CraftRemco Merbis

Chloe Rose Quinn

CraftRemco Merbis
Chloe Rose Quinn

Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Teri Bocko

Even the word 'Bali' evokes visions of paradise. The island has everything you could wish for – sunshine, surf, mountains, jungle… It is not only a feast for the senses but a state of mind. There is something ineffable; calming but galvanising. People smile wherever you go and care where you’ve been and about becoming part of your story. Such generosity and opulence breeds creativity. And for Chloe Rose, this is the reason Bali has gone from a holiday destination to a home.

After completing a Theatre Design Degree at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Chloe entered the daunting world of being a freelance designer. At first, she found it immensely challenging to find a creative area that best fit her skills and passions. For a brief period Chloe lost her creative drive and trained to become a teacher instead, but she felt colourless. Bali was an escape then. Every year, she went back and stayed with the same homestay family in Bona village who soon became her adopted Balinese family. One Christmas, she was introduced to a traditional Balinese wedding dekorasi craft workshop – it was this that provided the ‘lightbulb moment’ that changed the course of her life. The workshop said they would teach her the craft if she returned for longer. So Chloe quit teaching, booked a one-way ticket, and followed her heart. She now lives in Ubud with her pup Phoebe. Chloe says that most of her friends are locals now because other international digital nomads ‘eventually always leave.’ Not Chloe, it seems like she’s here to stay. ‘As long as I can continue to create opportunities to keep growing our work I want to be here. It is where I feel most myself. It’s where I most feel the potential of everything.’ This is her story: it is an inspiring reminder that if creativity is in your soul, then you have to keep making, no matter how hard it becomes. Your paradise is possible. Just take the chance.

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I think craftsmanship is an innate confidence in your ability to marry your imagination with your hands.

How would you describe yourself as a maker?

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I’m really into craftsmanship, which means making things with my hands. I’m not someone who plans things online, or who does anything technical. I just like to physically make and play around, and see things organically form in front of me.

Currently, I work with Make a Scene! Bali. We make everything from traditional Balinese gayor entrance-ways to contemporary installations for festivals and events. We even make wearable woven art, including bespoke hats, headdresses and dresses – all hand-woven out of coconut leaf.

How would you define craftsmanship?

I think craftsmanship is an innate confidence in your ability to marry your imagination with your hands. I do believe you can learn a craft, but I also think that there is a confidence and trust in your own ability to ‘create’ that comes naturally to some people.

I think craft is something to be respected. It is more community-based than other art and becomes richer when you share with others. The more you have an open spirit and let other people’s ideas, interpretation, and influence inspire what you do the better things you’ll make.

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What’s your favourite place and why?

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My favourite place is here in Ubud, Bali. The whole of Bali has a real focus on craft, but Ubud is known as this centre for artists and there’s a reason for that. It’s just so beautiful. I love driving around on my bike. There is never a day that goes by that you don’t see something that’s a treat for the eyes. Whether it’s the vivid colour of the temple clothing, or the farmers with their cone hats sieving rice in the paddies, or the rice terraces themselves in their different stages throughout the seasons… even just seeing women making mebanten offerings every day. It’s always an explosion for the visual palette. I just stare and stare and breathe in the smell of the incense or that lush vegetation. It’s really beautiful and nourishing for the soul.

Bambu Indah is also a special place for me. It’s a luxury eco-boutique hotel here in Ubud designed by John and Cynthia Hardy. Elora Hardy’s wedding was a big moment for me. I think it really encapsulated how dressing a space even so delicately has the potential to create absolute magic. A fairy-tale. It was about letting nature take centre stage, and not overworking the beauty that comes from that. They have a real knack for taking something in nature that could go unnoticed and giving it a stage. It’s not about buying things or making something new - just taking from this abundant, beautiful island and giving it the most delicate human touch. That place does everything creativity should do: it lets people get lost in an atmosphere that has been lovingly curated for the senses. For that reason, it’s a huge inspiration. It was actually the manager of the hotel who steered my course into finding a green alternative to wedding dekorasi. She provided that watershed pivot that led me to the team of coconut leaf weavers in Mengwi.

I was lucky to be there, in this very small rural village, seeing what I was seeing. I felt privileged. It was one of those jewels of a moment that will stay with me forever.

How did you find the coconut leaf weaver workshop?

At the first workshop I was an apprentice with, we were using carved polystyrene, spray paints and fabrics. As much as what I was making was beautiful and theatrical, those materials have a really nasty environmental footprint. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to get far with those materials in Bali. When the manager of Bambu Indah was very honest and frank with me and said I needed to find a green alternative, this was a big reality check. I was a bit overwhelmed to tell you the truth.

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But a couple of weeks later I received a Facebook post from her with the message: ‘this is exactly what I mean’. She’d sent me Gus Ari’s very first Facebook post about his innovative new natural weaving decoration. The post was all in Indonesian, but there was a number at the bottom so I rang it We had a conversation in really bad broken Indonesian and English and somehow managed to arrange for me to go see his workshop.

It was a forty-minute drive outside of Ubud and I was a bit worried about going on my own. I tried to get a friend to come with me, but she was unavailable. This almost put me off, but I thought: ‘I’m not going to miss this opportunity!’ So I went. Almost inevitably, I got lost. When they eventually found me and picked me up, they were the nicest people - so open and kind. They walked me around the village to this wedding they’d just installed. As soon as I saw the woven decoration, I realised that I’d found something VERY special. I had never seen anything like this before, and I was amazed at the creativity. I was lucky to be there, in this very small rural village, seeing what I was seeing. I felt privileged. It was one of those jewels of a moment that will stay with me forever. I knew this was a team of exceptional artists and that I needed to spend more time with them.

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How did you go from being a visitor to part of the workshop team?

I just expressed my enthusiasm and awe for their innovative new style of work and asked if I could come back on their next installation. From that first meeting I just kept coming back and back, just following, watching, tagging along and gradually built up trust over a period of weeks and months. If Gus Ari had not been as generous about sharing and teaching me about his craft I would never have gotten far… but he was the most open person and just so thrilled I was showing an appreciation and awe for what he was doing. He created the opportunity to ask more questions and to keep coming back. His attitude was pivotal in making his team and his work my sole focus and passion here on the island.

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It’s because of him that the workshop is really progressive. There is now a large proportion of women weavers, which is really great, as craft is usually male-dominated in Bali. These women are brilliant and everything they do is immaculate. It’s a reflection on Gus Ari’s attitude and he’s winning, because he’s doubled his workforce by not following society’s norms. I count my blessings every day that I met Gus. He is a bit of a rule breaker and feels like a bit of a kindred spirit in that way. He takes risks, always up for a challenge and has an incredible ‘can do’ attitude.

I was doing a Women in Transition business course at the time, so I was starting to think about what the potential was. When Bali Spirit Festival came along it was the very first project where I enabled collaboration with a Western event. From then on I knew I wanted to learn the craft of weaving myself.

I want to make beautiful things that reflect the fact that they were made with joy.
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What is important to you about the things you make?

It sounds so cliché, but they’ve got to be beautiful. I want to make beautiful things that reflect the fact that they were made with joy. If I’ve stressed and really laboured over something then I know it didn’t come from spontaneity and I inevitably don’t really like what I have created. I enjoy things that are freeflowing and open to making discoveries about what a material can do. I’ve always found that it’s the unplanned mistakes that lead to the best outcomes.

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I learnt this early. At school, I had the most amazing art teacher called Mr Lever. He put me in the hallway with this big piece of paper to throw paint at. I had massive brushes and was sweeping this paint around and it was all dripping down onto the stairs and carpet and I was making a big mess. It was really liberal art compared to everything I’d done before then! I absolutely loved it.

At first, all these black dribbles appeared and it was so spontaneous… then I over-worked it. I was so disappointed. It went from expressive and daring to really rigid. I’d obliterated all those lovely black marks and made something boring. I thought it was ruined, but then, when I tried to get some of the paint off with this rag, I saw that, because I’d been overworking it, there were so many layers of paint underneath and when I tried to wipe some off I got back to the drips and they looked even better than before because they were under this film of subsequent paint that made it look kind of vintage. It brought the piece back to life and actually made it better - all because I’d made a mistake. Sometimes the unplanned is what’s beautiful. You’d never actively want to create a painting then rub it all out to get back to the start… but it worked! That’s why I love mistakes. I owe my art teacher so much for putting me on that stairwell. It was him - allowing me to make a mess and be really bold and fearless with art - that taught me that lesson and inspired me to be an artist. I will always be so thankful to him.

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The world needs creatives to soften the sometimes overwhelming and hard edges. For me, creating is like offering the world this little pocket of softness.

Why do you think it’s important to create?

Creating gives an outlet for your imagination - at least it does for me! It’s my way of getting all the things going on in my head out in the world. The world needs creatives to soften the sometimes overwhelming and hard edges. For me, creating is like offering the world this little pocket of softness. It can take people out of themselves for a little while by indulging them in the joy of looking at something beautiful that somebody else has taken time to make with care. I think it’s really important.

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In Bali you see tourism pulling local people away from their heritage and culture in craft to make more money in westernised hotels and on tours. Most people come from villages that are expert in some form of craft - whether that’s bamboo-furniture making, woodcarving, stone carving, egg painting, miniature painting... Your great grandfather taught your grandfather who would teach your dad, and your dad would teach you. Now the youth aren’t valuing their skill-based culture so much and are leaving it because they can make better money being drivers or working in hotels and that’s so sad. That’s why Make a Scene! is really important. It is making handicraft exciting, contemporary and desirable again.

In the last few months I’ve been in the workshop weaving and one of the main craftsmen’s daughter (who has never shown an interest in weaving before!) started to weave next to me because there’s this white 'Bule' doing it, it’s now cool! I think it’s really important for young people, wherever they live in the world, to recognise how lucky it is to be inherently artistic and value that.

I couldn’t believe my life had allowed me to continue my childhood passion in an adult way.
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What made you make?

I’m not sure, but for as long as I can remember making is all I’ve been interested in. When I was little, I was fascinated with faeries. I had this book called Fairie-ality full of ball-gowns made out of leaves and petals and feathers. I would copy it and make doll-sized faerie outfits. And now I have created a life where I am making crowns and dresses out of coconut leaf for a living!

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I had a real ‘whoa moment’ at an event I was doing recently. We were having a Make a Scene! photobooth and I wanted to make a whole host of headwear that was natural for people to wear for their photos. I made cone party hats out of banana leaf and decorated each one with different tropical flowers. I made this Philip Treacy headdress with rose petals and a big spiky thorny twig shooting out of the top… As I was finishing it, I looked around and realised this was the adult version of that book! It was such a magical thing to realise. I couldn’t believe my life had allowed me to continue my childhood passion in an adult way.

What places from your past have made you?

Art foundation was where I experimented with mixed media and the potential of mixing and contrasting materials. I then went on to study Theatre Design at RWCMD, which challenged me to think outside the box. You were given a Shakespeare play that had been done a million times and it was like, right, how am I going to make it different and make my mark with the same black box theatre everyone else has been given? What am I going to bring to it? I had an amazing education that encouraged me to look everywhere for inspiration, to look more closely at everything around me; surroundings, nature, arrangements, surfaces - all for design ideas and inspiration. My eyes were trained to look at a scenario or scene I would walk past every day and see it as a potential stage set. What if I introduced this object into my set, what if all the characters dressed like this, what if … what if… I’m grateful for the inquisitiveness my training gave me to test the limits of objects and forms and challenge norms.

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However, I knew I didn’t want to pursue theatre. Ultimately, I found it too limiting. I wanted to dress spaces, but with theatre, there was too much problem solving involved. I just wanted to create something beautiful.

I got the opportunity to design a wedding reception. It was themed and I loved it. I tried doing window displays after that and I liked that because there’s an element of fantasy involved. I did costumes for dance and tried many different areas but nothing was particularly working and I was feeling anxious about how to carve a career after university. This anxiety and fear forced me towards a teaching qualification. I won’t dwell too long on that, but I will say it was a miserable two years. I just felt like a square peg in a round hole. I really experienced what squandering creativity feels like. Everything stopped - I didn’t paint, I didn’t draw. I didn’t look like a joyful, arty person anymore. I dressed differently - I wore grey! I’d never worn grey before then. I looked down and I had black, cream, and grey on every day. That reflected how I was feeling

Bali was my escape. I’d been there every year since I started university. From the very first time I visited, the island stayed with me and never left. It’s where I feel most creatively and personally fulfilled. I always went back to the same homestay, where the stars aligned for me and led me to stumble across my true calling. I had found a unique craft that married my two loves: theatre and art. I couldn’t be happier. With the help of a strong network of people around me and most importantly craftsman Gus Ari, I’ve managed to make living in Bali a reality for myself.

I’ve not looked back and, as long as the opportunities keep coming in, I plan to stay.

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The Workshop

Chloe Rose designs and weaves in a busy workshop with the rest of the Make a Scene! team. She says the community has grown so much since she first visited, after getting lost on her motorbike, and has gone from a place that she just visited and observed to somewhere she feels truly at home. The workshop is always busy, full of laughter and conversation. Like the rest of Bali, the workshop is a sensory experience – always full of the smells of someone making Balinese coffee, incense wafting up from the beautiful offerings for the gods and of course - cigarette smoke… It’s loud but peaceful, full of smiles and activity. Chloe says she has come to regard the community of weavers as her family and the workshop as a home. She misses it when she spends a few days away from it and is always itching to return.

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The cenang

These are offerings to the gods that Balinese women handcraft and leave for the gods every day. For people to just create something that beautiful every day so naturally… not for a party, not for an event but just to put it on the ground before they start their day… Seeing them the first time I came here made me realise that this was a place I needed to be. I knew this was such a special place full of art and beauty.

I was having some career coaching when I was struggling in the U.K. and was confused about what I wanted to do I and where my skills and passions would fit. My coach did this exercise whenever she could feel me getting anxious or panicky. She said visualise a place where you feel absolutely calm and free, where you feel like you’ve got your life ahead of you. That place was always a particular street in Ubud. In my mind’s eye, I’d see a beautiful collection of cenang by my feet and I’d have to step over them delicately before skipping joyfully down the road. In that meditation image the cenang was the focus because it meant beauty and art and how I needed to respect that. So it’s always been a really special symbol for me.

My hairbands

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I started making flower hair-bands here in Bali and quickly realised that every time I walked out wearing one it would instantly help me to connect with people. They’d shout ‘nice flowers!’ down the street and the smiles would start. We’d just immediately have a conversation. I’d explain that I made the hairbands and that I’m a maker. It was an amazing way to start spontaneous conversations with strangers.

In The Art of People, Dave Kerpen says you should always try to stand out from the crowd and represent what you do. He says that if you always have a certain colour of shoe, or way of wearing your hair, people will spot you and remember. And it’s so true. I’ve become known as ‘the girl who always wears flowers’. I love that! It’s so much better than ‘the girl who always wears grey’, who I was in danger of becoming. And it helps me to start talking about my craft and Make a Scene! People know I’m creative because it’s right there in front of their face, If I’m honest, it’s quite a bold and over the top image which in a way is a little rebellion against those boring teaching days!

There’s a quote in The Art of People, which I now strive to live by, and everything that has happened to me here in Bali resonates with it. The quote is this:

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‘The secret to getting everything you want at work and in life is treating people well not trying to get everything you want. Meet the right people, listen well, connect and inspire them and they’ll want to give you everything you want.’

I’ve found that every positive step I’ve taken in the right direction, has been because of connections I’ve built. I’ve found that if you give, people give back - if you help, they want to help you. If you live with the most honest intentions for yourself and the work you create, ever mindful for a positive effect on Bali- this special island with its people and unmistakable MAGIC will in its own way, protect and guide you. I’ve never known a society of people who want to help so much, so willingly. It’s a very special place for that reason. The people I have met along my journey and who surround me now mean everything to what I do. I cannot thank them enough.

Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.