Jeff, carpenter and owner of “Any Asshole Can Do It- The Hand Job”, didn’t always run a business with a humorous, double entendre name. He worked in audio production for roughly two decades before turning his attention, and his hands, to woodwork. While the leap from sound engineering to carpentry may seem like a big, it was natural for Jeff who grew up building his own toys and helping his grandfather on the farm. To him, carpentry was just another form of creativity, and it offered its own set of fascinating challenges.
For the past year he has re-purposed, restored, and designed furniture. His projects have ranged from cutting boards to cat castles, from salvaged shelves to rustic boxes for Vinyl records. One of his most recent projects lead him to Red Room after Red Roomers approached him with Khatiyas — Indian beds known for their lightness and their woven wood– and a chair, which desperately needed attention. The Khatiyas were a special challenge, requiring a lot of research, and even more care. On his Facebook page, Jeff describes working with his hands as something “spiritual”, and for Red Roomers the newly restored Khatiyas reflected his hard work and attentiveness.
Yet, this dedication is not what makes him distinctive. Underlying his dedication and ingenuity, is a commitment to the environment stemming from his grandfather’s farmer ethos. He’s carried this philosophy of re-using, and re-forming materials his entire life, and it has allowed him to see materials others have disposed of not for what they are, but what they could be. Added to this, Jeff only uses natural stains and polishes, ensuring that his finished pieces are chemical free. Like always, his reasons for mixing these natural stains is part curiosity and part effort to change our world from a disposable one to a sustainable one.
To learn more about Jeff, his work, and his future plans with the Red Room, read the full interview below.
If you have a piece that needs attention, or would like to see more of Jeff’s work, he can be reached via his Facebook page.
When did you start making furniture other pieces?
My grandfather, who raised me, was a farmer. He always built what he needed, as most farmers do. Nothing is thrown away; It’s repaired until it can’t be any more, and then it’s repurposed. Because we were in a very rural area of Nova Scotia, I learned very young to build things to play with. Imagination out of necessity taught me creativity. From there I was moved to live on a hippie commune. Again, I had to create what I wanted to have. It grew from there.
Why and how did you start? What is it you find interesting about it?
I had a career in audio production for 20 some years. For the last 10 I’ve been living in Taiwan and married and I have always been fixing things in our home. When I stopped working in Isaac [with audio production], I started to make more things. I made something for my wife all of her friends loved it, they all wanted me to make [the same thing]. I started a business never really thinking it would take off, however within two or three months it quickly became the majority of my income. Now, at the end of the first year, it is my home job. What I love about it is that it’s never the same, I get the joy of creation just like I did [with audio production], except no one can download my furniture and then tell me they are not stealing from me, they are stealing from the record company. [That] kind of ruined music for me and I needed to find a source for the joy of creation somewhere else. This fit the bill.
How would you describe your work? Do you consider yourself an artist, a craftsman?
I don’t, and I honestly try to avoid that as much as possible. I’m not a wordsmith and I generally find any self inflicted description of one’s work easily falls into painful pretensions, so I let others do that. When I’m forced to I use humour and double entendre to deflect. Artist or craftsman? Neither, I’m a mechanic. I fix things that need to be repaired or I help to bring things that already exist in the material into the light of day.
I noticed much of your work comes from salvaged, repurposed or recycled material. How important is sustainability and the environment in your work?
Incredibly, part of that ethos obviously comes from my grandfather’s farmer ethic of no wasted materials, and part of it comes from my resentment of living in a disposable world. My use of natural stains and finishes is two fold: one my grandfather always wanted to but he did not have access to the internet to research how it was done a thousand years ago, and two I’ve never understood why people wanted to fill their homes with things that slowly leech carcinogens into the air. It’s part of my personal attempt to do less harm and leave a smaller footprint. We use petrochemical based things not because they are better but because they are easy to mass produce and generate huge profits for big industry. We can do better, we did for a long time before petrochemicals exploded in the 19th century , we can do better again.
I’ve also heard that you do not use chemicals when treating wood. Why is that? What do you use instead and what are the advantages?
Petrochemicals are used in modern woodworking because they are quick and cheap. Humans have created beautiful objects from wood millennia before petrochemicals, I choose to use things that don’t leach carcinogens into our homes because I am not an idiot. We all have the choice.
You said that part of your decision to think about sustainability comes from “your resentment of living in a disposable world”. Could you expand on that? Do you see the world changing at all?You end with saying that “we can do better again”– how do you see that happening?
I don’t know if resentment is the right word, more along the lines of embarrassment or shame. The whole instant gratification of “I want it now” and the dopamine rush of social media likes. We live in this constant cycle of fear and consumption. Media constantly grinds out stories that feed our baser fears , and drives us to buy things we don’t need. We get the warm feeling of accomplishment and security from buying extra whitening teeth strips because a commercial told us we are social failures if our teeth don’t shine like a thousand suns. That kind of baseless gratification and laziness should be an embarrassment to any thinking person. Do I see the world changing? That’s not for me to say. Can I change my world, my impact, my circle of influence? Yes I can .
What sort of pieces do you most love working on?
The pieces that are most exciting to me are antique restoration and pieces that combine and re-purpose: antiques because I get to extend the life of something, re-purposing because it provides that pure design and invention rush. For instance, recently I made a entryway coat and key hook unit from cast iron singer, sewing tables, and walnut slabs I rescued from a lumber mill scrap pile. The coat hooks were made from railway spikes. That kind of pure rescue reuse and creation is absolute pleasure.
How did you get involved with the Red Room? Why?
I got involved with Red Room because the lovely Roma contacted me and asked if I could do some restoration work. I knew nothing of Red Room at that point but was intrigued.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Khatiyas you restored for the Red Room? What is your restoration process like?
The restoration of the Khatiyas was a series of challenges and a lot of research. When I first got them they were in really bad shape and I needed to stabilize them, to stop further deterioration. They had a profound termite infestation, and were wet, and the wood and sinew were rotting. I needed to identify the wood and then work backwards. The termite and water damage problems were solved with sunshine– weeks and weeks of constant rotation in the sun, making sure all surfaces were exposed to long, direct sun. That actually took almost a month of daily rotations and quick covers during the afternoon rains. Once I had them stabilized I had to remove the damaged material and start building them back up. I used a lot of hardwood pieces hand cut to fit in weakened or broken joints and unfortunately on one I had to resort to adding some epoxy because the structure had been so badly damaged. The last step was to apply a coconut oil and beeswax finish to seal them against further moisture and insect damage.
You said the Khatiyas needed a lot of research. What kind of research did you do? Was it mostly practical?
The research I had to do for the Khatiyas was 90% practical and the rest was curiosity. I needed to find as much info as I could regarding woods commonly used and construction methods, as well as an overall history of the objects. They are utilitarian but they are also so incredibly infused with beauty, one of those rare things that perfectly balances form and function. I just wanted to learn as much as I could about them before I laid out my plans to save them.
Have you since gone to any Red Room events?
I have not gone to many other Red Room events I’ve been to a few, they were lovely. I, however am not a very social person. I spent 20 years touring, playing, socializing and schmoozing as a professional musician. I’m social’ed out. I’d much rather spent quiet time with my wife my wood and my dogs. I lead a very quiet life; I work, I train, I spar, I love; repeat.
Much of what you’ve said in your interview, to me at least, seems like something Red Roomers would be interested in. Do you think you’d ever be willing to hold a workshop at the Red Room?
Roma and I have been talking about doing a workshop at Red Room, it is something that we will probably do in 2017, but right now I’m just trying to build up the business. I’m not at the point where I can refuse work while I establish the name. That keeps me booked up about 4 weeks in advance. A wonderful thing but not very flexible.
What is it about designing and inventing that interests you? Did you find your ability to create new pieces relied on practice? That is, has it become easier since you’ve started? Are there any similarities between your work in sound engineering and you work repurposing and designing new pieces?
It’s pure creation, that place where you can get lost for days. That ability, of course, becomes easier as I master new techniques. Like any other muscle the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. It adds more possibilities to my quiver and more freedom in the work. Sound engineering requires creative problem solving as much as carpentry and re-purposing do. They all rely heavily on your ability to see what something can be, not what it is.
Photos courtesy of Jeff and JJ Chen.
We were sitting around the table discussing logistics for Artists Bridge the Gap IV, when the first piece of backlash appeared on the Facebook event page. “Are you crazy?” the irate commenter asked us. He could not understand why Red Room would choose to support a small segment of the population, that segment being LGBTQ+ refugees, over another, larger group*. He accused us of ignoring the more dire needs of children, women, and men in order to be politically correct.
We always knew our choice would be controversial. We understood that the success of our event depended not just on our ability to coordinate with each other well, and choose refreshing activities, but on our ability to educate and enable people to empathize with situations far removed from their own experiences.
Still, that first comment stung, so I was grateful to look around the table and see the resolve of the coordinators harden rather than disappear. “That’s okay,” one of them said. “We’re doing the right thing. I’m not worried because we’re doing the right thing.”
Sometimes the “right thing” is not the most popular or expedient thing. Having determined that, we reinvigorated our efforts. This event, we decided, would emphasize our shared humanity through seeking out those who are overlooked and ignored and providing them a platform to speak and with resources to thrive.
*videos, plays, support of LGBT community, comics. That so few people knew or understood the importance of our cause made it more salient.
Fortunately, we found support within the artistic community, the LGBT community and through a number of sponsors (whom were often part of one community or another). Haha Tai and the International Queer Film Festival in Taipei offered a significant sponsorship and a great deal of encouragement. Another sponsor, the Winkler Partners, proved enthusiastic supporters of the cause. Bai Win Antiques, an established supporter of the arts and of Red Room, stood steadfastly by the team. The Escape Artist, another seasoned partner of Red Room, proffered canvases and easels as they have during live art events in the past.
A cadre of artists, musicians, and dancers contributed their time, talent and passion to help Red Room realize this event and, more importantly, to buttress Red Room’s efforts to demonstrate art’s ability to connect people and bring about impactful change in our world. Magnolia La Manga, Mangelica, Bouncy Babs, Fei Fain performed at Artists Bridge the Gap IV and promoted the event and the cause widely. They invited us to events and venues, organized supplemental fundraisers at Cafe Dalida (which very graciously sponsored us as well), and invigorated us with their passion and commitment. Billy Chang proffered his voice and his dancing, bringing people together with his ebullience and grace.
Kara Linkonis inking of an educational comic I co-wrote with her, Breaking Barriers, added substance, character, and a striking poignancy that could not have been achieved without her commitment to her craft. A story was produced that hopefully addressed the vivid experiences of LGBTQ+ refugees with the respect they deserve as human beings. Members of All’s Well Theatre wrote and performed moving accounts of refugee’s experiences. High schoolers in America dedicated themselves to raising money in their hometown through designing post cards, posters and a T-shirt.
There are so many more people who deserve thanks for bringing Artists Bridge the Gap IV into fruition that I cannot possibly name. Truly, the support which overflowed from communities in Taiwan and elsewhere buoyed us through thousands of minute details and second guessing, and hundreds of passionate debates, and tens of setbacks. Perhaps, however, what motivated me even more was the semi-weekly meetings with the organizers and benficiaries In Leipzig, Germany. The Project Artists Bridge the Gap IV benefitted, Queer Refugees Network, Leipzig, is run largely through the dedication of volunteers and workers at Rosalinde Leipzig e.V. When I skyped with them, they relayed. During meetings they would open maps and search for ‘Taiwan’ and express disbelief in the decision for a community an ocean away to help them establish a new life. I was thrilled to hear about one beneficiaries plan to become a fashion designer, or another’s to learn German or a third’s to finally have discovered a setting where they could openly be themselves. This is what the funds we raised would be used for. They would pay for tangible goods like food, shelter, books, of course, but with these come a host of intangible benefits. These funds would enable QueeRNL to continue creating a network, a safe space and an opportunity to succeed.
Knowing that all of this hard work might have resulted in the realization of someone’s dream, might have created opportunities for those who have been denied them, has carried me through every doubt, every negative comment and every painstaking re-explanation. I can honestly say that working with Red Room, QueeRNL and the amazing people in Taiwan has truly been a transformative experience. One might even say, to echo my teammate, that it was the right thing to do.
*If you have questions about why Red Room chose to support this cause, you should visit the FAQ page we wrote to help explain!
by Leah List
My grip slackened for what seemed like the tenth time, and my pen rolled off the smooth paper onto the mattress. StageTime & Wine had only just begun, but I had already discovered how difficult taking notes at my final Stage Time would be. More and more, I found I wanted to listen without pausing to scribble down a moment or a turn of phrase.
Eventually, I just gave up, settled back into the pillow, and contented myself with listening. It’s funny, what you remember without notes. You remember people’s nervousness in front of the microphone, because it reflects your own, and because you join the crowd eagerly in helping that nervousness dissipate. You remember the sound of someone’s voice,and the sentiment behind the song rather than the specific lyrics. You remember the theme of a story, the sense of a moment, the feeling of a night rather than a title or a name or a progression.
That night, Holly’s clear, resonant voice carried us through a musical recovering from heartbreak. Joyce’s light exuberance interwove with the strumming on her ukelele as she and a friend sang a few songs. Max’s incisive playfulness trickled through the audience, popping pockets of laughter in the crowd as he read a new piece of writing. Simmo’s easy-going demeanor was quickly overtaken by the strength of his voice. After he finished, the audience called him back for a rendition of “House of the Rising Sun”. Channy’s surprise drag performance of “Don’t Stop me Now” delighted us all.
Midway through the night, I decided to go up for my third and final time. I rarely share at Stage Time, preferring to write about and talk with those who do, but I felt compelled to speak at my last. Over the months of volunteering with the Red Room, it had expanded from event to platform; platform to community; community to family. Being a part of Red Room added an experience to my life that expands and metamorphosed from month to month in such a way that it is impossible to summarize. The volunteers who lift up Red Room and who build it, are such a diverse group of loving individuals, and I’m grateful to have known them. All I can say is this, if you have attended a Red Room event, take a moment to speak with the volunteers and, maybe, if you have a few hours every month, volunteer yourself. It will be worth your time.
Leah List is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Political Science and International Studies program. She is an aspiring writer, researcher, human rights advocate and a believer in the importance of storytelling. She is also a volunteer at the Red Room.
HOW TO BECOME A RED ROOMER
There are no strangers here;
only friends you have not met yet – W. B. Yeats
Red Room began with the first Stage Time & Wine in November 2009, a monthly event that has become a cornerstone among Red Roomers, each carrying a communal bottle of wine and a small portion of something to add to the ‘stone soup’.
During Red Room’s seven years of existence, it has expanded from its core platform, Stage Time & Wine to other events like Red Room Radio Redux, Aside @ The Red Room, Stage Time & Juice, Sunday Afternoon@the Red Room, Spirits of the Night and Visual Dialogues.
Red Room is not a community, an idea or a venue. It is all of those things. The Red Room provides a place to share and truly be heard; to experiment and be truly supported; to come in a stranger and find friends.
“Dedicated to those who….continuously [create] the space that holds those who came and those who will come, brimful to explore their own creativity and share in the joy of listening.” – Co-founder, Ayesha Mehta
The Red Room opens its doors to all who are seeking a place to explore and find a home at the same time. Over the years people of different nationalities and artistic interests have stepped onto the red rugs that adorn Red Room’s floor and we all benefit from what they have created. The Red Room accommodates them — accommodates us– because together we are the Red Room. Together we innovate. Together we build new spaces for those who will come.
So how does one become a Red Roomer?
It’s simple: Be present, Be open, Be welcoming. After that, well, we can all create together.
by Leah List, Editor for the Red Room. 2017
Red Room is a not for profit, predominantly volunteer run organisation.
僅有你尚未結識的朋友 ——W. B. 葉慈
紅房在2009年11月開始第一屆Stage Time & Wine，這個每月的活動成了紅房人聚會的奠基石，每個人都帶了酒、食物和才藝前來分享。
紅房六年間，擴展了它的核心平台，推出其他如Stage Time & Wine的活動，像是Red Room Radio Redux、Aside @ The Red Room、Stage Time & Juice、Sunday Afternoon@the Red Room、Spirits of the Night靈魂之夜與Visual Dialogues視覺對話。
by Leah List, Editor for the Red Room, 2017
Born in Guatemala, Ale Bara, a self-described nomad with “itchy feet”, has lived and created art in countries across Europe and North America, and chose to come to Taiwan after leaving Kenya. Formally trained in industrial design, Bara paints not for financial success, but because she likes it. Since her childhood, she has filled sketchbooks with comics and today she paints not only to communicate to the world but also to escape to another one. One she hopes will make her audience smile, just as the people who crossed her path have.
Her first foray into creating art outside of her sketchbooks happened in 2004 when Under Dusken, a Norwegian magazine, hired her to create comic accompaniments for their articles. Today, many of her pieces depict funny characters she’s adapted from real life and depicted in a whimsical, colorful way.
Since then Bara has exhibited her art the world over, her itchy feet leading her to discover new techniques, people and lifestyles in each new place which she has integrated. Often her illustrations reflect something idiosyncratic about the country she resides, the comic exhibited at the Red Room depicting a foreign character trying stinky tofu and navigating Taiwan’s motorcycle filled traffic is one example of this.
The umbrellas that continue to adorn the Red Room are another example of her creative incorporation. Initially created for the Chinese New Year, put together these umbrellas create a giant goat which cares for everyone from its vantage point in the heavens. Perhaps most inspiring to her about Taiwan is the dedication to artisanship and handcrafts. “Everything in Taiwan is so well done,” she said. “I would love for my work to be like that.” Since coming to Taiwan she has increasingly experimented with different materials from rice baskets to bamboo to giant canvases.
In the interview below, Bara speaks a little bit more about her personal art style and how she became involved with the Red Room.
You developed this world full of these characters that are inspired by the people you see in everyday life. How has your style evolved over the years?
Well I have moved a lot, so I think it depends on the people who have crossed my path. They make my style different.
I started doing the noses on the characters I have now when I was in Kenya, because I just saw big noses everywhere. The bald heads also are influenced by Kenya because a lot of people shaved their heads there.
[Every time I travel I see] the people, the features, the color– everything is different– so I think I just start grabbing things from every culture. [I look at] the way people are, the way people dress and react and I think that’s what changes my style, just traveling.
Do you think switching from digital to a hand drawn method has made you think more carefully about what you choose to include?
Well I think digital work is much easier. Everything is possible. So with painting by hand you have to know how to do a lot of stuff so it takes a while for you to get there. I’m trying to paint by hand, but I don’t have technique, so it’s just lots of color and very, very simple. I hope someday I will develop a technique.
At the beginning I did think more carefully because when I draw in my sketchbooks I really like them really neat. I started drawing with pencil and erasing and drawing and erasing. Then I thought, well, mistakes can be a beautiful thing, so now I only draw with pen. If I make a mistake I try to think of how to fix it and how to make it part of my piece.
Now it doesn’t really make me think more, it makes my piece become something different than what I thought at the beginning.
I noticed on your website that you did an exhibition and the materials were rescued from the recycling bin. What motivated you to do that and how do you feel using those materials, rather than something purchased for the store, changed your art or improved it?
I think it’s because I’m all about recycling and not spending money if I don’t have to. When I was living in New York I started seeing all these things that people threw out. In New York they just put it on the sidewalk so someone else can take it. You would just be walking and find amazing things that you could paint on.
It has worked very well and I think it looks really nice. It gives live to something that for someone was dead before.
What is your favorite thing that you resurrected or transformed? Is there anything that stands out?
I have painted so many things. I didn’t find it in the street, but I found some bamboo spoons that I really like. So I think I like painting on bamboo—the texture is really cool and the color of the bamboo is really nice.
How did you start developing your characters in 2004?
When you are an illustrator you have to start developing a style because they hire you based on your style, but I do have different styles like you can see in the exhibition.
Like the zodiac collection, I had never drawn animals before. I didn’t quite like the result, but that’s what turned out. I just keep experimenting and seeing what I can do.
How do you deal with and move from art which your unsatisfied? What was your response to the zodiac collection?
I have the ability to move on quickly and to just let go. It didn’t turn out how I wanted “okay, let’s exhibit and see what people think of it”. Some people liked it even though I didn’t; they bought most of the collection.
I just put it out and some people like it and some people don’t. You must find a home for whatever you have.
You mentioned there are moments when you don’t like the end result, but are there moments where you’re uncertain throughout the process but love the results?
Yeah, most of the time. I think I have a problem because I don’t like doing the same things.
Everything I do is just an experiment. When I started trying to sell my art some people told me “you know you should just do this style and stick to it because that’s what people like”, but that doesn’t really make me happy. Sometimes you like red and sometimes you like blue, so why always stick with red just to satisfy people?
Now I don’t care about people that much, unless it’s a commission. Sometimes it’s really hard to do commissions because sometimes you just don’t want to draw, or you just see something that inspires you and you want to draw exactly that.
Are there ever moments during a commission where you feel you’ve discovered a part of you that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered because you were forced to think in another way?
Sometimes, but very few times, like right now I have a commission with zodiac animals. I really didn’t want to do them because I didn’t really like the other ones so I really cracked my head and thought about it and sketched. The [end] result was awesome! I really liked it.
Ultimately the clients have to trust me. I always tell them I have to do my own stuff. I’ve lost clients because they’ve told me to do something else and I’ve refused. I refuse to do something I’m not passionate about.
What do you hope your art communicates? Does it change with each piece of art you complete or is there a general feeling you hope to evoke in people?
I just paint because it makes me feel really good. When I’m angry or sad, I paint and everything just goes away. For me, drawing has been an escape from this kind of weird world; that’s why I draw. That’s the way I communicate. I’m very introverted, so I can make a drawing for you if you want me to say something.
I describe my art as funny and quirky. I just want to make people smile when they see because they make me smile. That’s it . Very simple.
How were you approached for Visual Dialogues?
I’m always willing to participate and give a hand, so Red Room always calls me to see if I’m free to do stuff and I’m always free to do stuff.
Originally, I wasn’t going to take part in Visual Dialogues because I thought I didn’t have something to share. Then Charles wrote me and asked me to participate. He said I’d be perfect for the last one. It’s mutual participation. They call me and I’m eager to just be there and paint.
How do you think the Red Room community has affected your art at all? Has being in the community beyond painting changed anything for you?
Yeah, actually, I had to paint on a big canvas for Artists Break the Mold and Artists Break the Flood.
I’d only painted on small things because they take less time and I’m impatient. I thought final piece on the big canvas was awesome. I really like how my characters looked. Even though I’d done murals, it was different on the canvas.
I think that’s how Red Room has helped. They’ve kind of encouraged me to paint on a big scale. The pieces in Visual Dialouges, the big ones, I wouldn’t have decided to do before because I had never experienced it. I experienced it with Red Room.
[At the Red Room] artists are experiencing mural paintings, big canvas paintings, and other sort of mediums. Red Room is giving them the opportunity to do that which is just pretty cool.
Last month Red Room held its 75th consecutive Stage Time & Wine, the core event that launched the organization six years ago. The Red Room had made a practice of welcoming people, no matter their rank. Over the months as a Red Roomer, I’ve watched first time attendees return and become regulars. The Red Room has, undoubtedly, sustained a social enterprise and built a community through this practice.
Cathy Hsu came to Red Room for the first time last year and has returned several times to sing and listen. Listeners welcomed her each time. Irene first visited the Red Room some months ago with a keyboard. She had just begun teaching herself to play and she told the audience she hoped they could accept her mistakes. She, of course, received the full attention and warm applause every performer when she finished. This month she returned to share her progress. She’d grown so much in the last few months and she revealed that she’d found “true happiness” in the piano, and the community, after a break up.
Vanessa, another returnee, shared a deeply personal poem about overcoming insecurity and internalized misogyny. “You are a human being, you are not born to please,” she read, in the crowd several audience members nodded. Other familiar faces stood and shared. Alex Schmoyer read more poetry, as did Emily Loftis who shared a poem on South Korea. Alton Thompson, a fixture of Red room Radio Redux stood to read pieces he had chosen. Vicky Chen sang a new song and Rose Goossen, fondly known as the Red Room Angel for the music she shares, stood up to praise her. When one pair of performers forgot the words to the song, we invited them back on and clapped with them.
As I watched the performances, I observed audience’s reaction, as I always do. Some sat still, focusing intensely while others clapped softly to themselves; some sang along with songs they knew while others bounced silently with friends. In the front corner, near the velvety red and gold chairs, a group of girls sat talking amongst themselves. They had only met each other that night, but they had become fast friends. The evening progressed through a healthy mix of regular Red roomers and new performers. One, in particular, shared that she felt worried when she’d first walked in, alone and signed her name on the performance list. “I was alone,” she told me after the event. “but people were so kind. They came to speak to me [and] I felt that I knew everyone there. I fell in love with Red Room.”
It is this kindness and welcoming spirit that transforms what begins as a small room filled with strangers to one with friends. At the very beginning of the night, as attendees settled onto the red carpets, Manav Mehta, the MC, introduced an important, oft unnoticed element of Red Room: the volunteers. Not only do they attend and participate in Red Room events, but they ensure the Red Room succeeds. They have sustained the community from its inception and we are grateful for their hard work dedication. Like any of the new performers at the 75th Stage Time & Wine, or even the ones who’ve been on the stage before, our volunteers started with a bottle of wine and a room full of strangers who decided to support one another. It’s this support and willingness for camaraderie that has made Red Room an enduring and thriving community in Taipei.
Leah List is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s Political Science and International Studies program. She is an aspiring writer, researcher, human rights advocate and a believer in the importance of storytelling. She currently resides in Tianmu. In her free time, she can be found at the Red Room where she volunteers.
“Hidden and hard to find,” one reviewer, who left a five star rating, says about Research & Development Cocktail Lab. She couples her comment with a picture of the ethanol molecule, R&D’s logo, and instructs others to look for it if lost. It’s true, R&D is more challenging to find than the average bar but, if anything, that adds to its appeal. R&D Cocktail Lab draws its inspiration from speakeasies, which were popular hidden bars during the prohibition era, but it’d be a mistake to only label it a western business.
The founders of R&D opened the lab in 2014 after observing the paucity of Taiwanese ingredients utilized in cocktails around Taiwan. Accordingly, their drinks are often crafted to highlight the fresh ingredients they purchase from farmers around Taiwan. “We’re supporting a livelihood and we find a lot of passion [in Taiwan],” Spencer Huang, one of the founders said about why buying produce from Taiwan was so important. Huang said it was important to build a relationship with each farmer and make sure they felt respected and part of the process.
“One of my favorite farms is actually a farm that we don’t buy the most product from because he doesn’t have the volume for it,” Huang confessed. The farmer avoids pesticides, which may sound simple, but requires immense dedication. Not only does he make his own fertilizer, but he also must prevent beetles from destroying his crop. This involves ‘de-beetling’ every, single tree two times a week. “When you taste this, the yield is much better…” Huang commented. “It’s people like that, that when you talk to them, they respect their ingredients. They respect their process as much as we respect ours and those are the types of people we want to work with.”
The interior of R&D emulates a Chinese medicine shop, with its many shelves and decorative window screens. While the visual is partly to allow aesthetic pleasing hiding places for tools, the founders also chose it because it reflects, in part, the philosophy of their business. The owner of a Chinese medicine shop must be meticulously familiar with all processes and products in their shop. Any customer can expect the same level of meticulousness when served one of their ‘built to spec’ drinks. Huang, both enthusiastic and particular about his work, emphasizes that R&D focuses on craftsmanship, which he says emphasizes the desires of the “guest” rather than the tastes of the bartender. The bartender’s tastes are ‘ancillary’; their knowledge is necessary. To ensure patron satisfaction, and because the owners are passionate about their craft, this is one of two rules R&D founders insist upon.
The other, requiring all employees to speak Taiwanese (and English, which Huang believes is easy to find), has more to do with their desire to “bridge [the] gap between East and West”. R&D doesn’t intend to serve a solely foreign demographic, nor a solely Taiwanese demographic. Rather, the owners hope for it to be a place for people of all backgrounds to feel comfortable and welcome.
As R&D develops, the owners also hope to continue emphasizing culture-bonding and storytelling. For Huang, his business is not just about crafting drinks, but also creating stories. Every drink, by the time you drink it, has collected many stories—from the stories of those who grew and mixed its ingredients, to those of the bartenders who crafted it. Huang realizes that “we are a story-telling culture” and this is part of the reason, R&D has recently started a partnership with the Red Room which has resulted in a new ‘Red Room’ drink, the 臺Walla (Taiwalla). Read more about the how the partnership started and what R&D and the Red Room have in store for Red Roomers below:
Would you want to talk a little bit about how the partnership with the Red Room started?
If you just go from a product aspect it doesn’t really make sense why Red Room would pair up with R&D. I mean, it’s not a logical partnership when you look at it through a business perspective. So you look back at it and say ‘Let’s just take business out of it’. It’s really about culture building. We at R&D are very, very much interested [in culture building]. We hope to create good bonds with the local Taiwanese, because we want them to know we are proud of them [and of] what Taiwan has to offer. So, really, we should be seeing what the locals really appreciate. What do they really value– especially in the artistic community and in a community where people are finding things really out of the ordinary?
That’s where R&D and Red Room really found their middle ground. The idea behind [臺Walla] would be that Red Room, from the beginning, has always served Chai…that is a core ideal of Red Room. Stone soup and tea really gets the ball rolling and gets people talking together. Then we started thinking “What can we do to that that would really make it special? What is something that would be uniquely theirs, that everyone can look at and say ‘Wow, this seems so familiar, yet is new’. What kind of local ingredients can we find that we can throw in here that would be extremely interesting yet, at the same time, hold these same characteristics that we’re trying to retain?
What are the things that interest Red Room? What are the things that interest people that go to Red Room? What are the types of ingredients that we can use to pair with these types of people?
That right there is a cultural learning experience and that’s really fun. That’s really fun.
What is your impression of Red Room? What is it that you think Red Roomers are searching for? What is it that you hope to provide for them with these new drinks beyond the idea of coming together over a Red Room Chai or 臺Walla ?
[The Taiwan Airforce Base] is where the Red Room has taken a space, a real dedicated space, and turned it into something, and this something is still in flux. They’re still trying to define what that Red Room Space is going to be…but in the future, especially when you look at the Renaissance Fair, you can see how in the future they’re going to grow significantly and they’re going to become very important to the cultural program.
This type of improvement and this type of evolution that they’re on is really going to provide us with a lot of opportunities as well. The types of people that go through Red Room—and we’re talking moguls of aboriginal tribes who have really interesting ways of preparing food. The people who go through Red Room are the people we’d like to meet.
We can help them, provide for their bar and then at the same time they give us a lot of introductions to some really cool people.
I realize that this partnership has started rather recently in its current form, but do you have any stories of people you’ve met from the Red Room that you’d like to share, that you feel contributed to this idea of a cultural bonding or building connections between cultures and sort of understanding them. Is there any story that pops into your head?
I guess there would be two. The first one would be Manav. This is not a partnership that would’ve made sense to most people. It was really Manav that gave us the idea that we could really make this work. This reason is he is an Indian guy who went native. He speaks really great Chinese and he’s been here for a long time. He’s someone who has this sort of third culture kid mentality, but at the same time he’s very down to Earth. He likes sharing what he’s learned, he likes sharing the experiences that are not only fun for him but are also interesting to a lot of people, which is [part of why] why Red Room really works.
Maybe two or three months ago he introduced me to this woman, and she’s an aborigine costume designer, I believe. She brought up some of her friends that are also some local aborigines. They were really interesting for me to talk to, not because they had anything material to offer, but because they had the knowledge and the experience they were telling me about and they were sharing with me that were things that were unbelievably fascinating, things that would give you all sorts of ideas about what you could do.
Those are the types of conversations, and I guess Red Room really is a great place for those conversations. It’s where you go to get more information, where you got to meet people, like you were saying. This would be a prime example of that—both Manav and the woman, and then her friends. If anything ever comes of it, y’know, that would be great, but otherwise it was a great conversation that really gave us, as foreigners in Taipei, a good perspective on what else we’re missing.
Do you want to give people a hint of upcoming projects? Are there any projects that you are really excited by that, perhaps, you don’t want to reveal but you could hint at?
One of the coolest projects is our vessel project. We’re trying to think, well, how would we get Red Room in on this Red Room is full of artists, and that’s why I love it. It’s full of people who come from different backgrounds and different places and they work with different mediums and tools. If you can imagine having a clay vase or a clay bottle, something that you might see in an aboriginal tribe….these are the types of materials that are really fun to work with, to put our product in, not because it’s good for marketing, but because it makes people question.
You know, you walk and you can say “Hey I recognize this, but what’s in it today? What’s in this bottle today?” This bottle is from Red Room, it’s a Red Room and R&D mixture, but I have no idea what’s in it this month; it always changes. That’s something you’ll look for; y’know, you’ll walk in and you’ll look for it.
That in itself is a Red Room-R &D story. Everything that we can do to create these types of vessels, these types of glasses and cups where we don’t use our logo as just as stamp on the bottle, but we incorporate it into the design. Getting the Red Room community involved to help us develop things for the community is going to be really fun.
“So we’ve talked a little bit about the Red Room and what it means to you. Do you want to talk a little bit about the anniversary and the painting that you did?”
On the 6th Anniversary, I chose to be the artist that captured the event. The location that I chose [was] the second floor, the indoor space. When I was standing there I looked at the space and what was going on and I thought about what I wanted to paint. So then I came up with this idea: Why don’t I capture the movement and also the energy of the space?
I decided to pick the elements, mostly the color and also do it in a random way, to put some texture on the canvas. I started with all white, created the texture, then I chose the colors of the space. Then I started to invite the audience throughout the day to participate in coloring the painting.
The first participants were kids. I put the color in the paint and showed them how to use the roller to put the color on. The kids were so excited! While I was preparing they kept coming over to say “Can I paint now?” As they were asking, I knew that that was the right decision to invite the audience to participate. When I was ready they lined up together and each of them did one corner. They were great—five years old, four years old, twelve years old—they can all do it. People are amazing when you give them a place to shine. They kids helped me do the base color. Then, in between the shows, I started putting on more details. In the afternoon, I started to invite adults.
I wanted to capture the energy and the people, to leave not footprints but handprints. I think in our life, all the people and all the events that we encounter, we leave footprints in each other’s hearts. That footprint transforms us; it stays in us. It doesn’t matter if you encounter this person for one second, one minute or one hour, more or less all these people leave footprints and they transform us. So that day, I wanted people to put their handprints to remember that experience. We transformed each other in a way and we will always have each other.
That’s what Red Room is all about, connecting people and creating and sharing moments together. So, that’s my idea of this painting.
“Had you ever done anything like that before? I feel you’ve touched on this, but what did you learn from the experience, besides the idea that we’re all leaving our marks on one another? Are there any interesting stories you have from a particular person or a moment where you realized your perspective on art had changed just by doing this or was it more a culmination of your journey?
Yes, it is definitely a culmination of my journey because I had never done interactive art before. At the beginning, as an observer to myself, I really saw that you have to let go if you want to invite people to participate in something and co-create with you. You really need to learn to let go and trust—that was the biggest lesson that day. I really wanted to do that but, in the beginning when the kids were doing it, there was a small voice in the back of my head asking “Is this okay?” Of course, I wondered if they’d go a little bit too left or too right and those voices were trying to control everything. Then, at the same time, I told myself that every time I heard that voice I would acknowledge it, smile and let go.
The more I trusted people the more I realized that there were so many times that day that people did it in a way that was beyond my expectation. After the kids took one corner, there were times that I really felt that what they did inspired me and, once they’d finished, I could paint more on the canvas. So, that moment, that learning moment lead me to allow people to do things of their free will and I actually gained more. I gained something from it too because they brought me inspiration.
What’s going to happen to the painting now?
Originally the idea was to sell it, but I just asked if Red Room would like to create the painting. It was created on the 6th anniversary and it was co-created by the people that were here together. I felt it meant more to keep it in Red Room than to sell it and I don’t see any price that could compare to the moment that we captured.
Red Room decided to keep the painting.
I actually participated in your painting and it was amazing. I thought it was so great that all of these people were gathering together and I saw people watching you. I feel like you opened a door for people to participate and feel they were part of something and part of the community.
Thank you so much for doing that and for making the audience feel more like a community member and not just an audience.
I thank Red Room and the people for being so open to that idea. I was a bit shy in the beginning as well because I didn’t know how people would feel about it, because they’d have to put paint on their hands and then wash them, but people were so supportive. So, to me, I felt like I was the one gaining a lot.
For years I worked on perfecting my skills in drawing in painting, but I think I got the largest emotional reaction from this painting. It made me laugh that I’d spent years trying to draw things I know and draw them in an exact way, but the painting I got the most compliments on is the one with no exact shape or figure. It’s just purely fun, but people just love it the most. I think perhaps they love it because they participated in it; I think that’s a very important element.
What do you have to say to people who want to do interactive art like you did? You mentioned in the beginning that you were a little shy, you weren’t sure how it would be received and I feel people always feel that way about art and approaching other people. What would you say to those people who are on the verge of deciding whether to do
You mean they have an idea to pitch?
Yeah, or if you do this participatory art and ask people to get involved with an idea? How do you overcome that shyness? Was it just gaining confidence the more people said ‘yes’? How did you push yourself to put yourself in that position?
I started with people I know. I think that’s also one of the reasons I went with kids, it’s easier. So, I think just make things easier for yourself. Go with the people you feel most comfortable with. Trust your intuition, because I think doing anything the same. We often try to plan things with our mind, but we shouldn’t ignore that very pure intuition in your heart. I think that’s the simplest guidance. Some people make you feel easy, trust that feeling and then start from there.
Red Roomers trickled in early for the 74th consecutive Stage Time & Wine and settled around the food table. The usual ease that accompanies Red Roomers to most events quickly settled over the crowd as they intermingled.
Some were well rehearsed, others were off the cuff. One group had spent weeks before Stage Time & Wine practicing their cues, harmonies and musical arrangement. While this group performed renditions of others’ work, many Red Roomers took to the stage to present their original pieces. Anthony, a returning performer, explained why he returned to Red Room to present a new composition. “People really listen here,” he said while tuning up his guitar.
Outside, people thronged the streets celebrating Taiwan’s recent election; inside, a very different political expression took place. Early in the night a young woman with ribbons wound around her wrists, stood silently in front of the crowd for several minutes. Over her mouth she had placed a Taiwanese flag. A hush fell over the room as the audience watched her stare ahead. It was the kind of silence that surrounds you and stretches time. When she removed her flag she revealed she had protested in reaction to Chou Tzu-yu’s forced, humiliating apology and denial of her heritage.
Her protest was not the only element of salient societal and political issues, Adam McMillan, the director of The Community Services Center (The Center) in Taipei also spoke. In sharing the tragic story that lead to The Center’s founding, McMillan revealed the importance of providing accessible mental health services for any person in Taiwan who needs it.
As per usual, the night was filled with a great variety of performances ranging from personal to political, and sometimes encompassing both. On stage, people shared, sometimes for the first time, their prose, poetry and harmony. Yet, thanks to that ever-present ease, it didn’t matter how many times any person had shared. It didn’t matter which topic they chose to cover or which medium they chose for their performance. We listened all the same. Perhaps Rose Goossen said it best when she prefaced her performance: It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve performed, “there’s not a stage that quite affects [you] as this one does.”
Scribe, Red Room