There are more than 1,000 species of orchids that bloom across Thailand, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. Typically, orchids can be found clutching the trunk of a tree while drawing nourishment from rain water trickling through the topography of its bark. Other species can be discovered blossoming in the darkest pockets of shade on a forest floor, or in the coolest, misty clouds of Doi Inthanon’s highest peak. Orchids are amazingly beautiful, complex, and surprising. Some species have devised bewildering methods of pollination and can only be fertilised by a single species of insect. Other orchids exhibit behaviours that challenge our understanding of plants entirely, such as the orchid’s ability to imitate the vibration of a flying insect’s wings to ward off an unwanted pollinator, or its crafty method of emitting the scent of a female wasp to dupe a male into mating with its blossom. It is from these enchanting local creatures that American artist and designer Nick Anderson draws the inspiration for his latest creation, the Phoenix Orchid, a line of ornately crafted glass jewellery that Nick produces by hand in his home studio in Chiang Mai.
“I’ve seen some amazing orchids at the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens off of the Samoeng loop,” Nick explains in his Chang Puak apartment and studio. “I’ve found some huge clusters of them while hiking up Doi Suthep, and a whole array of orchids for sale at the Warorot Market. I just love to experiment with these natural forms, loosely based on real orchids; they just have this psychedelic appearance that I love to play with.” Nick relocated to Thailand from Northern California two and a half years ago to live with his girlfriend. While moving abroad may cause some to assume a minimalist approach to living, Nick does not resist his tendency to be in a constant mode of creation. Whether it’s brewing kamboucha or pickling local vegetables, digital illustration and web design, metal and glass working, or just cooking up lavish meals for dinner parties at his house, Nick has what he needs. Nick’s collection of tools, many of them custom made, are a success in themselves. While some of the equipment at his home studio was shipped from California, Nick’s search for glass rod, tanks of gas to fuel his glass working torch, shaping tools and other ingredients needed to complete his setup became the initial driving force behind getting to know his new home in Chiang Mai. Eventually, through diligent exploration of the city streets, private Thai lessons, and abandoning any shyness of strangers, the pieces came together to produce the Phoenix Orchid. “It’s been tonnes of riding around on motorbikes, tonnes of people telling me ‘you have to meet this person that knows that person’—it’s just been one insane scavenger hunt. It all started when I spotted a guy at the Night Bazaar selling glass pieces. I didn’t speak much Thai, but I had been studying, and I asked him where I could get an oxygen tank. He directed me to a shop in Mae Ping that sold gas, and the shop had a tiny glass fish on their counter,” Nick laughs at the memory of the fish. “I asked them for the phone number of the guy that made it, and they gave it to me. I don’t think anybody would ever do that in America. I’ve felt a really strong community connection while searching for all of this stuff.”
Nick’s method of glass working is known as lampworking, a technique with traces to the ancient Egyptians and made wildly popular in Italy and France in the 14th century. A modernised form of lampworking is still in use to this day. “Basically, everything that I do I am creating about 30 centimetres from my face over an extremely hot flame, almost 3000 degrees celsius,” Nick says jokingly. “This is my torch, like, the Cadillac of torches, that I love. The process goes layer by layer, so I first apply the finest details of the flower: the stamen, the pistol and any of the details of the centre, followed by the first layer of petals, and then applying the details very intricately and melting it in. Then I apply the next layer, build it into this layered flower, and then just let gravity do the rest of the work.”
“I call them Phoenix Orchids, because they are orchids, but, similar to the phoenix they are born from flames. I create something that is identifiable as an orchid but that doesn’t exist in the natural world. I’ve always been inspired by nature, and was always outside as a kid. At school, I was always getting in trouble for doodling insects. I guess it helped me to focus on what was actually going on in class if I could satisfy that creative activity in my mind.”
Recently, Nick had the opportunity to combine his newfound love for orchids with the nostalgia of the north Californian nature that inspired him throughout his youth. Third Eye Pinecones, a jeweller that crafts products from cross sections of Californian pinecones, now offers a line of necklaces and other items inlayed with Nick’s Phoenix Orchid. It is a stunning combination of materials, and only enhanced after learning of Nick’s story, as he immortalises his love for Thai orchids in glass and ships them across the world back home to be combined with the pinecone that littered his stomping grounds.
Nick has found a home in the Chiang Mai art community as well, and recently has begun working out of Makerspace, the co-working space near Tha Pae Gate that offers 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters, and other cost-prohibitive equipment to the public. Makerspace offers impressive hardware, but Nick has found the most valuable tool to be the people themselves.
“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of knife making as well. I plan to combine the Phoenix Orchids with the survival knives that I’ve been creating so I can combine those mediums. At Makerspace, it’s so nice to have all of these different skill sets around you. To learn something and execute it, it can take quite a while, but to have somebody to point you in the right direction is really valuable. I’ve been prototyping some new ways to inlay jewellery into wood with a laser cutter, and it’s amazing to have people with engineering backgrounds, with machine building backgrounds, product design backgrounds, graphic and artistic backgrounds. You get a really cool combination of ideas and skill sets.”
As winter approaches Chiang Mai, orchid season is just around the corner. Soon many of these cold weather flowers will begin to bloom across the northern mountains, at the orchid pavilion in Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens, and farms throughout the Northern provinces. It is a season that may draw some to the forest in search of the elusive white orchid, almost never seen in the wild, and it will certainly yield a bouquet of seasonal orchid species for sale at Chiang Mai’s flower markets. For Nick, winter is a season that he freezes in time and shares with the world as, one by one, he sculpts the flowers that have captured his imagination.