As a young architecture student in India, Geetika Agrawal spent her summers traveling to different parts of the country to work with artists. She saw local artisans practice traditional crafts passed down to them for generations and witnessed how they combined it with their own processes. “They are the fingerprints of humanity,” she says. “It was the perfect way to understand a culture and open my mind to different ways of thinking.” These experiences of working with her hands were transformational for her and years down the line, she would help others find similar stimulation.
An Artists’ Platform Is Born
About two decades ago, Agrawal moved to the US to pursue her master’s in industrial design and spent years designing products. Cut to 2015. Agrawal took a year-long sabbatical from her job in New York and traveled to 12 countries to track down master artists and craftspeople. It was not as easy as looking them up on the internet—she lived a month in each country to find and curate these experiences personally. In 2017, she officially launched Vacation With An Artist (VAWAA), which now has more than 100 artists in 27 countries, representing 27 art forms.
VAWAA offers mini-apprenticeships with renowned masters of crafts who are locally and internationally celebrated. You spend 2-10 days with an artist (four hours at a stretch)—watching and working with them in their studio, sourcing and gathering materials, learning the nuances of a craft they’ve spent years perfecting, and following them as they go about their day-to-day activities.
“We have an artist in Croatia who does paper sculpting. She makes these gorgeous mystical and wild sculptures out of paper. Her studio is two steps from the sea and she goes paddleboarding every afternoon as a way to meditate. As part of the experience, you work in the studio and then you go paddling in the water and then you eat with her.”
The artists also give local recommendations, so adventurers can travel like locals, and even share the roof with their master.
It’s not just an exclusive experience, but also inimitable. A fourth-generation Buddhist rin bell maker is featured on the platform—he is one of the last 10 remaining artists in the country still practicing the 400-year-old craft. In Vietnam, a textile designer leads curious explorers to harvest indigo with local tribes using ancient techniques and weave and dye their own textile. Closer to home, a canoe maker in Maine teaches water lovers how to hand-build their own wood-and-canvas canoe over a 10-day experience.
Those who are creatively inclined are attracted to such journeys led by their passions. “Our current generation is drawn to artisanal things. They grew up in the information technology era, so they are more curious about how things are made and they are also more conscious, so they want to be closer to who made it.”
More and more travel startups are offering such enriching tours, but VAWAA is not like an Airbnb Experience or a TripAdvisor activity, she clarifies. “Those are very short-term, they’re more like an hour or two, so you don’t get a chance to immerse into it and totally understand it. It becomes entertainment.” However, people who book through VAWAA are genuinely interested in learning an art form and practicing it at home. An artist once told her that people who stop by the studio with other services come when it’s raining outside and there’s nothing else to do. Guests from VAWAA come because they truly want to learn—that’s the difference.
It’s a long process to get a master on the platform and may take up to three months, after interviews and calls—Agrawal doesn’t travel anymore to find them, but ask artists to fill up a detailed form to initiate the conversation. Since these are often big-time designers and creators, it’s difficult for them to organize and market these teaching tours themselves, so VAWAA becomes their partner in connecting them with like-minded creatives. The platform fills a gap for many artists, and Agrawal mentions that they love having people over.
“Sometimes, they take you to a music concert, sometimes you go hiking with them, sometimes they take you to exhibitions. We don’t promise any of this, but they are such creative and interesting people and they see you as a friend and you get exposed to so many things you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Crafts After the Pandemic
Traditional crafts are fast disappearing. In the HCA Red List by The Heritage Crafts Association, UK, 20 new crafts of the nation were added to the “critically endangered” category in 2021. Barometer making, glass eye making, silver spinning, and compass making are some of these crafts that are at the risk of dying out in the next generation, the association says. None, however, have become extinct in the past two years.
According to UNESCO, intangible cultural heritage, also known as “living heritage,” refers to “cultural practices, expressions, knowledge, and skills that are continuously recreated as they are transmitted from generation to generation and adapted in response to our environment.” These include oral traditions, crafts knowledge and skills, social practices, and performing arts. For years, non-profits, governments, and cultural organizations have been involved in preserving and promoting these crafts; a register of this cultural heritage is also maintained as part of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The pandemic has, without a doubt, impacted intangible cultural heritage around the world by making these crafts and craftspeople inaccessible.
Agrawal hopes that this tech-forward platform might be able to help extend the life of a craft by spreading it to new artists. She shares the example of the traditional craft of rattan weaving. The VAWAA artist Sim in Malaysia belongs to the multi-generational family of rattan weavers and is one of the last few still practicing it. A few designers from the Netherlands have studied the craft with him and now they are making contemporary rattan-based products in their country. “It’s beautiful to see this as a cultural exchange of art forms, but also the modern evolution of that craft. I think that’s how we can keep it all relevant: connecting the past with the future.”
In an effort to travel better after the pandemic, travelers are increasingly looking for more immersive and transformational experiences. Recently, VAWAA has seen an uptick in demand and the platform is now adding new artists after the COVID pause. The timing seems perfect.
“The pandemic has made everyone aware that the way they want to spend their life should be more aligned with their passions. So many people have discovered their creative passions and have started baking bread, painting, and playing music. They’ve realized, why am I not living this life?” says Agrawal.
Restricted by worldwide closures, the team introduced online live sessions with artists last year, and these will continue, too.
“I just hope more and more people remember the lessons from the pandemic and continue to pursue their creativity.”