Studio Visit

Jai Vasicek

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
25th of October 2013
Embellished handcrafted cross by Jai Vasicek for his current show, Paradiso at Fenton & Fenton in Melbourne.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Embellished handcrafted crosses by Jai Vasicek for his current show, Paradiso at Fenton & Fenton in Melbourne.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Jai Vasicek at work in his Byron Bay studio.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Jai Vasicek in his Byron Bay studio.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.
I'm convinced there is actually something cosmically magnetic about Jai Vasicek, such is the power of his glowingly positive outlook on life.  Jai is based in Byron Bay, and at just 28, he's a prolific creator of beautiful decorative tiles / crucifixes, a talented mixed media artist, and owner of one of Byron's favourite shops, Ahoy Trader. He is also the most endearingly enthusiastic person I think I've ever met, full of buzzing energy and never seen without a smile. I first met Jai earlier this year whilst researching our NSW Coast regional guide. He's the kind of guy who everyone tells you you have to meet as soon as you arrive in Byron. As you will see whilst reading through his wonderful responses to our interview questions below, Jai really wears his heart on his sleeve, and is SO genuinely enthusiastic about the simple joy of running his own shop!  He is like the king of optimism.  Jai basically carries on as if he has won the lottery, simply because he gets to wake up every morning and make beautiful things, and run his beautiful little store, and meet all kinds of brilliant makers, stylists and other creatives along the way.  His attitude, in all honesty, is along the lines of - 'somebody pinch me, I can't believe this is my amazing life'!  It's a beautiful thing. Jai's backstory reads like something out of a classic children's tale.  He spent his childhood living on a boat with his family for over 10 years, with what he cheerfully describes as  a family of  'sea gypsies'.  At 15 he moved to Quebec to trial life on land as an exchange student, then returned to the Gold Coast to finish high school.  At just 18, he was off again, travelling through Brazil, Africa, Mongolia, Indonesia, Europe and other parts of South America for four years, before returning to Australia at age 23.  He opened his first gallery in Port Douglas, but after Cyclone Yasi hit in 2011, he took it as a sign and made the move down to Byron Bay, which suits him to a T. It wasn't long after he arrived in Byron that fate intervened, sending Jai the opportunity to lease a sweet little shop he had has his eye on, opposite his favourite local cafe in Marvell street, Byron Bay.  It's now been 14 months and he hasn't looked back!  Though he's always been a maker of beautiful things, Ahoy Trader has ramped things up a notch for Jai, giving him an outlet to really showcase his unique aesthetic, and connecting him with so many other creatives who inspire his practice and send him all kinds of opportunities.  One such opportunity is his first ever solo show of paintings and decorative crucifixes at Fenton & Fenton in Melbourne this month!  The show, entitled Paradiso is on now until October 31st. 'For me, creating beautiful things for people is such a gift' says Jai.  'I think if I couldn't exist being creative I might as well be dead!'  he concludes, earnestly!  What a totally awesome attitude.  I wish I could bottle a little Jai wisdom for when I'm having a down day!  'I'm just so happy that I am able to create and paint and deliver a story every day' says Jai.  Amen to that. Paradiso by Jai Vasicek  On now until 31 October Fenton & Fenton 471 High St Prahran, VIC  We're also thrilled to be stocking some of Jai's newest decorative tiles and crucifixes at The Design Files Open House next month!
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to what you’re doing now – making your amazing artwork and homewares, opening your own shop, and forging an independent, creative career all before you're even 30!?
I was raised on a 60 ft Monohull yacht that was built by my father, where we lived/sailed between many places (mostly the east coast of Australia) for the first 15 years of my life. My father is a fibreglass boat builder (he built mostly riviera boats in the '80s), and it's amazing now I'm grown up, I can see how my father's skills have impacted my own creative practice. I was always picking my father's brains about things, and then translating his techniques into my own art and homewares. I was a very creative kid, and was always making something or painting artworks using whatever I could get my hands on, including shells and driftwood, and took great pride in building epic sand castle sculptures on islands! At 15 I moved to Quebec to trial life on land (French turf) as an exchange student, then returned to the Gold Coast to finish my high school. I guess my born and bred scenario is that we were a bunch of 'grotty yachtties' or as I preferred to be called, a family of  'sea gypsies'. When I was 18 - 23, I travelled overseas, lived in Brazil for about a year and also travelled through Africa, Mongolia, Indonesia, Europe and other parts of South America. When I returned back to Australia I moved back to Port Douglas to open my first gallery called 'Jai Gallery'. I was getting a little bit saddened by the way Port Douglas had become very commercial, and asked for a sign to move south. That's when Cyclone Yasi hit and that was a big enough sign for me, so I made the move down to Byron Bay! I think everyone that is looking for somewhere to find themselves somehow ends up in Byron Bay.  I actually always saw it as a temporary bus stop - I got off the bus, and it was just as I was about to get back on the bus that someone asked me what would make me stay in Byron Bay long term. My reply was if that little shop across the road from Bay Leaf cafe became available for lease, I would stay.  I was packed and ready to move to Sydney, but the next day I saw a big yellow sign on the exact store I had my eye on that said: 'SHOP FOR LEASE'.  At that exact moment it was like my feet grew roots and I literally couldn't move. The shop I dreamed of to open a gallery was actually available! So I stalled leaving Byron Bay, and went to have a glass of wine to think my options through. I knew I really wanted to start this shop called AHOY Trader, but knew it was a pretty unrealistic dream as I didn't have much money. I needed another sign. Again fate intervened, when the owner of the shop sat right next to me at the bar and we got chatting. He loved my concept for AHOY Trader, and now it's been 14 months since I got the lease! It hasn't been easy, but I never gave up!  I'm 28 this year!  I think the biggest part of where I am today is actually believing in myself and showing the people that said to not do it that I can. Today I am very proud of what I am building, and for me creating beautiful things for people is such a gift. I think if I couldn't exist being creative I might as well be dead! I'm so happy that I am able to create and paint and deliver a story every day.
Jai's studio in Byron Bay.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Not only are you an artist, but you are also the shop owner of one of Byron Bay’s most visited and celebrated homewares store – AHOY Trader!  Tell us a little more about the influences and the aesthetic of the shop?
I wanted to create a store that incoporates all areas of art, whether it be in fashion, lighting, or furnishings. I wanted the shop to feel like a ship that has travelled the world, collecting pieces from all over. Growing up on the boat we would always say 'AHOY' and also dad being Czech it's also a greeting. I like 'ahoy' because it can mean an introduction, a hello, a goodbye, a see you later, and a nautical expression. And the word 'trader' I like because that's what I am!  The shop I think has really moulded itself, and it's constantly evolving. My dream with the store is to travel to unique places in the world and create special collections inspired by my travels, and completely transform the store every three months with new discoveries from all over the place. For example I would love to revisit Mongolia, and reconstitute all of their amazing linen and rugs to into artworks and sell them in this temporary space for three months before it disappears forever.
Ahoy Trader, Jai's beautiful little shop in Byron Bay.  Photo - Toby Scott.
Ahoy Trader, Jai's shop in Byron Bay.  Photo - Toby Scott.
How would you describe your artwork?
I dabbled in so many mediums but currently I am exploring the use of ceramic tiles. I would say I am heavily influenced by tribal colours and motifs. I think I do have a very rustic style, but also think my work is quite undefined. I'm a big collector of discarded pieces, for example if my Mum smashed a plate by accident, I would always see beauty in the broken pieces and try to capture these elements by using them to create some a collaged piece or big ceramic artwork.
What can we expect to see in your exhibition ‘Paradiso’ at Fenton & Fenton in Melbourne? What has inspired this body of work?
The places I have travelled have inspired this body of work, mostly my travels in South America. You will see about 83 of my unique one-off crosses, which are all handmade with pieces I have collected over time. For this exhibition I have adorned my custom crosses with feathers that I have collected from everywhere and everywhere, some I have just found, some have been thrown away, others I bought from op shops, and some of the feathers are washed up from the sea! Paradiso also explores the translation of symbols. Most people would see crosses as religious and skulls as something dark. When I was in South America I really loved how they celebrate the 'Day of the Dead' with all their decorated skulls.  I don't think 15 years ago in Australia we would have seen skulls celebrated as beautiful and colourful pieces, but today I think Australia is very open to these more worldy stories.  I think we are a culture that is embracing so many new fascinations. This is the same for me too, I am embracing my fascinations and creating pieces that reflect my experiences so far. The pieces in this show are really vibrant, using colourful palettes I adopted from my time in Mexico, Africa, Brazil and Mongolia. The pieces are elements of all these places almost mashed into one, creating a story and celebration of life, death and the creative elements that in our nature we use to decorate and heighten these celebrations.
Detail from one of Jai's mixed media works for his current show, Paradiso at Fenton & Fenton in Melbourne.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Can you give us a little insight into your process? What materials do you use? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively?
I think I create very intuitively, a lot of pieces just come together, and it's only later that I see where they have been influenced from. I hand make a lot of my tile pieces with my own moulds from a combination of cements, plasters and resins. I don't like to be too conventional with my canvases, I love painting on tiles and making massive murals!  They are heavy, but look so unique. I think a lot of people are attracted to the work because in their own lives they have also seen the world, and so elements of the work might seem familiar, reminding them of a time or place in their own lives.
What does a typical day at work involve for you, particularly how do you manage time between your art practice and running the everyday business side of Ahoy Trader?
I don't sleep! It's really constant making everyday. I don't produce anything overseas, everything is handmade by me and my brother, who comes in from time to time to help.  A typical day starts with coffee and a walk to the lighthouse, then I start work at about 10 and generally finish at 6 then work at night. I work on the store and wholesale pieces all day, and at night I paint my originals if I find the mental space to do them. Mostly on my walks I create my ideas and dreams and new collections. I love it all though and live for it! I think I don't see work as work but a part of life, so it's hard to separate the two!
Jai captured in his Byron Bay studio. Photo - Alicia Taylor.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
Well, there is this site called The Design Files, which is very motivating and inspiring to read and see so many successful people exploring and living through their art. I also love Real Living, and Inside Out, they both know what's going on! I am also very inspired by Vogue Living and flicking through its pages reading about creatives they've also discovered. I also really get inspired by motifs and tiles in old films. I am also inspired by Sibella Court's books. I picked up one of her books about five years ago and really wanted to meet this woman! Then I was lucky enough to meet her this year when she came into my store. I almost died! She is one of my idols, and now she's a good mate! Pretty excited to be doing some projects with her beginning next year.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
I'm in love with Sibella Court's work, and the way she sees beauty in things and brings the past back into our current life really influences me. I also love David Bromley as an artist but also more as a human being. He is someone I continuously look up to, especially when he was recently living in Byron. Then there are the girls from the Spell & Gypsy Collective, who are local fashion designers up here in Bryon. Even though I am not a girl, I appreciate their design and work. And lastly, I am also loving the work of another good friend and designer Ryan Storer, his jewellery designs are incredible.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
This current exhibition would be – it was a dream to exhibit at Fenton & Fenton. I first discovered the Fenton sisters about five years ago when I read an article about them in Vogue and have been obsessed with them ever since. Since then I thought it was an impossible dream to work with them, but this dream turned into reality when they invited me to exhibit in their store. Opening night was last week and the turn out was huge – over 250 people came! It was my biggest milestone to date! I still scratch my head at how it all happened...!
What would be your dream project?
I'm really loving exploring the world of textiles and would love to create a line of incredible fashion pieces to one day be in New York or Sydney/Melbourne fashion weeks, translating my bold and beautiful pieces in to wearable pieces.
What are you looking forward to?
More exhibitions, and revealing some amazing projects I currently have in the pipeline!
Details from Jai's studio.  Photo - Alicia Taylor.


Your favourite Byron Bay neighbourhood and why?
I love Bilongil, it's so close to town, but still far away from the hectic chaos of the town. It's my little escape to take the dog and run on the beach with her.
Where do you shop in Byron Bay for the tools of your trade?
I shop all over in the arts industrial estate! It's all here, and most are local business owners so I love to support them because they also support me.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Byron?
There are so many great places to eat in Byron, it's so hard to say to choose one, but if I had a conversation with my belly it would have to be The Petit Snail in Byron Bay. It's a little French restaurant, you walk in there and it's like everyone is French and the chef is this old guy straight out of Lyon and Paris, and his food is his craft. Seriously try the food there, if you're daring try the snails!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Probably in my studio working, I think it's never ending. I also have my Saturday morning coffee across from the shop at Bay Leaf.  I try to stay away from the store on weekends, but it's not easy - I just love being in there, even when Vicky or Sarah are working. I just love chatting to people, I generally get stuck in there talking to everyone! I do my partner's head in, because we are supposed to not be working on a Saturday, but I don't see it always as work, it's a way of life.
Byron Bay’s best kept secret?
I'm not sure if it's still a secret, but its a place called The Atlantic, and it's heaven on earth. I'm regretting telling you this because it will probably be impossible for me to stay there again once the news spreads!
Embellishments for Jai's handcrafted crosses. Photo - Alicia Taylor.

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