One of the first people we met in Battambang -- Cambodia's second-largest city and resurgent arts hub -- was British ex-Pat, Darren Swallow. Darren is the kind of person you'd like to meet first in every city. He's friendly, outgoing, knowledgeable, seems to know just about everybody in town, is co-owner of the three-storey Lotus Bar Gallery (on Street 2.5), and is also co-owner of the funkiest memorabilia shop this side of Portobello Road.
As we talked to Darren and looked around at his eclectic collection, our eyes kept being drawn to a number of extremely colourful and detailed prints that were clearly of a contemporary and local nature. Darren promised to introduce us to the artist, which he did a while later when his wife -- the other co-owner of Lotus, and the memorabilia store -- Touch Kchao, entered the shop.
Street Art Piece by Touch Just Outside Lotus
Like Darren, Touch was open, friendly and communicative, but in the quiet and smiling way that is characteristic of many Cambodians. She is a graduate of Battambang's famous art school, Phare Ponleu Selpak and one of the city's most successful artists. She is also someone with strong and well-formed opinions about women's issues and the environment. We enjoyed talking with her about these and other issues over the course of a couple of days.
Touch was already well-known in Battambang. She had exhibited a powerful and colourful series of paintings (Restful Places) focusing on the need women have for a place -- not in the external world, but deep within their hearts -- where they can be free and relax in peace, joy and tranquility. The images are truly incredible and you could study them for hours:
Restful Place No.1
Restful Place No.2
Restful Place No.3
Restful Place No.6
Fortunately for Touch, but not so much for us, she had already sold all of the originals in the series, so we ended up buying two of her limited edition prints and one printed on canvas:
This Love is for You
The next day we spoke with Touch about her painting technique and her current projects. She was eager to show us some of her new works, but they were at home. In Canada that would normally mean that she would bring in a few canvases the next day and we would drop by the store again to see them. In Cambodia it meant coming back to the store a few hours later -- after Touch had picked up her daughter from school and taken her to daycare, then hopping on the back of her motorcycle and riding off to her home.
It must be said that motor biking in Cambodia is not exactly what you would call relaxing -- hundreds of motorcycles of every size, shape and age wove in and out of traffic, no one staying in their lanes (were there lanes?) and hardly any traffic lights, which didn't really matter since no one paid attention to them any. It didn't help that neither of us had been on a motorcycle in several decades, something that would come back to haunt Heather as she tried to dismount and rammed her knee into the metal frame.
As we entered Touch's home studio, our hearts still firmly in our throats, we were greeted by an array of incredibly detailed and colourful paintings in various shapes and sizes. One, called Everything Grows from Her, we immediately fell in love with:
Everything Grows from Her
But there was a problem. There was a small hole in the canvas and Touch would have to reweave and paint it. That would take too long for us -- we were off to Siem Reap the next day -- but in the meantime Touch showed us her technique which involved taking a pointed bamboo stick, dipping it into paint and, in a flurry of brushstrokes, applying it to a very small bit of the canvas. This was hard, detailed and time-consuming work and we could easily see how it could take up to a year to create a large artwork.
We also saw a number of other interesting originals that we would have purchased on the spot:
Wonderland in a Tree
To us they appeared finished. But we realized that Touch was looking at them through different eyes. Where we saw completion, she saw colours and images to be added, brushstrokes to be strengthened, and textures to be changed. She thought it would take another six months to finish.
But we also saw -- and Touch confirmed -- that she was an artist who was very much attached to her work as an outgrowth of her person and her culture. It was almost as hard for her to part with a painting as it was to part with a member of her family. And why not? It only took nine months to deliver a baby. It required a full year to create a painting.
If you love Touch Khchao's work as much as we do, and you're happy with limited edition prints, please do yourself a favour and visit her website:
http://touch-khchao.fineartamerica and buy something. We don't get a penny out of it -- just the satisfaction of knowing that another very talented artist is gaining exposure and reaching her potential.