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Carving his way from Angkor Wat to the Vatican

Not many artists can lay claim to having their work in both Angkor Wat and the Vatican, but former soldier and landmine survivor Chhay Saron has achieved both, and is possibly Cambodia’s most prominent Christian sculptor.

Chhay has been selected as Park Hyatt Siem Reap’s first artist-in-residence, and is spending a month carving his religious wooden sculptures outside the gallery every Thursday. The program aims to showcase talented local artists and allow them more public exposure.

Artist in residence Chhay Saron in situ outside the Park Hyatt's gallery
Artist in residence Chhay Saron in situ outside the Park Hyatt's gallery.​​ Miranda Glasser

“We thought with the imagery of these particular carvings it works very well over the Christmas/New Year periods,” Hyatt curator Sasha Constable says. “So the idea was to have Saron in here once a week for four or five weeks. It’s a way for the public to see the amount of work that goes into a small carving, let alone a large one. Saron really is one of a kind and is an extremely good carver and has an amazing story.”

Chhay’s journey to artist is indeed an unusual one. Formerly a soldier in the Cambodian army, he was discharged at the age of 25 after losing his leg in a landmine accident. In 1985, after five months of rehabilitation, he went to live at the Site Two refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. He began working in a Christian technical school for people with disabilities and became increasingly interested in wood and stone carving, eventually being nominated as director of the school.

Hyatt co-curator Oun Sovann says, “He saw teachers teaching the students about sculpture and he was interested to see the artwork. He spent some time just learning by himself, asking the art teachers about the techniques they used.”

In 1988 Chhay was asked to carve a sculpture of Mother Mary and this became the first of many commissions depicting Christian imagery. He moved to Siem Reap seven years ago and began going to church. In 2008 Chhay, his wife and his children made the decision to convert to Christianity.

“He worked with a church many years,” Savann says. “And then in 2006 he started to change from Buddhism to Christianity because he’d been working with these people for a long time, learning more about the religion. He started to feel more Christian, and during his work he saw the activity of these people, how they helped those less fortunate. That’s why he is now also helping people.”

Chhay now employs six artists with disabilities at his workshop, who carve religious sculptures in wood and stone largely as commissions for churches both in Cambodia and abroad. One of his sculptures is even in the Pope’s collection in the Vatican, given as a present to former Pope John Paul II in 1994.

Chhay says his favourite sculpture is Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms.

“Actually this is Mary but in the Khmer custom, Apsara look,” Sovann says, indicating the Apsara head-dress that ‘Mary’ is wearing. “The idea came from a Khmer lady who lived in France. She saw that different countries in the world made Mary and Child carvings in different customs according to that country, so when she came here, she suggested it to him.”

Chhay also helped Constable with her restoration project at Angkor Wat last year, recreating the lost carvings of Apsara figures for the gallery roof.

“At the time I was just thinking that there is no one else in the world who has a sculpture in the Vatican, and one in Angkor Wat,” Constable says. “I just think that’s an amazing achievement – he is the man.

“We did a project together where we carved four replica sculptures which would have originally been on the roof of the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery. We had to piece the fragments back together and replicate them. They’re currently being weathered and when they look older they’ll be put there so the public can see what the skyline would have looked like, because it would have been completely different.”

Chhay first caught the Constable’s eye several years ago when his workshop was on the road to Banteay Srey.

“Every time I went to Kulen or Banteay Srey I would see his workshop on the side of the road,” she says. “I just kept thinking, I must stop there one day and see who this man is because it’s bizarre seeing a Madonna on the side of the road in Cambodia which is predominantly Buddhist.”

Constable was eventually introduced to Chhay through a mutual friend and started working with him on various projects, including the collaboration at Angkor Wat in 2012.

Chhay will be in residency at the Hyatt gallery every Thursday from 1.30-5pm, until early January 2014.

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