In just two years Pia Blair has gone from teacher to artist with more than 40 clients across Australia. By Michael Tatarski, photo by Fred Wissink.

Pia Blair originally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City as just another teacher, but after a year she started to feel the urge once again to express herself creatively. She decided it was time to use the skills she had honed while studying sculpture and print making in Australia and teaching art at a secondary school. The more artistic path led her to places all over the city in search of material, and eventually to more than 40 stores selling her work in Australia.

“I’ve been making things for friends and family my whole life,” she says. “I wanted to try to make some extra money.”

Blair began by making greeting cards and, after creating a batch, she took them to L’usine, a hip District 1 café, in September 2011. She hoped L’usine would put one or two up for sale, but instead they took every last one and asked for more.

Blair says, “I still can’t believe it. It was just so amazing.”

Then came the introduction to Julia Green, a Melbourne-based agent with connections to art boutiques and buyers. Green liked Blair’s cards, but believed there was no money in them, so she told her to make something on a larger scale.

Over the next two weeks Blair bought a set of large pieces of paper from Australia and began screen printing and experimenting with spray painting. “I’ve always been someone who collects things, which is great here in Saigon because I can search through stores in the middle of nowhere and find these great things,” Blair says of her creative process.

In just two years Pia Blair has gone from teacher to artist with more than 40 clients across Australia. By Michael Tatarki, photo by Fred Wissink.

She found stores near Hung Vuong Plaza in District 5 and in Go Vap District that were packed with photographs, maps and postcards from the 1950s to today and used these to tell stories. Blair’s philosophy is that “there should be humour in art, and it should be accessible to all, so I try to tell a story and engage people while evoking a sense of nostalgia.” Sometimes she has a concept in mind when she starts a piece of artwork, other times the tale comes together as the work progresses.

After finishing a set of prints Blair shipped them off to Green, the agent.  “I was blown away,” Green told me in an email. “This was not a stick and paste job for the light hearted. This girl had methodically worked out her theme, design and colour palette with precision, yet made it look like a random act of kindness.” Green then took Blair’s work to a retailer in Melbourne who bought everything on the spot.

Blair now creates work under a business called Little Land of Pia. In August she took part in a national art fair, and in February she will have her own display space at another exhibition, personally giving herself exposure to the Australian market for the first time.

Jo Mclean, who owns JFAHRI boutique in Melbourne, is one of the retailers selling Blair’s work. Her designs are always unique, colourful and fun with a hidden message, and each artwork tells an individual story,” Mclean says. “Customers spend a while choosing a piece which they best relate to.”

When discussing the future, Blair admits her print artwork isn’t for everyone, especially because they are quite expensive to purchase. Recently she has diversified her products to make herself more marketable by creating handbags and cushions.

“I’ve always been interested in textiles and there are skilled craftsmen and materials at our doorstep,” she says. “So it would be stupid not to make something like that.”

Though at the moment Blair has her hands full with her Australian clientele, she hopes to enter the Asian market, but it’s proving harder than expected.

In Australia, however, things are going exceedingly well for Blair. The Design Files, a popular blog, recently invited her to display her work at their Open House project in Melbourne along with 12 other artists from around the country. Last year the event attracted several thousand visitors.

Blair’s work seems to have struck a chord. As Green says, “It is popular because it is fresh and different, and made with everyday ‘stuff’ and turned into a work of art.”