A Colourful Life: Joanna MacLean

Thankfully for the islanders, if not for Joanna, there were no disasters during her time there.

By | Fri 1 May 2015

One of those memes was doing the rounds on Facebook a few months back: click on a map to show off to your friends how many countries you’ve been to. After a nostalgic amble through my memories, I was quite satisfied with my total (41), when a friend’s status popped up: she had been to 114 countries.

“Grumph,” I sulked. “But I bet she has a few stories to tell,” I thought to myself.

So, when pint-sized sixty something Joanna MacLean strode into my office for this interview, nails candy coated in an array of bright colours to match the multiple hues of her outfit and accessories, and already bursting with news and updates _ “I haven’t seen you since my trip to Iceland have I? You caught me just in time. I am heading to Myanmar next week to Naypyidaw to learn more about elephant conservation.” _ I knew that we were going to be treated to a colourful story.

Joanna is the co-owner of Colour Factory and the Elephant Parade House on Charoenrat Road, successful businesses selling the iconic painted elephants, handbags and many things vibrantly pigmented. “I’m short sighted you see, colour has always been so important to me.”

Dawn in the Wop Wops

“I love arriving somewhere at night and then waking somewhere completely new. It comes from my earliest memory when I remember waking up one morning at our patch in Wanaka and walking out across cold gravel to gaze at the smooth grey lake surrounded by golden poplars.”
She sets the scene well. She is a natural born story teller.

Joanna is a fourth generation New Zealander from Dunedin, one of three sisters descended from university professor grandparents on both sides of the family. In spite of hailing from such a far-flung plot on the globe, her family was well travelled with her grandparents having studied at the Sorbonne and The Slade, and her parents travelling frequently to Europe.

So, when she turned 18 she applied to volunteer abroad. Leaving the country for the first time, she flew on a tiny 12-seater, which at one point had the flight attendant “running down the aisle shouting, ‘we’re lost, we’re lost’,” she giggles. “But I was so happy to be travelling I didn’t care.” After an avian odyssey across the Pacific, she settled in to teach and live for a year on a one square mile island off the east coast of Santa Isabel called Tasia.

With partners Lasse Norgaard and Sommai Lumdual at La Luna Gallery

“None of the kids I was teaching had ever seen a wheel, let alone a white woman. As for me? Every single thing that I thought was normal in life was suddenly turned upside down. There wasn’t enough food at the school for weekends, so most of the girls had to canoe home every weekend, some trips taking up to three hours each way, while others had to fish for food. I remember one girl saying that I looked so pretty. I had always thought myself rather ugly so I was surprised. She corrected me and said that she meant on the inside. I realised then that society could function in a different way from which I knew. This had a huge impact on my life.”

After returning home, learning Maori, graduating from Otago University in social geography and anthropology as well as gaining a diploma in education (and being treated for TB she caught in the Pacific), she embarked on a teaching career.

“I taught Maori kids for a few years until I finally saved up enough money for my OE, Overseas Experience, something all Kiwis do. I was probably at the end of the era that went by ship, but it was such an experience. We spent six weeks on a Greek liner with 1,400 passengers, 1,200 of whom were young Kiwis and Aussies. It was such fun, though it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. One engine died a fortnight after we left and we also lost a couple of people overboard. Until today no one knows what happened to them.”

Hosting Princess Diana at the Red Cross Red Crescent Pavilion in EXPO ’92 in Spain

Young Joanna landed in Southampton and proceeded to join her parents who were taking a tour of Europe. The next few years were filled with hard work _ whatever job I could find in England _ and travel. “I spent time on the Greek islands, went to the opera in Vienna, camped in Scotland and Cornwall, walked the Swiss Alps, smelled the canals in Venice and heard the St Peter’s choir sing in Rome. It was a glorious time.”

In 1975 she took a position as nanny to a young married couple with two sons who lived in a country manor in Gloucestershire. “It was very intimidating as the whole county scene was way more sophisticated and class conscious than I was used to!”

Joanna spent many years enjoying the country life, but once her charges left for school she decided that it was time to return home…stopping in Japan for a month, naturally.

A Cabbage-Wrapped Future

“I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do,” she said. “One day my mum handed me a piece of newspaper which had been wrapped around a cabbage with a notice seeking an assistant director for the New Zealand Red Cross. In my mind the Red Cross was all about old ladies standing around sipping tea, but I gave it a go anyway.”

And that’s how Joanna embarked on her remarkable career with the Red Cross which would see her living in Geneva and travelling the world for nearly three decades.

“It is quite ironic that I had failed French twice in uni and had been the first student to petition to learn Maori as a foreign language. The uni had argued that it was not a foreign language, but I told them that I didn’t know it so it must be foreign. And when would I ever need to speak French anyway? Trust me, I had to learn fast in Geneva.” Joanna is now a fluent master of French and Spanish and speaks a soupon of Thai.

She spent years designing and promoting teaching programmes throughout Southern African nations on humanitarian issues. She then headed the Youth Department for the International Federation, during which time she held meetings and events worldwide, from Iraq to Romania to China.

In 1989 the Red Cross celebrated their 125th anniversary and Joanna was put in charge of organising its first youth meeting with youth from 132 countries, first in Italy then all travelling to Geneva for a conference.

“What is incredible is that all these years later those kids have since formed a Facebook group and we can see what they have done with their lives. One kid is now the vice president of Syrian Red Crescent and many others are doing incredible things.”

Joanna was then charged with organising two other large events for the Red Cross; the global campaign, Light of Darkness for the protection of victims of war which saw events happening worldwide on the same day and which was later turned into an eponymous BBC film narrated by stars such as Roger Moore and Nastassja Kinski, as well as running the ’92 expo in Spain’s Red Cross pavilion which saw volunteers from 70 countries participating.

In spite of these high level jobs, Joanna is an adventurer at heart and soon requested some disaster relief experience. So off she went to the Caribbean for three years living in Jamaica but travelling across the region. Thankfully for the islanders, if not for Joanna, there were no disasters during her time there.

“The minute I left, Mount Monserrat erupted and a series of hurricanes blasted the region. A team of six men were sent out to man the office I had vacated and the joke was that it took six men to replace Joanna!”

She settled back into Europe and got involved in the policy and administrative sides of the Red Cross, rapidly moving up the ranks to draft policies and train international staff in ‘principles in action’.

Whenever she could, however, she would travel. “Often I would just get into a car with some friends and head off to some European country for the weekend. I find people endlessly fascinating. I am more likely to sit in a caf้ or go to a market or out in the bush in a jeep. As an avid photographer, I love capturing a scene, a colour, a face, the world is so incredible. I don’t understand people who just stay at home when there is so much to discover. By doing that you see your own values, beliefs, character and intolerances come out.”

It wasn’t all fun and games however, and soon Joanna found herself tasked as one of the organisers of a highly prestigious International conference with all government signatories of the Geneva Convention invited at the end of the year-long Power of Humanity campaign (which Joanna coined and created) where more than 500 Millennium Pledges were made by societies and governments to commit to ratify treaties and create laws to protect the most vulnerable members of society. She invited 70 international artists including Vanessa Mae and Cirque du Soleil to participate in an opening show and hosted many royals and dignitaries from around the world.

Have Feet, Will Travel

“After that long and hard year, and having put in 23 years at the Red Cross I decided that I needed a year out.” So off she went, adding countries to her belt like holes on a weightwatcher’s Joanna went kayaking in British Columbia, worked on a photography project in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama (eventually exhibited in Geneva and Paris as well as being published into a book titled Madre Tierra), visited friends across the United States, crossed the Chilean Andes, relaxed in the Cook Islands and visited old Red Cross friend Lasse Norgaard and his boyfriend Sommai Lumdual in Bangkok.

“I wasn’t done with the organisation though. I genuinely believe that the Red Cross is one of the most honourable organisations,” said Joanna passionately about her alma mater. Through its International Committee (ICRC) who work in conflict, and its International Federation (IFRC) of some 180 national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies it is active across the globe in all hotspots and disasters as well as running health and social programmes at national and local levels. Over its 150 years of humanitarian endeavours it has achieved so much, and I am proud to have been a small part of it.”

“I returned, refreshed, to Geneva and this time was charged with a global HIV campaign which eventually led me to a conference in Chiang Mai where Lasse and Sommai had recently located. We spent a wonderful Christmas together. Lasse had worked with me in 1982 when he was a skinny long haired hippie with beads starting his career as a journalist. In 1999 he worked with me again for the ‘Power of Humanity’ events. I really took a shine to Chiang Mai and we talked about starting a business together one day. But before that I wanted to do one more job. So in 2002 I headed the International Federation’s Delegation in Myanmar where I spent many happy years. I wanted to work with one country with one national society, rather than work regionally. I was blown away by the beauty of the country, the strength of its people living in harsh conditions while maintaining their values, sense of humour and integrity. In spite of the dictatorship there was a core knowledge and integrity that was incredible.”

In 2004, while still working in Myanmar, Joanna, Lasse and Sommai opened the successful, but since closed, La Luna Gallery, named by The Sunday Times as arguably the best contemporary art gallery in South East Asia. In total they had 72 artists from Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand represented.

Lasse was posted by the Red Cross back to Europe in 2011, taking Sommai with him, and sadly La Luna closed its doors. Not to allow such a little hic-cup to stop her, Joanna promptly opened Colour Factory with her friend Miguel La Salle a few months later, and a few metres down the road, and as of last year also runs the Elephant Parade House.

During her years in Myanmar Joanna was invited by the Road to Mandalay Oriental Express cruise to give talks a few times and thoroughly enjoyed herself. So, during a chance meeting with a client a few years ago at her gallery, she found herself with the opportunity to embark upon a new side-career; cruise lecturer. “I got to do my own research and talks on any topic I wanted, it was such fun. I did the San Diego to Fort Lauderdale cruise and gave talks on Aztec and Mayan civilisations, on Mexican art and even one on the history of the Panama hat – fascinating! I also went across the Indian Ocean from Singapore to South Africa and gave many talks including one on stamp collecting (did you know that the blue Mauritius is one of the most valuable stamps in the world? – er, no.). Our boat was actually the original Love Boat and one of the talks I gave on it was about piracy. Unbelievably we actually had a real-life piracy scare!”

While her CV is impressive – she’s hung out with Princess Di, Yoko Ono, Bertrand Piccard, visits her friend Princess Magriet of The Netherlands when she is in the neighbourhood, and has spent time with our own Princess Sirindhorn – Joanna is a down to earth woman who travels as much to broaden her horizon as to maintain friendships she has built and nurtured over the years.

Joanna still does work for the Red Cross, as well as volunteer work, such as the time spent after Cyclone Nargis, but, for now, Chiang Mai is home base. “I have built a family of friends here. I feel rooted, I’m the right size for living in Asia, it is half way between home and Europe, Chiang Mai is not too big of a city for me, and I love how busy and bustling Asia is.”

Lady with a Teacup

“A few years back I was invited by the Dunedin Red Cross group to give a talk,” she recalls with a laugh. “As I stood there, with my white hair, holding a cup of tea and handing out leaflets, I realised that I had become my worst fear. The day mum handed me that cabbage-soaked newspaper, this image flashed as a warning sign in my head, but I would never have anticipated all the experiences and opportunities that have resulted from that one decision.”

Last year Joanna learned how to scuba dive and explored Iceland with a friend. Last month she visited a 94 year old woman in Australia who she used to work with on Tasia, her first Pacific adventure, and whom she reconnected with after a chance conversation with the woman’s neighbour in La Luna Gallery a few years back. Later this year she is off with some friends to Oman. Bhutan, India, Turkey and Morocco are also beckoning, perhaps next year?

Colourful life indeed. I am going to have to ratchet up my number to 42 soon.