Chevron – in Jakarta, Indonesia, where they stayed for the next two years. In April 2006, unimaginable tragedy struck the family when Fred died during a leisure dive at Koh Tao in Thailand.
With four children to bring up on her own, Elsie had to make some extremely important decisions, including where to live and how she was going to make a living. Thailand was top of her list. “I decided to come back in 2006 because we’d been here for 18 years previously and I had a lot of friends. I knew I had to make some money – I didn’t have much.
During her first stint in Thailand, Elsie enjoyed a busy social life. At various times she was Chieftain of the St Andrews Society, a member of the Board of Governors at Bangkok Pattana School, where she also had taught, Commissioner of a local soccer league, participated and taught Taekwondo and even sold carpets. “I’d also have been miserable in Scotland. My kids were born here in Thailand, it is where we know and understand - Thailand is our home.”
Her first venture was Attic Studios, which she set up initially in Soi 39, then later in Soi 31. Elsie would teach in the mornings and paint in the afternoons. Every month there’d be an art exhibition by up and coming artists who couldn’t afford the fees in the bigger Bangkok galleries. The studio became famous for its ‘First Friday of the Month parties’, staying open late and attracting all sorts of characters. It was even described as a Bangkok ‘urban legend’ by Thai International’s in-flight magazine. Although Elsie sold Attic Studios last year, she still gives a master class there once a month and continues to help the new owner and attend whenever she’s in Bangkok.
She first thought about setting up an art retreat five years ago as a means of getting retirees and other people away from the stresses of Bangkok living. “When I paint I forget how old I am” Elsie recounts hearing from an 85-year-old man. “I wanted to open a place where you can relax and provide an atmosphere where creativity isn’t forced after spending numerous hours and days in traffic, pollution and pressure.”
“A friend put me in touch with the owner of some empty land near Rayong, and I found a builder who spoke excellent English. The architect was one of my son’s friends who I used to teach, but I had a good idea of how I wanted the house to look but lacked the experience to complete the technical drawings needed for construction.”
Although thoroughly pleased with the finished project, Elise has a few continued misgivings as all expats face when owning small businesses in Thailand. Visas, work permits and attention to detail. “But overall I am glad I came back to Thailand.”
“Everybody has art in them.”
“Here you will be taught by an artist, not a teacher.”
“Everybody has an aunt or grandmother called Elsie.”