In a shelf in Sovann Vibol’s wooden-frame studio, a box of incense rests next to an old radio and an image of the Buddha, carved into copper. The 33-year-old artist sits on the floor below with his eyes fixed on a second – yet incomplete – likeness in his hands.
“My favourite copper sculpture is the Buddhist statue because it is hard to make. I’ve spent three days cutting it,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else can make this on copper.”
In fact, Vibol doesn’t think there are many other copper artists in Phnom Penh. He came to the medium with a variety of experiences: as a grocery clerk at Lucky Supermarket, and later as a painter.
He could have continued in this traditional vein, pitting his own canvases for sale against those of other painters along Phnom Penh’s Art Street – many of them with an arts education.
But Vibol was most interested in experimenting with something new, and he had read about copper-sketching in books.
“I was interested in working with a different style of sculpture,” he said. “When I visited museums, exhibitions and ancient sites, I saw a lot of things made from stone and paper – but no copper at all.”
Since 2014, Vibol has sold about 100 pieces of his work, mostly out of a friend’s shop, Insolite, on Street 178. He can sell larger pieces for about $100 (the highest he’s fetched is $450), and he’s sold his work in Cambodia, France, Australia and the US.
In addition to Buddha statues, he carves the usual symbols – ancient flowers, Angkor and Bayon styles, and lucky animals like elephants – into copper plates. He wants them to appeal to an international audience.
“What I hope the most is that foreigners buy my products,” he said.
“Cambodians like my sculptures, but they sometimes cannot afford the cost.” Vibol’s materials are expensive, and his process is somewhat demanding.
Beginning with a blank copper plate, he first draws different styles on a piece of paper, uses an iron nail to lay the design into the copper, and then begins carving lines into the metal with a coping saw.
“I have to use a really soft hand to follow the shape of the holes,” he explained. “It takes many steps.”
“When I have a good feeling, my work is smoother. I sometimes spend a week finishing a sculpture. But I enjoy it because I feel that my work is alive – the design itself communicates with me like a spirit.”
Vibol hopes to eventually have his own exhibition and to meet other artists and sponsors. He would like to share his work, as well as the technique of copper sketching.
“Not many people know about this achievement,” he said.