All photographs by Yana Shvets, except portrait by Slava Liskovsky and video by Bruno Eiroz and Cadu Cassau.
A couple of years ago, Yana Shvets left her job, home and stability in Ukraine. Exploring the world with a sketchbook, a box of watercolours and an open mind instead of directions, she found the courage to pursue her passion on the road.
I crowd with a dozen strangers around a big table in the back yard of Doi Luang café, a few kilometres north of Chiang Mai. The table is cluttered with pencils, watercolours, reference photos, flowers and fruits. All around me, pictures in all sorts of styles are coming to life.
Yana Shvets, the organizer of this art meet-up, is running around the table, giving watercolour crash courses, explaining perspectives, hugging late-comers and occasionally sitting down for a few breaths to work on her own painting. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and later that evening, after being stuck inside my comfort zone for too many months, I write her a message on Facebook to schedule the first interview of my journey.
‘When I lived in Ukraine it was my big dream to travel as much as possible’, she tells me when we meet a few weeks later. ‘When I got my first job, I spent my first salary on travels. Since Ukraine is in the middle of Europe, you can actually go to any European country in a few hours, so I spent a lot of time travelling alone to different European cities. I just felt high on life, because I loved it like crazy.’
A few years ago, this love made Yana turn her own life upside down. She quit her job, gave up her career, moved out of her flat – and out of Ukraine. Her first stop was Greece, where the prospect of going back to Ukraine and her old routines seemed less and less appealing.
‘Apart from my friends and family, I didn’t have anything there to come back to. I didn’t have a place to live or a job or any stability. I just thought: “This is not what I want. What I really want is to be free and travel.” So I took all my last savings and came to Thailand.’
Taking a risk
Yana has been painting as long as she can remember, but it took a while before she made it a priority. She tells me about the stereotypical Ukrainian view of artists – unsuccessful; starving; unknown – which made her choose a more conventional career, studying journalism and working as a social media promoter. When she moved to Thailand and the weight of these social expectations lifted, however, things began to shift.
‘The idea of fixing my memories and emotions in pictures appeared about a year ago when I was living in Koh Lanta and had enough free time to allow myself to paint every single day. I even managed to sell some pictures to tourists, and I just thought: this would be an awesome life, if I could just spend my days on the beach, meditate, have fun, hang out with friends and paint every day. Then I came to Chiang Mai and got involved in the digital nomad community, and I was inspired by all these people who don’t really try to make it perfect – they just launch something and improve it step by step. I realized it actually makes sense to take a risk and try to do something I’m really passionate about.’
At the beginning of October last year, Yana launched TravelArt, a Facebook page where she documents her own journey and connects people who share her passion for art and adventures. She also created her first online video course in watercolour painting, where over a thousand students have already enrolled, and started organizing painting meet-ups in Chiang Mai. The latter was not something she had planned.
‘In Chiang Mai, my life was so full of meetings and events and people and different activities, that I found myself a bit overwhelmed. Compared to Koh Lanta, where I had so much free time, I actually didn’t really have time to paint. Then a friend asked if we could go out and paint together, and that was a big new opening for me, to paint with someone. Usually when I paint, I sit in my room hiding from people. But when more people asked if we could go out and paint, I decided to organize something, so all these people could paint together.”’
Carried by excitement
On a Saturday in late January, she loaded her bike with art supplies and reference objects and rode to Doi Luang to host her first meet-up. To her own surprised, she was hooked.
‘Every time I do this event I feel like I’m flying somewhere. I’m so excited, and I cannot stop smiling and running everywhere. And I really like seeing the reaction of people. How people are smiling and giving each other feedback. That gives me inspiration and another push to keep doing it, because the next moment, when the event is done and I come back home, I feel exhausted. I have no energy to do anything. But each moment during the event is so awesome that I cannot stop doing it. It’s like being on drugs or something.’
Yana’s next step is to launch her first physical product, a sketchbook where she has designed every detail – from the cover art and travel-friendly size to the perforations in the handmade mulberry paper.
‘I bring my sketchbook wherever I go, and where other people would take photos, I make a painting. It’s a high quality sketchbook that I got in Ukraine several years ago, and it’s like my little baby that I carry everywhere. I started thinking of how I could improve this product for the artist and implemented all these little details, which is something I find really exciting. It’s one thing to order some basic product and just put your logotype on it, but it’s another thing to actually design everything from scratch by yourself.’
The road goes ever on
While there is no end in sight to Yana’s journey, she is planning to get a student visa, which would mean staying at least one more year in Thailand.
‘I’ve spent nine or ten months in Chiang Mai and I love the city, but the idea of being here for another year is terrifying. It’s very important for me to change my surroundings, so I will try to organize my time so I can take a break once a month or every other month to go to another country or just down to the islands. Every time I go to a new place, I get super excited. I’m very attentive to details and have another bunch of new thoughts. It’s probably something close to what happens to me when I meditate. If I go for a hike and spend half an hour meditating by a waterfall, it also brings me a lot of ideas. Or at least it clears my mind so that these ideas can pop up in my head, because they were probably already there; I just didn’t notice because I was too busy with other stuff.’
As glamorous as it may sound to leave everything behind and start a new, creative life on the road, there are ups and downs and twists and turns to any adventure. But looking back on the past few years, Yana says that every challenge along the way has opened a door to something new and better.
‘In Thailand, I’ve had so many strange experiences that I’m used to the fact that you can never predict what will happen the next day. I’m constantly living out of my comfort zone, but this is what pushes me to think more and create more.’