Walking into Roua Atelier in Amsterdam Oud-West instantly transported me back to the art class I took and loved as a child. I was greeted with an inviting laugh into a large, open space lined with boxes of craft material and finished handiwork. Smooth jazz music plays softly in the background, “I love jazz and swing music,” Roua reveals, “I would love to learn how to swing dance!”
Motioning to a table with colourful swatches, Roua exclaims, “I am absolutely crazy about natural colours and art and the environment!” Her atelier exclusively uses natural ingredients, lovingly prepared by Roua herself. She continues to show me how she prepares a colour bath, designed to draw out pink and brown tints from an avocado’s peel and seed, and parsley to create a soft pale yellow. Her sustainable vision is quickly gaining traction in the community, as an increasing number of people are recognising the benefits of going natural and avoiding harsh chemicals.
Growing up in a small village in the mountains of Syria, Roua has always felt at home in nature. Her inspiration to start her business stemmed from her childhood experiences: she was rubbing anything she could find on the walls of her home, to the annoyance of her mother. Nonetheless, it was fostering her creative spirit. Through sheer playfulness, Roua discovered that plants she picked in the fields could stain and transform colours. While clutching her cup of coffee, Roua glows while reminiscing about watching her grandmother colouring various materials. Such early experiences inspired her to study Fine Arts in university, where she began her career as a children’s art teacher – she has experience leading painting with yoga, animation and stop-motion, amongst others.
She has since travelled the world, living in a variety of extraordinary countries including Turkey, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, before settling in the Netherlands four years ago. Funnily enough, she decided on Amsterdam due to a chance encounter with two Dutchmen during a workshop she did while still in university many years back. “I love Amsterdam, and it has a rich history. I feel that here I can grow and learn a lot. In other cultures, I feel like you need to have two personalities to survive – one for your friends and the other for everyone else. I’m tired of that. I want to be just me,” she says.
Fast forward to today, Roua Atelier has bloomed into much more than a business and encompasses a call-to-action for people to disconnect from technology and reconnect with their surroundings. Indeed, it is no secret that technology has shifted the behaviours of humans on a massive scale over the years. Roua especially makes it her focus to introduce the digital minimalism mindset to children. “I want children today to experience what I had,” she explains when asked about her vision for her business, “I see how kids act these days, everyone is crazy about their iPads… they can’t be social without screens, and they don’t use their hands to create things enough. I remember that when I was a kid, I played in the streets!” Though the concept is equally important amongst adults, what better way to change behaviour than to start early? “I feel like they can take it with them and turn it into a habit,” she laughs, “also while the kids are here, their parents can spend time for themselves, or even take a nap!”
Roua Atelier gives people the ability to switch off for a couple of hours while working with nature to create products that are beautiful and serve as a sort of catharsis. Though she respects the beauty of graphic design, animation and similar feats, Roua believes that physical touch is an essential piece of her approach to art, and a critical aspect to truly unwind. Her workshop is incomparable to other art classes – the benefits go beyond creating artwork as she unravels the stories behind the different techniques she is using, whether it be shibori or block print, adding an intellectual element to the experience.
As a matter of fact, studying history is one of the most crucial things in Roua’s development process. “With certain ingredients, I think about how my mom or grandma made food out of it before I start thinking about the technique for art. Each detail that the people before us did, they did not do it just for nothing – they took time to figure out the best way to do it. It is a shame if you do not know what the people before you did,” Roua reasons. In fact, a plant commonly found in her arsenal of art supplies, madder or rubia tinctorum, is known for its long-lasting red colour, which can still be seen painted on Egypt’s ancient mummies to this day.
Though her primary source of knowledge stems from the learning-by-doing philosophy (“you won’t really know until you try!”), she does recommend some books to get started. Drawn After Nature is a favourite of Roua’s, delving deep into the scientific anatomy of various vegetation. True Colors: World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments is another that peppers in stories of specific artists from all over the world.
As with most things, the pandemic has dampened the growth of the business, especially since the real value in these workshops is human connection, and that is not easily conveyed through online platforms. Not willing to compromise on quality and principles, however, Roua is adamant about not conducting business online if it can be helped. “I don’t like Zoom calls, and the goal of my company is less technology. So why should I do this over Zoom when it is against what I believe?”
The most significant influence on her work is the happiness of others around her. Hence, it only makes sense to instead shift to private workshops or doing outdoor classes in order to retain the personal ambience. She says: “I believe in each person there is a child inside, and people have a choice to keep it alive or less active. The child inside me is very much active. When I work with people, they give me some sort of energy where I don’t even realise or think about how I act, and it comes out in my art.”
Her vision for the future is a noble one that captures the essence of art – she would like to use her expertise to provide solace in this challenging time. Roua is working on developing pro bono workshops for people who are unable to afford it, particularly for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic, to make art more accessible this summer. Not wanting art to be a classist experience, even her private workshops accommodate all budgets and preferences. Teaching seminars at local schools and eventually sharing her methods with teachers for a more long-lasting impact is also a goal of hers. In the meantime, she is busy designing her own line of products, ranging from scarves to cloth bags and even dolls equipped with colour kits so you can experience Roua’s art in the comfort of your own home.
The passion that exudes from Roua is unparalleled, and you can reach out to Roua to find out more about her upcoming workshops and experience the magic for yourself.