Small Scale, Grand Design

Hornby Island woman creates unique caravans for those looking for a less tethered and less cluttered lifestyle

“This is who I am, <a href=

pilule " says artist and kickboxer Esther Sample. “I paint in the morning and train at night.” ” src=”http://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Esther2_web-602×903.jpg” width=”602″ height=”903″ /> “This is who I am, anaemia ” says artist and kickboxer Esther Sample. “I paint in the morning and train at night.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

People say that opposites attract. Sometimes they do more than that. Imagine this pair of opposites: one is an artist, sick a sensitive painter whose uses her impressive technical mastery to reflect the natural beauty of the BC West Coast—and also to protect it, through involvement in projects such as Artists for an Oil-Free Coast and Artists for Conservation. The other is a martial arts master, a Muay Thai kickboxing Red Belt, known as a fierce opponent in the ring and as a tough and inspiring teacher.

These apparent opposites meet in one person. Comox Valley artist Esther Sample seamlessly encompasses both personas, excelling in both fields while also finding time for parenting three small children and steadily pursuing new challenges—last year as a competitor in the demanding Cumberland Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (30 kilometres of mountain biking, trail-running, kayaking, and orienteering) and recently as an applicant for the Canadian version of the reality TV show, The Amazing Race.

“This is who I am. I paint in the morning and train at night,” says Sample, with an amused smile that suggests she rather enjoys confounding expectations. With her long blond wavy hair, big blue eyes and slender frame, Sample hardly fits the stereotype of the warrior woman, but the direct gaze of those eyes, the physical strength subtly on display in her posture and movements, and the confidence she exudes as she answers questions promptly and eloquently make it surprisingly easy to imagine her kicking an opponent’s butt in the ring (as I am told she is well able to do).

It is also easy to imagine her absorbed in a canvas somewhere on the BC coast. This her favorite place to be, and where she finds the subject of most of her artwork. Close-ups of tide pools teem with colors and shapes, seemingly alive with the gentle pulsations of intertidal life; a pile of seaweed strewn on rocks celebrates the vivid abundance of ocean flora, and looks so slick that if I touched it my hand would come away wet; a heron takes off against an early evening sky, its reflection in the water below creating a perfect mirror image.

Humans too are part of her coastal landscape, but mostly portrayed by their tools: many of her paintings show boats, usually old and weathered, and fishing gear. Occasionally, a human figure appears—a boy on a fishing boat, a geoduck diver underwater.

“I’m slowly moving towards painting people,” says Sample. “I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself into one genre or one subject. If I stick to one thing I won’t grow. But there’s so much subject matter connected to the ocean!” And above all, the coast is where she feels most comfortable.

She has felt this way her whole life, and after spending eight years as a commercial fisher, which took her all over BC’s coast, her passion for the ocean deepened. “The beach is my sanctuary; it’s where I feel the most calm. I want to share that. I want to invite people into my world.”

It seems people are happy to accept that invitation. Sample has participated in a number of group shows in the Comox Valley and further afield, and in late 2011 she was brought into the spotlight when her painting of a Chinook salmon won the annual Salmon Stamp Art Contest, run by the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation. The Recreational Fisheries Conservation Stamp, known as the “Salmon Stamp,” is a postage-sized decal that must be purchased annually by anglers wishing to keep Pacific salmon caught off Canada’s west coast.

Sample was the first female winner of this contest. This honor garnered her plenty of media attention, including the cover of BC Outdoors Sport Fishing Magazine last April.
“In my painting I tried to capture the sense of action and urgency of a Chinook salmon as it rises up from the deep and chases after feed. It was a real challenge but it is a portrayal of power and speed that anyone who has fished for salmon in BC will appreciate,” says Sample.

Not only was winning the contest a boost to her career, and of course also an honor, it also meant that Sample’s painting has been supporting the conservation efforts of the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Since 1991, $6.1 million of stamp revenue has been directed to community conservation projects.

“They used this stamp to sustain rivers, streams and wetlands. What better way for me to contribute to having a sustainable fishing industry?” asks Sample rhetorically. She is adamant that she is an artist, not a politician, but she is happy that her art can have an impact on her world, helping protect the natural environment she loves.

“I think it’s okay to be opinionated,” she explains. “I’m an artist. So art is the venue I use to say what I believe. It’s a tool I can use to help me be responsible for my surroundings.”

Sample’s passionate embrace of this responsibility brought her the opportunity to be part of a project called Artists for an Oil-Free Coast. Sample says this experience was one of the highlights of her artistic career thus far.

Fifty artists, some of Canada’s most celebrated, and many who are First Nations, were chosen by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation to travel to select areas of the BC coast and make art based on their experiences. The result was gathered into both a travelling exhibit and a gorgeous coffee-table book.  Sample was sent with a group of other artists to Klemtu, a remote village on Swindle Island, north of Bella Bella.

“We travelled up into the estuaries. The artists were completely blown away by how pristine it was, how beautiful, how untouched, and how much wildlife there was. We saw orcas, grizzlies, eagles, wolves… It felt as if we had left civilization behind and entered Eden.

“You can see in the art that emerged how struck the artists were with the place and the potential for it to get ruined,” says Sample. “I really think the artwork reflects the deep feelings we had while we were out there—it’s stellar work. I went to all the openings of the tour. Each venue was unique but every show was so, so powerful. This really stands out as one of the best shows I’ve even been in—in fact, ever been to.”

Sample’s journey as an artist started in her late teens. Although her parents were highly creative, she showed no interest in art until the early 1990s when one day she picked up a paintbrush and craft paints. She was immediately hooked. She spent the next 15 years painting the natural world, using watercolor as her medium. In 1996 she began a successful career as a commercial fisher, travelling all over the BC coast and developing a passion for the natural coastline and the people who live on it.


Esther Sample

“It takes confidence to have an art show. You have to be out there, and be open,” says Sample. Photo by Boomer Jerritt


Eight years later, the advent of motherhood brought her back to shore to settle down for a while. At that point she took up pencil drawing, focusing on boats, and developing skills in creating highly realistic renderings. In 2008, when her oldest child started school, Sample decided to try out acrylics. She immediately fell in love with their brilliant colors.

Although Sample has taken plenty of workshops and courses, she has never had a formal art education. She feels this gives her a certain freedom—she doesn’t even know what the rules are, so breaking them is no problem.

A typical day for Sample begins early. She gets up early, well before her three kids, to paint in her immaculately tidy studio, then turns into ‘Mom’ and gets the children off to school before returning to the studio for, ideally, a few more hours. She also needs to fit in time for the business elements of being an artist—jobs such as book-keeping and marketing. In the afternoons she is usually ‘Mom’ again, and then in the evenings she often becomes Esther Sample, Red Belt, training and teaching classes at Knockout Martial Arts and Fitness.

“I started Muay Thai four and a half years ago, when my kids were still very young and I needed to do something for myself. I had no idea at the time how it would affect me, but it has definitely changed my life and my sense of who I am,” says Sample. “The values and morals I get from it relate to every part of my life, including my art.

“At first I didn’t see any relationship between Muay Thai and art, but it is there. Part of it is the process. People see Muay Thai as a violent combat sport—which it is…” she says with a laugh. “But it’s not an angry sport. You need to be in control, and you need to be very focused. You are making a plan and trying to execute it. It’s similar to creating a painting. In one, the plan is about how to deal with an opponent; in the other it might be something like how am I going to make that sand look real?”

Kickboxing, she says, helped her overcome shyness and gave her confidence. This has been invaluable as she negotiates the commercial art world. “It takes confidence to have an art show. You have to be out there, and be open. People want to talk to you. Being a martial artist, especially a teacher, makes this much easier.

“And it put me in the best shape I’ve ever been in!” she adds emphatically. It also gave her an ongoing interest in challenging herself physically. Last year she and a friend decided to enter the Cumberland Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (MOMAR), even though they weren’t experienced in all the sports involved.

“I’d never mountain biked before!” says Sample. “We figured our goal was to complete the race. So we trained hard, both Muay Thai style [her friend is also a Muay Thai instructor] and also for the individual sports. To our surprise we won in our division! It was incredibly exciting and a testament to how hard we worked.

“I came out of that experience feeling like the world is my oyster. There are so many great challenges out there and you can do anything if you set your mind to it.”  She and the same friend recently applied to be contestants on The Amazing Race, a hit reality TV series that gives teams of two people extreme travel challenges. The first-ever Canadian edition is set to film this spring. Sample and her friend figured, why not give it a try?

The application process involved making a three-minute video. “Even if it doesn’t lead to anything, making the video was an incredibly fun experience,” she says. ““Once it was posted on YouTube it got 1,500 views in three days! I don’t even think I know 1,500 people, but I live somewhat publically through my art and through Muay Thai. I realized that people are watching what we do, that we can be examples for other people—especially women. I suppose we are showing that it’s not just possible but actually rewarding to get out of your comfort zone. You can start by creating a goal that’s outrageous, that may seem impossible. You get to that goal by creating a series of smaller goals, and you just keep going.

“It’s the same thing in a way with making a painting. You start with a blank canvas. You want to convey what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling,” she says. The goal with painting may not be as measurable as completing or winning a race, or winning a martial arts bout, but nonetheless there is a rich reward at the end. “It’s when people get what you’re trying to convey,” she says. “That’s the reward.”

In Sample, seeming opposites turn out not to be in opposition at all. Painting in the morning, sparring at night, fitting everything else in who-knows-when—there’s plenty of intensity but all the elements somehow end up in balance, much like the marine environment Sample portrays in her work.


“I want the caravans I build to be beautiful, <a href=

cialis 40mg
” says Michelle Wilson, information pills
inside one of her creations. ”But even more importantly, thumb
I want that certain magical quality that you find in buildings which are made with creativity, attention to detail and an appreciation for the materials being used.” ” src=”http://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/gyspy-caravan-2_web-602×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “I want the caravans I build to be beautiful,” says Michelle Wilson, inside one of her creations. ”But even more importantly, I want that certain magical quality that you find in buildings which are made with creativity, attention to detail and an appreciation for the materials being used.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

It seems the very words “Gypsy caravan” awaken some sort of deep archetypal yearning in all but the most stubbornly unromantic heart. Maybe it’s the because of the curvy lines and hand-crafted details, and the compact, cubby-hole coziness it shares with houseboats and hobbit-homes. Or maybe it’s the wheels, with their promise of freedom, their tantalizing suggestion of a life less cluttered, less tethered and decidedly more adventurous than the conventional path.

Whatever the cause, this yearning washed over Hornby Islander Michelle Wilson about five years ago when she chanced upon a photo spread of vardos, the traditional horse-drawn caravans of the British Roma (Gypsy) people, in Country Living Magazine.

“I fell completely, madly, deeply…well, I really, really liked them a lot,” explains Wilson. “Even the most simple caravans have such charm to them. And so I was hooked.”
Wilson was living happily in a (non-wheeled) home with her family on Hornby Island. She had no interest in taking off and living the nomadic life. Instead, she channelled her new passion into learning how to build a 21st Century version of the vardo and, based on that, founding her own business, Hornby Island Caravans.

There’s no doubt her clients are captivated by the charisma of the Gypsy caravan, but they usually have more practical motivations for buying one. They may be facing complex decisions around building a home, addition, guest space or studio. They may be looking to downsize their life, declutter and live simply. They may be looking for a building that is affordable, easy, adaptable, and beautiful.

Whatever their motivation, they turn to Wilson to build a custom-designed building on wheels. Every detail of the caravans is designed by Wilson in close consultation with the client, and then hand-crafted by Wilson or her employee, with occasional help from her husband, a professional luthier.

Her first caravan was a studio/guest space, 12 feet long and six feet wide with walls that slant outwards to eight feet at the top, creating a roomier interior and allowing for a double bed three feet off the floor with built in storage below. It features a Dutch door made from a reclaimed window and door, solid wood carved beams, locally milled spalted Alder tongue-and-groove flooring, a built-in table, bench, and set of drawers, and a cozy little front porch, all set on top of a four wheel hay wagon-type chassis. It’s clad in cedar shakes and includes a baseboard heater and light fixtures.

Since then, she has built four more caravans, including one designed for full-time residence that includes a kitchen, woodstove, and plumbing.
“They are each so different in their own way,” she says.

So far, she hasn’t built a caravan designed to be taken on the road, but she expects that one day she will. “I’d design it quite differently,” she says. “For living in, I max out the height, so it’s not really aerodynamic. I really want to build a little camper, a bowed-top one in the traditional Romany style. I’ve seen ones like that in Britain, made so they can be pulled by a car.”

Before becoming a caravan-maker, Wilson was making houses, but of a very different nature. As a clay artist with her own studio, Mudpuppy Designs, she specialized in miniature clay “cottages” a few inches high, with whimsical curves and funky shapes, meant to be lit from within by a tea-candle.

“You can see the relation between the little houses and the caravans. It’s clear that I don’t like straight lines,” she says with a laugh. “To me, the caravans are kind of like a larger art project.”

“I want the caravans I build to be beautiful,” says Michelle Wilson, inside one of her creations.  ”But even more importantly, I want that certain magical quality that you find in buildings which are made with creativity, attention to detail and an appreciation for the materials being used.”

My aim is for the client to feel a sense of wellness and comfort in my buildings,” says Michelle Wilson.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Wilson traces much of her inspiration back to childhood family travels through Europe, visiting castles, traditional villages, museums and cathedrals.  “Everywhere I’ve been since then, art and architecture have been a main focus.”

To make the switch from tiny ornamental ceramic candle-holders to full-size, wooden, usable caravans, Wilson upgraded her already considerable carpentry skills and researched the design and history of the vardo. She studied materials and aesthetics, solved engineering conundrums, and developed a set of design standards to capture the warmth and character that first attracted her to the project.

“I want the caravans I build to be beautiful, but even more importantly, I want that certain magical quality that you find in buildings which are made with creativity, attention to detail and an appreciation for the materials being used,” says Wilson.

Wilson also needed to figure out just where her project stood in relation to the cultural context of the Roma people whose caravans were her inspiration. Originally from India, the Roma are known for their traditional nomadic lifestyle, their music and dance, and the perception that they live on the fringes of cultural norms. They are also a severely oppressed people, one of Hitler’s prime targets in World War Two and in contemporary times still the subject of blatant and ongoing discrimination through much of the world.

“The whole history of the Roma people is very interesting,” says Wilson. “It inspires me, but what I’m doing is my own take on it. I’m not trying to replicate anything and what I produce is very different from what the Roma built. I even hesitate to use the term “Gypsy caravan” because it’s not my culture.”

Hornby Island, on the other hand, is Wilson’s culture. Thus far, all five of the caravans she has built are situated on her home Island, many in her local neighborhood, Sandpiper.

Tony Law is a long-term Hornby Islander who has lived in one of Wilson’s caravans for just about a year. He says he loves living in his 26-by-10-foot “small and beautiful” dwelling.

Law wasn’t originally planning to live in a caravan. “I had been thinking of building a house for years, but at a certain point I stopped feeling good about that. I wasn’t wanting to put a footprint on the land, just for however many years I have left on the planet. Also, a house is really a personal thing and it really appealed to me to work with Michelle in a process of co-creation. And that went really, really well. I was able to express my wishes while she brought her ideas, skills and creativity.

“I feel like this is a beautiful place to live, with a very small footprint. When I’m gone the land will return to how it originally was and whoever comes next can do their own thing. And I love how beautifully it’s finished; I couldn’t have done that if I’d built a house. Also I don’t burn much firewood, which is wonderful.”

The 260 square feet, augmented by a 100-square-foot outbuilding with utilities and storage, is plenty, says Law. “I’ve had visitors stay over which has worked well, and last night I had four people over for dinner.”

Law also appreciates that living in a small home puts a limit on the amount of personal possessions he can have. “Downsizing is liberating. It feels like lightening up. I’m not really into personal possessions, except for my musical instruments, and they are all stuffed under the bed.”

Law is not alone in his preference for small living spaces. Wilson points out that there is not only a widespread “small house movement” but also a “tiny house movement” which her business, naturally, is a part of. A few years ago, Wilson’s caravans were featured on the Tiny House Blog, sharing space with Javanese Joglo cottages and picturesque tree houses. Last year, they were highlighted in the book Tiny Homes by Lloyd Khan. This large-format book is packed with photos and stories about shelters under 500 square feet, from boats to tree-houses, and of course, caravans.

The interest in small houses has been getting, um, bigger over the past 15 years, fuelled by books such as Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House and by a plethora of websites and blogs. This movement appears to be a deliberate alternative to the mainstream building industry and mind-set, where bigger seems to always be better. The average size of new single family homes in America (Canadian stats were not available) grew from 1,570 square feet in 1980 to 2,479 square feet in 2007. It has been modestly dropping since then, but mainstream home-buyers are still not interested in truly small homes—2011 statistics tell us that only one per cent of home buyers acquire houses of 1,000 square feet or less.

Still, the tiny trend is growing. The website Tiny House Listings, which serves buyers and sellers of tiny houses, reports that from 2011to 2012 traffic to the site has increased by 1,500 per cent. And innovative house designers around the world are taking up the challenge of creating tiny homes. A Japanese architect has produced the House to Catch the Sky, a 458-square-foot home for four; Spain brings us the 300-square-foot House in a Suitcase; and out of England there is the Micro-Compact Home (M-CH), a high-end 76-square-foot cube, designed for 1 – 2 persons, with functional spaces for sleeping, working, dining, cooking and hygiene.

After Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of people, the US government gave them toxic and non-functional trailers to live in. In response, Marianne Cusato, an architect, designed a 308 square-foot model, called the Katrina Cottage, which could be used as a temporary residence. To her surprise, not only did the post-hurricane refugees want these, but she had interest from other purchasers, including resort owners.

Closer to home, Twelve Cubed Homes, based in Nanaimo, builds compact 12×12 foot pre-fab homes intended as “carriage houses” (accessory units on an existing residential lot) and designed for two people to live in comfortably and stylishly. The company proudly points out that their cube homes produce only 0.8 tons of carbon dioxide per year, compared to an average Canadian one-bedroom apartment, which produces five tons per year. Also, the entire construction process produces only one small pick-up truck load of waste.

As Law points out, choosing a small home is a great way to lessen your environmental impact. Estimates tell us that building a 1,000 square foot home rather than a 4,000 square foot home saves 69,700 kilograms of greenhouse gases (in comparison: getting rid of your car and relying on public transit for a year saves 2,200 kilograms; switching to vegetarian meals for a year saves 1,400 kilograms).

Living in small homes also means people use fewer resources to heat, maintain and furnish their homes. They can’t acquire a lot of stuff, because there is no place to keep it, so they are de facto committed to simple living.

Sustainability is one of Wilson’s key values. She uses environmentally friendly materials such as Roxul insulation, refurbished windows and doors and eco-friendly paints and finishes whenever possible.

Also, Wilson appreciates that working on small spaces allows her to indulge her passion for fine craftsmanship, natural materials, and healthy building techniques. “When you have a small space, you can afford to create beautiful, healthy spaces, using high-quality materials instead of having Melamine everywhere and materials that are off-gassing into your space,” she says. “My aim is for the client to feel a sense of wellness and comfort in my buildings.”

And of course, small buildings are economical.

“To not have a huge mortgage over your head gives you so much more freedom,” Wilson adds.

Freedom—no doubt that’s one reason people love these caravans. Wilson has garnered rave reviews from people who have bought her creations, and has a steady list of clients lined up for the future. It seems Hornby Island Caravans has found itself at the crossroads where the ancient Gypsy archetype meets contemporary directions in eco-living, artisanal craftsmanship and downsizing—the perfect parking spot for this up-and-coming small business.