Going for a song - Thai arts and crafts

Are we in the West comparatively untalented, lacking in artistic skills - or amongst all those kids propped up on the sofa in front of their can't-be-missed TV serials, grasping burger and Wii, iPod earphones grafted to their lugholes, might there perhaps be a pool of untapped talent, potential Picassos and Henry Moores? (Pause while parents look doubtfully at charming little George lovingly annihilating aliens on his GameBoy, with one eye on reality TV... maybe? Then again, maybe not...).


Click on any of the thumbnails or larger pics in this post to see the full-size images

Many kids in Thailand may appear to be unsophisticated, not exactly worldly-wise... But they still have respect for their elders. They learn patience and persistence. They understand the value of simple things from an early age. The benefits of cooperation as well as competition. And they are practical, self-reliant. There is increasing wealth in this country, but there remains significant poverty as well. The ability to create means a increased ability to feed yourself and your family. It's time-consuming, hard work, but there's little choice. Kids have to play their part. But they seem at least as happy as their Western counterparts, more so in some ways than in our quick fix, throw away culture where nothing seems to satisfy any more. Makes you wonder how 'civilised' we really are...

All the above and much more done by this wood carver in his 70s, contentedly working away seven days a week in his lean-to garage...

A work in progress... the cost of these teak carvings is unbelievably low...

Spend a week or two in Thailand away from the commercial centres, and you soon realise the extent of this phenomenon. Everywhere you look there are basket weavers and painters, sculptors, wood carvers, embroiderers and jewellers. Coconut, bamboo and palm leaves are transformed into elaborate handicraft products under your eyes. Everyone seems to be able to create something intricate, ingenious and pleasing to the eye from the most basic of natural materials, and with the simplest of tools.

On display in a gallery, these are a different style, more intricate, beautifully proportioned...


... but still produced by a small family concern, father and son, working from a lean-to attached to their home ...

More of their work - I took home the lady second from the left (click to see full-size photo). The detail on these teak carvings is incredible, you almost feel the dresses will be soft to the touch...

Teak panels, doors, ceilings for your home? The same father and son do these as well - when they've a moment to spare. These were being installed in a new house just over the road.

This is a part of the world where people still remember how to create things rather than just use them. It's not just in their blood - being able to do something useful and creative with their hands has been both a matter of prestige and survival for so long. As the country develops this is bound to change, but hopefully the skills that have been passed down the generations will still be around for a while yet. For centuries under something resembling a feudal system craftsmen were looked after by their masters and didn't have to earn a living. Skills passed down through families from the original 'chang sip mu', traditionally the ten craftsmen from whom the knowledge was first acquired. Today craftsmen have to support themselves and their families, but there is demand from abroad, as well as a growing Thai middle class and visiting tourists, enough to keep a significant section of the population employed in the ten craftsmanship categories: drawing/painting, lacquering, engraving, carving, sculpting, plastering, modeling/puppetry, casting/metal shaping, lathing and molding.

Many of the wood carving workshops are concentrated in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai in particular. You can be walking along any road around town, and spot a Thai working patiently away in the shade of a lean-to attached to his simple home, producing some amazing stuff...


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7 comments:

Nicole said...

Gosh, these artworks are beautiful!
I love that wood table and the big chair!

Cairo Typ0 said...

I'm not sure about all the snake carvings but I LOVE that table!

FrogBlogger said...

Loved this enormous bench too!!

Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

have to chime in and say the table is phenomenal!

Dave said...

Thanks for the comment on my site.
Your photos are very good. If your after a tip or two though...
I use my old Canon G5 which is small enough (just) to carry every where so I hopefully never miss a shot. I usually take way more photos than I need and weed out all the chaff later. The ones I pick to use are run through Adobe Photoshop just to crop, sharpen and generally spruce them up. Which can be as much fun as taking them...
By the way I too love that wooden table :-)

Hoo Don said...

When I stay in Udon Thani I often go up to Nong Khai and visit the Indo China market where they have some beautiful wood carvings. Last visit I bought a carved eagle in full flight which now sits proudly in the living room of the village house. The handcraft skills of the Thai people are without doubt second to none.

Susan said...

Very interesting post – particularly interested in the socio-cultural information you gave. (And I too am a fan of that table:-)

Congrats on the birth of your daughter btw.t