THE CHILDREN OF TONSAI: The story of our unexpected painting collaboration


The plan was to stay in Tonsai, a small island village in the Province of Krabi, for a just a few days to unplug and reset.  Now that we have successfully completed our first Yall Art Project, Danny and I decided to take a break in Southern Thailand to soak in what we just accomplished and figure out how to shape our next project based on what we learned.  We are in the middle of that process now, and little did we know we would be unwinding in such an unexpectedly pivitol spot.

When we first landed ashore Tonsai after two buses, a plane, tuk tuks, two more buses and a longtail boat, I was struck by the lack of businesses or lights anywhere in sight as the beach appeared to be a preserved jungle will no electrical power.  We walked a rocky beach path to a concrete wall directing us off the beach and into the forest of palm trees. Turns out we had landed at a mountain climber’s paradise with a hidden gem of a town behind the wall.



The wall continued the entire stretch of the village.  As I walked its length for the first time I felt welcomed by the art on the wall.  I saw colors, shapes, poems, expressions, communications, songs, rebellion, and love from travelers from all around the world.  It wasn’t long before I began asking the locals what the wall was all about.  Who were the painters?  Could anybody paint?  Was the wall protecting the businesses from flood waters?  Was it there to preserve the beachfront from foot traffic coming through to enjoy Tonsai's epic climbing and incredible hospitality? Could I paint on it?

I heard many different perspectives on what the wall means to the people of Tonsai.  The building of the wall seems to be the result of the local landowner selling the beachfront property to have a Sheraton all inclusive resort built.  Apparently the locals had two weeks to rebuild their entire village behind the wall and off the beach. The hotel has not yet been built and rumor has it, the resort might not ever come.  But what is left behind is a long concrete wall blocking the beach front view that changed the community landscape and a preserved beachfront that has minimal footraffic and belongs to the wild.  Perspectives vary amongst both locals and tourists on whether these changes are positive or negative for Tonsai and the sacred climbing spaces.  

But however one views this wall, a visual conversation is unfolding between travelers from all around the world. It is truly an open living breathing wall with revolving layers, no rules, and support from the local community.  The local community of Tonsai is one of the most hospitable, positive, relaxed and hard working communities I have ever met.  They are natural builders, rebuilders and celebrators of life.  A concrete wall pushing them off the beach could never stop the spirit of Tonsai from glowing.  It's no wonder the wall immediately began transforming into a work of art.  I received nothing but positivity and excitement for hoping to to add to this beautiful community piece.  It's a dream come true to feel so invited to express my own art on this wall.  All I needed was some paint.


It’s not often you find a gem like this where anything goes and open expression is encouraged.  Trained as a community based mural artist, I take careful consideration when deciding the right time and place for a personal painting in public. To be allowed to paint a community wall as you wish is a real honor, so it was important to me to respect Tonsai and the people who live here in what I bring to life on their sacred wall.   I also knew a large outdoor painting of my own would be an amazing way to process our last project. So I took the longtail boat to the mainland at Aunang, walked around the town until I found an artist painting and asked him where he got his supplies. He wrote a note in Thai and send me in a cab. 


Tonsai is an incredible slice of mother earth.  The power that emanates from the awe inspiring natural habitat of Tonsai can reset anyone to complete presence.  I made sure to spend a few days experiencing the local community and soaking in the epic nature.  With nature like this, I knew I needed to let it completely swallow me before I would know what I needed to express in my painting and what would be worthy of such a wall. 

 photo by Danny Deblasio

photo by Danny Deblasio

Having been in Thailand for over 4 months, I have almost exclusively seen art depicting the Buddha.  Primarily a Buddhist country, it's almost impossible to go a single day without seeing multiple representations of the Buddha.  It occurred to me there was not a single Buddha figure painted on the entire stretch.  And I hadn't realized how long it had been since seeing art in person that was not related to the Buddha figure.  I spent time drawing and studying the Buddha figure in Mae Sai and had been wanting to draw my own version after all that practice.  This felt like the perfect launching point for my piece.  What I imaged would be a traditional male buddha figure instead emerged as a feminine buddha representing strength, wisdom, and trusting your inner guidance.


I had to paint on the last available stretch of the wall, which is largely still untouched.  My theory on why the wall is still open at this entry/exit point is that 1) it's the only section with power lines across it, not leaving a fully open block 2) it's the only section that is not directly adjacent businesses.  I thought I could open up the conversation on this stretch of the wall buy utilizing the power lines in the design.  

Once she emerged, I knew she was in charge of the direction of the mural.  Tonsai is truly a magical place and I knew that she would inform me of what this mural needed to be.  I was so humbled by this place that I figure it best to just let her take it from there. I was at her mercy.

And that's when those little rascals showed up.


 photo by  Danny Deblasio

Like the local monkeys, they helped themselves to my paint and brushes and immediately got to painting. Mixing colors, demanding more mixing cups and better paint brushes. They were large and in charge.  Did they not know I traveled all the way to the main land to find these paints?!?

I selfishly felt like, “Noooooo, I always paint with kids. This is mamma time!" 

But my heart also felt the joy they were experiencing to be painting.  And it was their wall after all.  I was invited by them to paint on it, who am I to control such a thing?

So I let it happen while they ran amok all over the remaining space of the wall.  After all, it is their summer break and they live on an isolated island with little to do other than help their parents with the duties that keep life running on Tonsai.  The village runs off a generator and only has power from 6pm to 6am so the children are in the streets looking to play.

They dug their hands in my paint and off they went scribbling their marks.

Finally a rain storm had us all running for cover and my little team of painters disbanded.  When I returned the next morning, I noticed all my supplies were missing.  Tonsai is not a stealing culture so where could they be?  I had a sneaking suspicison little kiddos might have the answer to this mystery, especially because I noticed a ton more little paintings dazzling the wall. I wandered around the village looking for those little critters and I came across this little guy first:

He had fresh blue paint on his forehead and ears.  And certainly had no idea what I could be speaking of.  I found the next crew of older kids and they claimed they had no idea, trying to hide their guilty giggles.  Finally, I worked one of the 5 year olds into showing me where they had hid them.  He giggled his way to a place behind the wall in the jungle.  And of course, now that the paints were out again, they were ready to create some more.


Walking the length of the wall in the aftermath of the children's raid, I noticed the word Vaneen with an arrow on many of the panels.  I assumed it was the name of one of the kids until later that day I ended up stopping at a little spot to eat on a walking path that wasn't along the wall.

Ohhhhh...she was trying to make a sign for her parents restaurant called Vaneen that was off the path.  As I ate truly one of the greatest veggie sandwiches of my entire life, I realized that my Buddha Goddess has given me the answer to what this mural needed to be.

This is the very last available section of this wall and it should belong to the children of Tonsai.  I spoke with the owner of Vaneen and shared with him that his daughter was trying to paint the name of their restaurant on the wall.  He lit up with joy and shared that she loves to draw and wants to learn.  So the next day I helped her paint the letters to match their restaurant logo.  I asked her what her name was and she said they call her Neen, short for Vaneen.


I want to help her learn how to paint whatever her heart desires in this space and also help her make a truly proper sign for her parents restaurant.  The tourists that pass through Tonsai don't often look for the restaurants off the path since there are plenty to grab your attention on the main road.

I want the children of Tonsai to know they are the bosses of this island and own the rest of this wall.  The wall is filling fast and it could be completely filled in a matter of months.  I would abosluetly love to work with these children and help them create their masterpiece with intention, teaching art techniques along the way and offering guidance towards a work of art they will have continual pride in.

I feel it is my moral obligation to put down my brush and let the next generation of this community share their own vision of what their home means to them.  A home that so generosly offers itself to people all over the world.  

The next 2K in artwork that we sell will go to buying all the supplies for the children.  There is no place to buy paint on Tonsai so we will have to take a boat to the mainland and stock up on supplies.

If you want to help Neen and her friends create their masterpiece, you can support this project in the following ways:

1) Purchase any works by Catherine Hart

2) Through purchasing our Yall Art Project SWAG

3) or by DONATING DIRECTLY to the Yall Art Project.

Thank you all for your support!  We couldn't do what we do without all of you. We love you so much.