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Reviving the ancient art of lacquer

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Eric Stocker has shared his knowledge of lacquerware with countless Cambodians. Photo by: CRAIG MILES

OVER the past 12 years, the new father of lacquerware in Cambodia, 53-year-old Frenchman Eric Stocker, has regained some of the unique skills lost during the Pol Pot era through his dedicated training programs in Siem Reap.

Since 1998, Stocker has trained countless numbers of Cambodians in the art of lacquerware. He created Angkor Artwork in 2008 with his brother Thierry Stocker, and is not only bringing back the art of lacquer, but bringing back free-thinking and creativity.

Stocker has been immersed in the world of lacquer since he was 16 years old. He worked on restoring furniture with lacquer and creating lacquerware in France, until he was commissioned by the European Union in 1998 to visit Cambodia and train young people in lacquer techniques.

He worked for Artisans d’Angkor during this time, and between 1998 and 2002 trained 350 Cambodians.

Lacquering is an ancient art form, dating back in Cambodia to as early as the 12th century and was used in the Angkor Wat temple in the 15th century. “The lacquer between the 12th and 15th centuries was more extravagant,” Stocker said. “This was because there were kings such as Jayavarman VII and there was lots of money and wealth.”

Lacquer is a liquid that is harvested from lacquer trees mainly found in areas throughout Southeast Asia.

The entire process of turning sap to lacquer to art is not a rapid one. Lacquer trees, depending on what species they are, can take 10 years of growth before they are ready to be harvested. It can then take six months before the lacquer itself can be used, and depending on what is being made, the process of creating lacquerware can take three to four months.

Stocker said the trees need a cool but humid environment, around 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, ideally at the base of mountains.

Trees in different regions produce different colours of lacquer – for example, lacquer from trees in Cambodia and Myanmar produce a liquid that is black in colour.

Lacquer is especially valuable because of its durability and protective qualities. Stocker said lacquerware can burn at 450 degrees Celsius and it is used on such things as electrical wires and cables, for painting boats, or even for protecting electronics inside a mobile phone.

In a more artistic sense, lacquer is used to protect wood and to decorate walls and statues.

Some of the most beautiful and decorative works produced at Artisans d’Angkor are the replicas of the Buddha statues from the Angkor temples.

Stocker said: “Ninety percent of lacquer is used for industry, and only 10 percent is used for artistic purposes.”

But he wants to work toward changing this.

Stocker is now in Bangkok where he was asked to help in an English factory to teach lacquer techniques. But he will return to Siem Reap at the end of the year to continue the training program at Angkor Workshop, where there are seven students. Stocker would like to increase this to 50 pupils upon his return.

He said it is important for Cambodians not to forget the past, and art techniques such as lacquerware are important.

“The last 12 years have really been a gift for me,” he said. “If I die tomorrow, I know I have transmitted my skills, so I am happy for that.”

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