Lahu village thailand

Northern Thailand Adventure

This past November, we had an incredible trip to Thailand. After briefly visiting Bangkok in 2009, I was ready to return to get to know this country better, and away from hustle and bustle of a giant city. Since we only had 2 weeks for this trip, we decided to skip the beaches, and focus on the hilly North. Here are some photos from our Northern Thailand adventure.

Chiang Mai view

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but it feels way different from Bangkok – much more laid back and provincial, with a slower overall pace. No wonder so many expats settle here – for a season, or a couple of years, or the rest of their lives.

Chiang Mai street

It also has hundreds (if not thousands) of temples, and while it is simply impossible to check out every single one, big effort was made to stop in all the ones within the walls of Old Town. Of course, the long songthaew (passenger truck) ride to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep up the windy road in a rainforest is a must.

chiang mai temple

chiang mai temple

Chiang Mai Sunday market is a treat for all senses and goes for blocks and blocks. There are trinkets, and furniture, and clothing, and art, but our goal was to eat street food until we drop (of being full, not of food poisoning, of course).

chiang mai sunday market

I had quail eggs and seafood and sausages and cheesy snacks and exotic mushrooms, and for the first time ever – some insects! Starting off easy, we got a little bag of fried silkworms, which were crispy, greasy, and tasted a little bit like anchovies. You think it’s gross? But how is it different from eating all kinds of other creatures with legs and feet (shrimp, for instance)? Don’t knock em until you try them! They are full of nutrients. The following morning, we asked our hotel staff to add them to our eggs. They were happy to do it!

omelette with silkworms

Next stop (after a 3 hour hilly road van ride) – Pai, a so called “hippie paradise” (just like a tropical island, but inland!) is a small town in a beautiful mountain valley, overlooking a river. Sometime ago, this was a tiny, quiet, and serene place. Today, it is bustling with tourists, and yet still manages to feel quiet and serene (once you walk away from the main street), so while there has been plenty of development with the guesthouses and restaurants, it manages to hold on to its charm. The best thing to do in Pai – nothing! If you have a hammock and this view – what else do you really need?

Pai thailand

From Pai, another van took us to Soppong and then a pickup truck taxi dropped us 8 kilometers uphill at Cave Lodge. A fun guest house with no-frill bungalows, it caters to backpackers and adventurers.

Cave Lodge Thailand

Our schedule was all preplanned here, and the following morning at 7 am (Thanksgiving Day), with met our trekking guide with a funny name – Gaymoo.

Soppong Thailand

This is Mae Hon Son province, a mountainous area of Thailand bordering Burma, technically in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is home to numerous hill tribe villages (such as Karen and Lasu), residents of which often do not even speak Thai. Gaymoo himself was born and raised in a nearby Karen village, and he effortlessly switches between Thai, Karen, and English (although he will tell you that he only learned English from tourists and does not read it just yet).

Trekking in Thailand

Our trek was one of the most interesting 2 days of my life. We went through hills, caves and farmland; waded through many rivers and mud. Gaymoo was super entertaining and fantastic, especially at cutting through jungle with his machete. Due to his mastery with the knife, extensive knowledge of forest, trails, and plants, on our journey we enjoyed endless amounts of fresh tropical fruit and sugar canes.trekking in thailand

I learned rice fields run around here: rice gets harvested and laid out to dry for a few days / weeks. Then it gets pounded to separate grains from straw (look, I got to help!). When it is ready for consumption, it is run through the machine that removes grains from shell. Villagers don’t get paid to work the fields, they just take turns volunteering and always have a year worth of rice stored in their common sheds (just in case, of a bad harvest year).

Thailand rice fields

We spent the night in a Lahu village hut (owned by a lovely woman who did not speak one bit of English, took care of many animals, as well as her toddler grandson). We played with puppies and pigs, ate the most deliciously cooked thanksgiving meal, and slept on (slightly bouncy) bamboo floor.

Lahu village thailand

Lahu village thailand

Thanksgiving in thailand

There was a surreal moment when I walked up the hill to take in a stunning sunset view. This small, basic village felt like it was cut off from most the world, I certainly did not have a slightest phone signal on the long trek here. Somewhere between those distant hills, is a Burma border. I raised my phone to snap this photo, and….. ding! A text comes in from a friend in Chicago. “Happy Thanksgiving!” it said. “Happy Thanksgiving to you too!” I typed back.

Northern Thailand mountains

The evening was wrapped up by local villagers bringing us rice whiskey, and everyone tasting it with sticky rice dessert, cooked inside of bamboo sticks over the fire. Morning was started with strong coffee, more rice sticks, and preparation of snacks for the road (wrapped in bamboo leaves). What followed was another beautiful, day-long, hot and humid trek through the countryside.

Lahu village trekking

After such intense 2 days, normal people rest their bodies, but instead, we woke up and chose to go scrape our feet (and knees and hands) against some sharp rock on a 6 hour trek through Tham Nam Hoo cave, one of the most picturesque caves in Thailand. Getting through this cave involved swimming against the current, and balance, which we did not have much of left. Yet, another crazy fun experience and the one I will never forget!
Thailand caving

Moving on from Sappong, our Northern Thailand adventure continued in Mae Hong Son.

Mae hong son thailand

It is a frenzy-free town, with Burmese-style temples, hills, and gorgeous views, mostly devoid of tourist crowds, was a welcome place to rest.

Mae Hong Son thailand

A nightly market here was another food heaven.

Mae Hong Son night market

We decided to visit a “long neck” Kayan tribal village, reached by a 20 minute wooden boat ride down the river. Kayan “long neck” village visits and their ethical repercussions are a source of debate (some believe that they are akin to a human zoo, as the neck rings that ladies wear are extremely uncomfortable and supposedly worn for tourists and not as much as a custom or tradition). However, after weighting the pros and cons, we made a decision to go. This informative TravelFish link presents balanced information on the current status of Mae Hong Son “long neck” villages.

Mae Hong Son river boats

We very glad that we had an opportunity to visit this place. We paid a fee to hire a local guide, and that decision made a big difference. He took us around the entire village, not just the gift stalls where ladies are selling scarves and crafts.

Mae Hong Son Karen village

We visited village residents’ homes, and dropped in on school classes where cute kids were learning Thai, Burmese, and English.

Mae Hong son long neck village

We learned about these people’s struggles, how the older generation migrated from Burma, fleeing a war zone, and how they still do not have Thai citizenship as they have not been recognized as residents by Thai authorities. As for long neck ladies themselves – they were extremely nice, and those who knew English, were happy to converse with us about their lives. The village residents make a big portion of their living from tourism. We purchased many hand woven scarves, and contributed to school’s donation boxes.

Mae Hong son long neck village

My plan for a last day in Mae Hong Son was a courageous one: to finally learn to ride a motorbike. Kurt was game. It costs $6 to get a cocktail here; it also costs $6 to rent a motorbike for an entire day. We have NEVER driven a motorbike (or a motorcycle) before, and I admit, that by that point of our vacation, I have already witnessed a couple of crashes, and almost chickened out on the way to the bike rental shop. Yet, after signing paperwork, and handing over a deposit, we had bikes and helmets ready to go! The “riding practice” took place in circles, right there in a market square – there were a couple of unfortunate turns, but overall I started to feel more confident (and, suddenly, so free!).

Mae Hon Song motorbikes

So, we set our travel destination to be a famous bamboo bridge, and then, right at Burmese border – Ban Rak Thai, a picturesque village of Chinese settlers. We hoped to make it back before sunset, relying on phone GPS. Here is the view of our travel route (not too shabby for the first time ever on motorbikes, eh?) Estimated travel time though, was accurate for cars, but was way off for us, and it took us 2 hours to reach the place.
Mae Hong Son motorbike path

Bamboo bridge (Su Tong Pae) did not underwhelm, it is a gorgeous landmark of Mae Hong Son province.

Mae Hong Son bamboo bridge

Here is a brief description of it, from “Used daily by villagers and monks, the name of the bridge translates as ‘successful prayer’ in the Tai Yai language and Su Tong Pae is a source of pride amongst the local community. Rice plantation owners donated the land and the villagers came together to construct the bridge using interwoven strips of bamboo for the walkway and wooden supports to elevate the bridge above the rice fields.”

Mae Hong Son bamboo bridge

The ride to Ban Rak Thai was steep. And hilly. Did I mention steep, as in crazy uphill curvy road? My motorbike was slow, but managed it, however, Kurt’s almost did not have enough horsepower to take those hilly roads. He was worried that he would have to get off and push it, and I stopped to wait for him constantly. Yet, eventually we made it to our destination. The Chinese village was cute and quiet and full of tea shops. We sat down in a restaurant to rest from our crazy ride, pointed at a few things on the menu and somehow ended up having one of the best meals EVER. There were mushrooms, and veggies, and meat, and was so hungry that I completely forgot to photograph it! Here is the village though:

Ban Rak Thai

Ban Rak Thai village

On the way to Ban Rak Thai, one thing we never came across, was a gas station. At the village, our tanks were nearly empty, and it was time to ask around about gas. (which is the word no one understood). “Petrol?” “Oil?” “Gasoline?” “Fuel?” People at the restaurant smiled at us, but had no idea what were were talking about. Finally, a manager was motioned over and I made some super awkward motorbike gestures. “Go around the lake, that way!” he said. After more searching and asking, we found it! No wonder the gas stations here are hard to notice. It’s not a station! It’s a bunch of plastic gasoline bottles, conveniently sitting next to flammable straw brooms. One bottle = full tank. Excellent! We can make it home now.

Thai Gas station

If the road to get here was all steep uphill, you can only guess the satisfaction of reverse. My hands hurt from gripping the breaks. It was amazing. And so freeing. And I want to wrap myself forever in that scenery of setting sun and rice fields and villages and Thailand beauty. I’m hungry for more!!! We made it back to Mae Hong Son just in time to navigate rush hour traffic. I would say, we passed our initial motorbike test pretty well, and I can NOT wait to get on one again!

Thailand countryside

From Mae Hong Son, there was a brief 40 minute flight, and suddenly, we were back in Chiang Mai, where it all started. By the way, Chiang Mai music scene is not too shabby: Croissant, the reggae band, played covers, but always rocked it. The jazz club musicians we also excellent.

Chiang Mai music scene

Chiang Mai Jazz club

Last, but not least: elephants! There are many places to visit them, some humane, and some not-so-humane. We chose to go to a no-riding elephant sanctuary, which houses a few female elephants and a baby. Adults were actually “rescued” (bought out) from places that used them in the past for riding.

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary

Elephants are so cute and weird. They are like aliens – their trunks are powerful and multi functional, which is both entertaining and awe-inspiring. That thing is a nose, and a hand, and a thumb, and just wait until one sneezes on you – you get showered with a stinky mist, and yet it is somehow also very lovable. They eat tree branches and tree trunks for lunch with ease, and readily take bananas from your hand, wapping it with their giant tongues. We gave them a mud bath and they seemed happy, prancing away to their tourist-free pastures.

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary

Northern Thailand, you were amazing. Your people are friendly, kind, and gentle, you are full of beauty and adventure. Of course, you have some strange parts, but think I’m in love with you, and no surprise, many others are, too. Someday, we will meet again, and until then – please stay as wonderful and safe and peaceful as you were to us.

Girl and Husky painting

Girl and Husky commissioned painting

When it comes to portraits, I take on only a select few commissions each year, for customers who enjoy the fact that I paint a “likeness” of a person with maybe some slightly exaggerated features, enhanced colors, and my own made-up background patterns. And when it comes to animal portraits, I only paint dogs. I do find them irresistible with their unique personalities and trusting eyes. With that said, a couple of “Girl and Dog” assignments came my way recently, I happily took them on, and here are results of the first one.

My latest portraits are all created on cradled wooden panels (not canvas) because I feel that they allow for better detail capture, especially when, in the end, I enhance my painting with pen. Here are Girl and Husky – done from a photograph, with acrylic and pen.

Beginning stages:

Girl and Husky painting by Anastasia Mak

Girl and Husky painting by Anastasia Mak

(I left the painting like this, with “Zombie Eyes”, for sometime to complete a few other projects. Eventually my studio assistant begged me to fill them in because they were frightening her.)

Girl and Husky painting by Anastasia Mak

Wheew – eye are present. Now, to get to those little details.

Girl and Husky painting by Anastasia Mak

And – final result below! Now I just want to meet and hang out with that happy husky.

Girl and Husky painting

57th Street Art Fair 2016 poster by Anastasia Mak

57th Street Art Fair 2016 poster artist

I was thrilled to be invited by the 57th Street Art Fair to create a commission for their 2016 poster.

This Fair is a nice show in Chicago’s south side neighborhood of Hyde Park, located not too far from University of Chicago campus. The commissioned project involved creating a painting, completing a poster design, as well as making all of festival’s other supporting materials (postcards, bookmarks, lanyards, etc) – print ready.

After brainstorming the painting subject matter with the festival committee, we settled on Botany Pond – a serene little water spot in the Main Quadrangle of UIC campus, full of lilies and surrounded by plants and flowers, with a walking bridge over it. The building I placed behind Botany Pond in the painting is actually located a little further away in real life (on the other side of UIC’s Main Quad). But I chose it for this piece because I found it so interesting. Its gothic style has many little details that are fun to paint, and the right portion of it reminds me of a castle.

Here is the initial proposal sketch:

57th Street Art Fair poster sketch

….And completed painting along with my final poster design:

57th Street Art Fair 2016 poster by Anastasia Mak

….and one of many street lamp banners advertising the festival!

57th Street Art Fair 2016 banner

What a fun project! I look forward to being there during the show days on June 4th and 5th! Stop by my booth (just south of the info tent) to say hello.

Thailand painting by Anastasia Mak

Thailand commissioned painting – “Sawadee Ka”

Here is a recently completed commissioned Thailand painting, based on two separate photos provided by customer. One photo featured beach, water, and those beautiful vertical cliffs. Another – orange wooden boats, frequently seen in Thai waters. I have been to Thailand, but so far – only to Bangkok, and not the “postcard Thailand” – beaches, small villages, etc. That visit was a quickie stop after spending 3 weeks traversing through Cambodia and Vietnam, and of course, I thirst to return to Thailand and see the rest. Needless to say, the subject matter of this commission got me very excited. It was a pleasure to create this piece with acrylics on a 22×28 canvas. Now the painting has traveled to Texas, and happily lives there above a fireplace, bringing back memories of what I am sure was a magical trip.

The title of this piece is Sawadee Ka – a Thai greeting.

Below are a few painting progress photos, and the final result.

Thailand painting sketch

Thailand painting progress

Thailand painting progress

Thailand painting by Anastasia Mak

Thailand painting on display

Forbes feature - Anastasia Mak

Forbes: Price Ranges and Studio Images of 14 Contemporary Artists

Very honored to be included in this Forbes list of contemporary artists’ studios! I’m in the company of some very talented people here. Thank you, Jason Borbet, for the feature! Here is the link to the entire piece.

Forbes feature - Anastasia Mak

Alaska Plein Air painting

Dipping my feet in plein air painting

This summer, I have been enjoying a fresh (to me) way of creating: via plein air painting! While I have done plenty of street sketches during my travels, painting a canvas outdoors is something that I don’t typically engage in because my original pieces are so time-consuming.

Lately though, I have taken advantage of our perfect summer and fall weather, and worked on several canvases on location. This “new hobby” has forced me to paint in busy, ever-changing environment and with faster-drying acrylics. I believe that plein air painting serves as a great creative exercise, and plan on continuing this practice, whenever weather allows.

Here is the piece I worked on in July, all the way in Seward, Alaska, with a final studio-refined result below.

Alaska Plein Air painting

Seward Alaska painting

Now, to be clear: I do not (and will not, at least in the foreseeable future) consider myself a plein air painter in the full sense of this word. Artists who are fully dedicated to creating their paintings en plein air, normally complete their pieces on location from start to finish. They tend to stick to a loose impressionistic style, and do not refine their works later in the studio. I, on the other hand, start my pieces outside, and then tinker with them in the studio, using pens and other media, as long as I want to, until I deem them complete.

So, for me, plein air painting simply means enjoying some creation time outside. All of the other rules I make up as I go.

Here is a piece created on a beautiful September day, on a beach in Evanston, IL (with studio completion):

Beach Prairie paintng

Evanston Beach plein air painting

And this one was born on a beach in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. I focused my piece on the red umbrellas and cute vibe of Chicago Waterfront Cafe, a hidden gem tucked between highrises on our beautiful lakefront. I’ve been painting local scenes with Joy of Art De Joie, a super prolific, talented plein air artist.

Chicago plein air painting

Chicago Waterfront Cafe painting


Ketubah painting commission

This one was completed in the end of last year. I am not Jewish, so when I was approached with a request to create a ketubah painting, I admit, at first I wasn’t sure exactly what it could be. An exotic fruit? Or maybe a funny-looking hat? Turns out, it is a traditional Jewish marriage contract! The artwork that goes with Ketubah can be anything that has meaning to the couple, and I was asked to create a modern version of one. So, I painted a scene with the lake and lighthouse (located here on Chicago’s north side), and the contract text was added in using a new to me technique – a gel medium transfer. Gel medium transfer consists of printing the text (backwards) on a laser printer, and “gluing” that printed paper to the artwork by using an acrylic matte medium. After everything dries (I left it to dry overnight), paper is carefully rubbed off with a wet sponge. What remains is the black ink, adhered to gel, which is adhered to your art panel. I had to practice this several times before attempting on the actual painting. Result was a success! Printed text transferred quite well with a little bit of that worn, “aged” look – just what the couple requested. Here are several stages of the painting along with a final result:

Ketubah painting process


In the end, I changed the border from orange to blue, to make it a little calmer. (Names have been blurred out for customer privacy)

Modern ketubah painting

When ceremony time approached, the bride and groom signed their names on lines I drew below the text. Very fun, unique project and I got to experiment with something new! (…Oh, and then I added my little artist signature to the other side of the painting, but was assured by the couple that I would not be entering into their contract my signing my own artwork. Because that would be a little awkward …..)

Ketubah painting by Anastasia Mak

jazirat al hamra historic village

Visiting empty, eerie Jazirat Al Hamra Historic Village

For my live painting session at the RAK Fine Art Festival, I had to come up with a subject that connects to Ras Al Khaimah – so, the obvious choice was to depict a local landmark. There is a lot of new construction in RAK, as this is a rapidly evolving region of a very young country – but what’s more interesting to me is historic decay. After reading about Jazirat Al Hamra Historic Village (sometimes spelled Al Jazirah Al Hamra), I became fascinated by it and decided that it had to be the subject of my painting.

jazirat al hamra historic village

After we settled in our hotel in RAK, Kurt and I took a cab out to the village to explore it. We were told that it would probably be difficult to catch a taxi back to our hotel, as there are not many that go by the village – so we made arrangement with our cabbie to be picked up in the same spot in an hour.


The historic town is located near an older residential neighborhood, where many people were out as this was Friday – non-working prayer day for Muslims. (by “people”, though, I mean men – women tend to stay at homes with families as opposed to walking to mosques with their husbands). After we entered the village, however, we became enveloped in total silence – this is a ghost village, after all, and channel a strong eery sensation it did. Not surprisingly, many locals claim it to be haunted. Overcast weather also helped set the backdrop.

Jazirat Al Hamra ghost village

jazirat al hamra

Jazirat Al Hamra  – which translates to Red Island – once was a busy coastal settlement. It thrived on fishing and pearl-trading, and was occupied by the al-Zaab tribe. Its remains are full of pre-oil era architecture, with many buildings constructed around early and mid-20th century. The settlement itself dates way back to the 14th century. At one time, it actually was an island – but the space around it was slowly filled in, connecting it the mainland.

jazirat al hamra ghost village

Many of the walls here were are constructed from beach rock, corals, and sea shells, mixed in with mud. Decorative elements of houses appear to be made out of porous concrete (or a material similar to it). The village has now been abandoned for about 5 decades, and many parts of it are very brittle. Hiking through these ruins, I had a feeling that some of the remaining standing walls could crumble had I decided to push them hard enough. I could have taken pieces of these buildings home in my suitcase if I wanted to. The village is wide open for anyone to enter, and yet there was NO ONE – not a single soul – there aside from the two of us.

al jazirah al hamra

jazirat al hamra fishing village

The wealthiest residential home in the village (which belonged to a merchant) is constructed with wind towers – they were are designed to funnel any breeze into the house and served a fan in this hot climate. (Modern architecture in the Emirates mimics these types of wind towers – although now, that air conditioning is prevalent, they are only built as an imitation for decorative purposes).

al jazirah al hamra emirates

jazirat al hamra village

The center of the village contains one of the oldest mosques in the Emirates, along with once bustling market stalls where pearl trading and sales of goods, shipped in from faraway lands, used to take place.

jazirat al hamra

Jazirat Al Hamra ghost town

At the cusp of the 20th century, Jazirat Al-Hamra had a fleet of 25 ships and many more pearling and fishing boats. Pearl divers from the village performed grueling journeys out to sea to fetch the treasure from pearling beds. Village’s positioning on the Arabic Gulf shore helped make it an important hub, into which goods from Africa, India, Iran were brought by sea and then distributed by resellers to other locations.

jazirat al hamra gulf

It was amazing to think of all this history while climbing over ruins of rock, stepping inside old buildings and not encountering a single soul. Once we reached the central market area, we had to turn around and head to our meeting place with the cab driver because an hour went by so quickly. But we knew that we did not see the entire town, and we were craving to explore the rest. Well, 2 days later we were in another taxi headed back here.

jazirat al hamra historic town

Our second cab driver had never heard of Jazirat Al-Hamra and has no idea where to go. He even consulted with other cabbies, and we pointed to it on the map, but he still did not have a clue. Luckily, we now knew the way and guided him as he drove. We didn’t ask him to return to pick us up – getting a taxi back from the village may be difficult, but certainly not impossible (we were happy to take our chances). This time, I also wore tennis shoes – because climbing rocks and ruined in fancy sandals previously proved to be a little painful.

al jazirat al hamra

Our return was on a sunny day, and because of clear weather and white puffy clouds, village felt less haunted, but was still very quiet and 100% empty again.

jazirat al hamra fishing town

Around 1930’s local pearl trading industry started to dry up, as Japan was underpricing pearl sellers from this region. Over the next 3 decades, the village was surviving on sales of other goods and boat building, but local inhabitants began to have problems with their government. Eventually they started to relocate to other bigger cities, attracted by better job prospects in the evolving oil industry, and others were given newer residencies elsewhere in Ras Al Khaimah. Yet some locals strongly believe that people moved out because of Jinn – spirits from another world that haunted this town. One way or another, Jazirat Al Hamra was abandoned in the 1960s.

jazirat al hamra emirates

There is no other place like it in the UAE, and while efforts are underway to protect and clean up Jazirat Al Hamra, we were amazed to see how accessible and open and full of rubble it is. This ghost town is quite large – on our second day we walked for another hour and a half and saw the rest of it. And while our hotel (a 15-minute cab ride away) was packed with European vacationers, NONE of them were making their way here – it just doesn’t seem to be a tourist destination, which is mind-blowing considering how fascinated I was by this place. I certainly don’t think it will stay like this – as Ras Al Khaimah continues to develop and attracts more international visitors, the village will eventually get ‘discovered’ and tourist crowds will follow. I also believe (I hope!) that this place will become better preserved, which probably means that most fragile buildings will be off-limits. …For now though, if you are in the Emirates, want to step back in time, away from any noise, and be completely alone – there is a very good chance you will find that in Jazirat Al Hamra. Just wear comfy shoes.

al jazirah al hamra uae

jazirat al hamra uae

As for my live painting subject, I selected the village’s oldest mosque and its entrance fort. I juxtaposed both structures on a square canvas. Go here to see painting’s progress shots along with a completed piece.

Oh, and here I am with Anna. She is a reporter who lives in Ras Al Khamiah. She has immense knowledge of the area and its people. If you are interested to read an in-depth piece on Jazirat Al Hamra (along with a link to the interactive map of the village’s center) – check our her article right here.  She also runs an amazing Facebook page, People of Ras Al Khaimah .

Anna Ras Al Khamiah

“Snowboard Girl” commissioned painting

Lately, I’ve been creating a series of Girl figurative works, and here is my latest one – Snowboard Girl. For the last few years, I have missed painting semi-whimsical figures and faces, and they give my eyes a welcome break from rigid architecture. Actually, I always try to work on more than one painting at a time – and my ideal situation is to be switching between a figurative (or floral) piece and a city-themed piece. It doesn’t always work out that way due to deadlines and schedules, but that is a perfect combo to help my painting brain stay “balanced”.

My figurative works the were noticed by customers, and now I get commission requests for custom figurative pieces. While I DO NOT paint portraits per se (traditional portraiture has never been my forte as I have very little training in that area), I am happy to paint someone’s likeness (their whimsical character, if you will) – if I find that the assignment fits my style.

With this project, I was asked to paint a girl on a snowboard who would loosely resemble this customer’s daughter. I was eager to create the piece, as I love snowboarding and thought that the composition could well intertwine with my signature abstract background. The girl that the painting was created after has reddish hair and blue eyes, and I also did my best to mimic her thin nose and a smile. Result was a big success! I love the painting and the customer does too. I look forward to creating more paintings in my “Girl” series. …And, also really need to get on that snowboard. It’s been a couple of years!

Here are some progress stages of the painting, from initial sketch to completed piece.

Snowboard Girl sketch

Snowboard girl painting progress 1


Snowboard girl painting progress 3

Snowboard girl painting by Anastasia Mak

United Arab Emirates Art Outreach: murals at boys’ schools & drawing demo at women’s college

United Arab Emirates Art Outreach: After the fun days of Ras Al Khaimah Fine Art Festival, my assignment in the UAE consisted of doing some art outreach programs. So, I was asked to work on art projects with the boys in two local schools. Specifically, these boys are a part of Hands-On Learning Program.

Ras al Khaimah school

Hands-On Learning Program was brought to The Emirates from Australia by Al Qasimi Foundation. It is currently being tested in these two schools in Ras Al Khaimah, and may expand to other locations in the future if it proves successful. The program targets youth who may be at risk of dropping out of school and / or are not thriving in a traditional classroom setting – due to either behavioral issues, or lack of interest, or poor grades, or other difficulties. Boys who are assigned to be in the program, get to leave their regular class one day a week and work building various projects with their hands  – such as furniture construction, landscaping, repair, etc.  Such tasks allow them to stay connected to their local schools and communities while refining their work ethic and communication skills. A big part of the program also involves achieving fluency in English (which is the second language in UAE, after Arabic) – thus, only English is spoken during these class days. Caleb, who is American and teaches these classes, is very patient and awesome with the kids. Personally, I think this program is an excellent concept and should be adopted by every school.

Ras Al Khaimah school

It was decided that in each school’s art project will be a wall mural – not a simple task, considering that I was given only one school day in each location to oversee the entire thing from start to (hopefully) finish.

Ras Al Khaimah school

Boys worked on several sketches before my arrival of possible mural concepts. They were told to come up scenes that relates to the Emirates – their traditions, history, culture, or architecture. The walls for murals were chosen by each school’s administration.

Ras Al Khaimah school

In the first school, (Al Jazeerah Al Hamra), the mural design that boys chose was a semi-abstract decorative pattern. But, then, after looking through prints of my work that I brought in to show, and seeing an image of my Istanbul painting, they got inspired by a mosque and we decided to include it into out wall creation.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

So how do you go from nothing to an (almost) full mural in about 4.5 hours? You paint fast! First, I sketched the design on a wall – a tricky task since I mostly eyeballed proportions.

Arab Emirates school mural

Then, “the team” and I started with black outlines.

United Arab Emirates school mural

Then, we added in color and I showed the boys how to layer texture. The point of this project was to get all of them to paint, so my role here was more of a “mural manager”.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

These kids’ English is not at a great level yet, and they were shy about answering my questions and picking up a paint brush at fist. They also have little painting experience, so initially their lines were sloppy and they were impatient about creating solid color coverage in each section. But as we continued with the mural, it was so nice to watch their transformation – they became less shy, more communicative, and seemed to really get into the project! Over the course of these few hours they started to care about quality of their work, and each of them even seemed to find his “niche” – so I deemed one kid to be my “designated cloud painter”.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Some onlookers gathered to watch through the classroom windows.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

As a part of Hands On Learning program, boys were also in charge of making lunch – so they prepared a yummy salad and some “pizza”.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

FIRST SCHOOL’S FINAL RESULT: mural mostly completed! Impressive, considering the brief amount of time we were given. I was also taken on a tour of the school and even got to meet the principal.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Second mural project was the next day, and took place in Saeed Bin Jubair Boys’ School.

Ras Al Khaimah school

Ras Al Khaimah school

Here, I was introduced to another group of kids, and another, much larger, blank wall.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

The subject chosen for this mural was a landscape with a Emirati woman preparing bread – a folklore scene. In the background would be trees and mountains, on the left side – a house / shack constructed with mud and dried palm leaves, which is an older, traditional way of building in this region.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

This wall was at least 3 times as large as previous day’s wall – so, this mural would be a multi-day project, but since I only had a day to work with the kids, I was eager to get as much done as possible.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

The wall was in an open area of a school, so during breaks between classes, we were swarmed with boys watching us work. And you know what? They were teasing our group a little about painting, but I’m pretty sure they were actually a little envious of their friends in Hands On Learning who got to work on such a fun task.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school

This mural was also more difficult because instead of flat colors, every area of it was meant to be filled with texture. I showed boys what brushing techniques I use to paint grass, mountains, tree bark – and they tried their best to imitate.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

The woman in the mural is wearing a traditional Emirati burqa (sometimes called Khaleeji burqa, or in other countries called Batula). This one is quite different from a burqa as Western world understands it – it covers a smaller portion of the woman’s face and is made of hard fabric with a metallic texture. These burqas are now mostly found in rural areas amongst the older generation, they look a bit like fighting armor, and were initially designed to mimic a falcon. Such burqas were worn to conceal a woman’s face, yes – but also served a purpose of decoration and protection from sand and sunburn.

When I finished painting the woman’s face, it was translated to me that boys said that I made her eyes look like a gazelle – I thought it was a bad thing, until they explained that it is how they give compliments to girls! Ha. The kid whose sketch we used for a mural took charge of painting her dress and rug – very colorful combination!

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

SECOND SCHOOL’S RESULT: In the end of the day, we ended up with this! Not too shabby for 4.5 hours of work. Boys will be finishing this mural on their own. I left this school with memories of another fantastic day.

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

Ras Al Khaimah school mural

That evening, we left Ras Al Khaimah and traveled over the mountain range to Fujairah, where I did a presentation and pencil drawing demo at women’s Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT). This is the only corner of UAE that has mountains, and, unlike most of the country, Fujairah coastline sits on Gulf of Oman, facing East.


Visiting a federal university here requires government clearance, and after submitting lots of paperwork through U.S. embassy weeks ago, I was finally given clearance the day before my visit! At HCT, I talked about being an artist, and then did a quick pencil demo on how to sketch, shade, and measure proportions of a face. Funny thing is, I did not know exactly what I was going to be doing at HCT – I only found out about the drawing demo on the day I received my clearance. I’m a painter, and have never even given a pencil drawing demo before – but my Ukrainian art preparatory school classes paid off here, and I was able to wing it! I showed these ladies how to alter the face and make it look old, young, happy, sad, neutral. I gave my drawn lady ears, but then covered her head to mimic the same type of hijab that all the women in front of me were wearing.

Fujairah drawing demo

Typically, Emrati Muslim women prefer that photos of their faces are not shared by others on social media, so while they took photos with me for my personal enjoyment, they will not be posted here. But even though I can’t share their smiles, I must say that they were the sweetest. They seemed very interested in my stories, my demo, and even laughed at all of my cheesy jokes.

Fujairah higher colleges of technology drawing

And with that, my art projects in UAE were completed. What an amazing experience! I loved every minute of it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.