Two days ago, I walked into a nonprofit art gallery that offers free art lessons to local kids. The gallery is not very big – it shares space with a nonprofit atelier that employs deaf people to make lacquered boxes (and coasters, trays, boxed votive candles, jasmine balm, plaques folded paper notecards). The lacquer is polished to perfect smoothness, like the tension lip of pristine water; the images underneath are brightened pictures of lilypads and statues. These pictures have a too-strict feel, as though they cannot quite be photographs.
The walls of the gallery in the back are covered with watercolors by students and teachers. There are a few larger acrylic and oil paintings – a water buffalo nosing along the riverbank, a boy walking white cows past a stand of palm trees. The founder of the NGO is from the US, and his work is abstract – rounded compound shapes, half human, half pepper tree. In the center of the back wall hangs an armspan painting of a rising rose-orange figure with wide, soft wings against a mossy turquoise background, like a phoenix sculpted in putty.
Kids take drawing instruction at two long wooden tables in the center of the gallery’s single room; the students in attendance that afternoon ranged in age from eight to fifteen. The younger children were learning how to draw a small black ceramic cup with a dent in its center. One of the older boys was working on a detailed pencil drawing of an apsara hand mounted on a wooden block, and there was a group of about six young women working on colored-pencil drawings of pink water lilies near the front.
There was also a television mounted on a dolly at the entrance, where a short video segment about the NGO’s founder and young artists played on loop, scored by chiming, upbeat music that became very repetitive very quickly.
There were several abstract paintings, but most of the artwork related to the temples. There were a dozen watercolors and pencil drawings of the faces at Bayon Temple, and several more showing trees at Ta Prohm. (I’ve heard several Khmer people reference the latter as “Tomb Raider Temple” for foreigner benefit. Ta Prohm is the one with the trees growing out of it. Bayon is the panopticon of giant stone heads. Angkor refers to the temple complex, but also to the main temple, which is the first thing you see as you approach the site.) The draftsmanship and attention to detail were obvious – none of the paintings or drawings were slapdash, and many clearly were created over the course of several hours.
One of the teachers told me that students had been doing the spindly monk and stilt houses watercolors for easy sale to tourists, but that this was too much like a business. He felt that it was contrary to the mission of the gallery: to teach art to Khmer children and encourage their creativity. Kids could drop in to the gallery for lessons any time during the day, for as much time as they had. A few of them were wearing school uniforms.
The children were quite and absorbed in their work. Even the small boys made strict measurements of the edges of the little cup, carefully rubbing out each line until it was a perfect match to the other side.