refugee prints

Project: three woodblock print workshops on the Thai-Myanmar border with ethnic minority and migrant children, and an ongoing online gallery of their prints

Date: January 2013 and continuing

With: Jacqueline Gribbin, Blood Foundation and H Gallery Chiang Mai


In January 2013, Jacqueline Gribbin (another printmaker/artist) and I went to Fang in the northwest of Thailand to      carry out print workshops with ethnic minority and migrant children from three communities supported by Blood Foundation, one of several NGOS working on the long Thai-Myanmar border. 'Blood' in the title refers to the connection between all peoples. Its Thai section runs three schools overseen by Bianca Basch, the operations manager.


These children had come with their parents or relatives from Myanmar’s Shan State, which lies alongside Thailand’s northwest border. They were either fleeing oppression or seeking a more stable life, working initially as fruit pickers in one of many vast orange plantations covering the hills around Fang. As  ‘foreigners’, their children are not entitled to education and they may not receive any medical or legal help without some form of official status. .

The children come from three ethnic nationalities, Palaung, Lahu and Shan, that are present in varying numbers not only in Myanmar, but in south China, Laos and Thailand: an area vaguely demarcated by the ‘Golden Triangle’, only bigger. All these ethnic groups in Thailand are vulnerable to human trafficking, so the support Blood Foundation gives to them is vital to their future stability in a foreign country.


The woodblock workshops and the prints the children produced put a wonderful human face on their position. For the workshops we used the water-based Japanese woodblock technique because the medium is transportable, fairly straightforward to cut and print, and easy to clean up. 

Our initial workshop was at the Daylight School, one of the first schools the Foundation set up in 2009. The school was for Shan children, many of whom were preparing to enter the Thai education system. The other two schools were run in the evenings in two communities in the hills outside Fang. These Moonlight schools provide supplementary classes in mathematics and Thai reading and writing for the Lahu and Palaung children, who at the time were one step ahead of the Shan children and attending Thai school during the day. 

Jacqueline and I carried out our workshops according to the time constraints of the different schools, and we limited the classes to children over 8 years old, which meant about 55 children in total joined. Evening school for the Lahu and Palaung children was only two hours, so we simplified the workshops with easily cut plastic and lino blocks. We had also prepared dampened Japanese washi and printed on them coloured backgrounds the same size as the blocks. After cutting their blocks and inking up, the children chose a coloured background, laid the paper and pressed with a hand-held ball-bearing baren to pull their prints. One older Lahu girl had her baby sibling on her lap as she worked. Despite limited surfaces and scant light, the kids got stuck in and all made a print each, which they were thrilled with. 

For the Shan children, we had the luxury of two days and used woodblocks. The workshop was limited as before to children over 8. We showed everyone how to transfer a drawing with carbon paper to their block, and how to cut their designs with basic knives. We did not suggest any subject to depict and preferred, as with the Lahu and Palaung children, to leave this absolutely free. They used the knives with absolute sincerity and lack of artifice, giving keen energy to simple imagery with much graphic originality. 

On the second day, the children finished cutting their blocks and printed them up. For their first prints, as with the Lahu and Palaung children, we provided a piece of pre-dampened Japanese washi with a pre-printed area of colour onto which their cut block could be printed. These resulted in incredibly vibrant prints that were surprising not just to the children, but to us, too. One 13-year-old boy, Kham Bang, showed a real flair for the whole process, making a good design for his print and cutting very well. He applied several colours onto one block and made an excellent image of a bird flying against a blue sky. After this, the children used Japanese brushes to ink up the blocks themselves with any of five or so colours we had prepared. The results—a little erratic because the hot midday weather dried the pigments quickly—had great verve. We left sets of knives at the school, and several children created further designs on the back of their blocks. The second blocks showed an increasing sophistication of design and technique. For future workshops, we would hope to spend longer working to extend the technique.

A happy first outcome of the 60 or so prints that were created during these three workshops was their exhibition at H Gallery Chiang Mai from March to May this year. The exhibition was titled ‘Dreams and Other Thoughts’. H Ernest Lee, the gallery owner, recognizes the positive consequences of showing their work to a wider public. The prints were also offered for sale and any money generated was used to support the Blood Foundation. In the case of the Shan children, who had just received the great news that they would be accepted into a local high school starting in May, the money will help fund their first steps through the Thai education system. 

With the chance to express themselves in prints that will be seen by all kinds of people, and most importantly with the Blood Foundation’s support and the access to education, these children may have a better sense of their rights and self worth when they take their place in the world as adults.

The prints continue to be available for sale through the Blood Foundation's website, where they may be viewed as three catalogues for the three groups of children. Money raised by the sale of these prints will go toward the children's furthering education.