A self-taught artist, Eng Sam Ath is known for his lively and detailed sculptural reliefs of Buddha’s life story as well as his sculptures inspired by Angkorian wall carvings.
Born into a family of farmers in Kandal province, Sam Ath has been interested in art since his childhood. He couldn’t attend art school to pursue his dreams of an education due to poverty but he didn’t let that stop him.
“As a sculptor myself who has never been to art school, I really wish for my children to polish their talent and skills [by learning] theory and technique at university,” says the father of four.
Sam Ath fears that it may be a financial struggle to send all four of his talented sons to the Royal University of Fine Arts – but if they want to go then he is determined to do it.
He hopes that they will one day become even better artists than him and make their own contributions to Cambodia’s flourishing art community.
Sam Ath, 39, creates lively sculptures that capture the hearts of social media users whenever photos of them are posted. He has learned from other people by observing and practicing rather than by attending university.
“What I can do today is the result of learning by observing other people as they worked. They weren’t art professionals either. We were all learning, experiencing and practicing together at the same time.
“Self-taught sculptors like us usually learn from one another. We had never heard of theory or concept. We didn’t know shaping techniques or understand scale or proportion in sculpture when we started. We weren’t familiar with any of it. We just saw people do it, and we followed. That’s it,”he says.
Sam Ath spent years following other sculptors around as an assistant and apprentice until he finally got his first work commissioned in 2015.
He was asked to make 13 pieces of Buddhist sculptural relief for a pagoda in Prey Veng province’s Koh Rokar commune.
That first project he was commissioned for was painstakingly time-consuming, but he still earned very little – especially after having had to pay for his stay away from home.
For a time Sam Ath’s seemingly bleak financial circumstances made him feel depressed. He began to think he would always be paid less and have his work underrated because of his lack of a formal education.
At one point he resolved to give up art entirely and for a time he did.
Looking back to his gloomy years away from art, the self-taught sculptor says: “There are two reasons that I quickly made up my mind to quit sculpture.
“First, I was disappointed to see how people don’t value art or appreciate its quality. They only want to get it done as cheaply as possible. Second, I was heartbroken to see how sculptors would compete with each other for money.”
After taking a three-year break from sculpture, Ath again picked up his carving tool to earn income to support his family.
In 2018, he was hired for a project in a pagoda in Preah Sihanouk province.
For the Preah Sihanouk pagoda project, he was asked to make 16 pieces of ronde-bosse relief, which is a type of enamel encrusted sculpture.
“At the time, I accepted that second project only to support my wife and four sons. I couldn’t imagine that this project would be so rewarding.”
By the time he had completed five of them, photos of his sculptures went viral and Sam Ath found the outpouring of public compliments highly motivating.
“There was a lot of interest from the public who seemed to really appreciate my work. All over Facebook strangers had been expressing their admiration for my sculptures,” Sam Ath says.
A sculptural relief measuring 6m by 2m in size depicting a scene from a traditional story takes him about 25 days to complete and at first he only charged $50 per square metre.
Sam Ath says he has had to raise his prices to keep up with the increasing price of supplies.
In truth, the more compelling reason that his prices have been going up – and one that modesty won’t permit him to mention – is that he is more experienced now and his clients today are getting the benefit of that experience by getting better art work.
His skills have increased steadily over the past few years along with his reputation as an artist and it’s only natural that he should earn more as a result.
“The cost of my work depends on my skill level and the price of supplies. My very first project, I charged $50 per square metre. [Currently] I am being paid $250 per square metre and in the coming year, I expect to be paid between $300 to S350 per square metre,” Sam Ath explains.
“Recently I’ve been making sculptures for Vipassana Meditation Centre in Kandal province’s Kaorm Samnor commune. I’ve been working on this project for nearly two months and I still need a few more months to complete it. Then my next project is in Kampong Thom Province,” he says.
Most of Sam Ath’s commissioned art works are religious and historical bas, haut and ronde-bosse reliefs. He has created lively reliefs portraying scenes from Buddha’s life and he has also done scenes based on the carvings at Angkor Wat temple.
Starting from scratch through to the finishing touches, Sam Ath’s sculpture can take anywhere from several days to several weeks or months depending on the scale of the project.
He prefers to recreate the scenes in his sculptures with his imagination rather than following tradition and using the same compositions that have already been repeated over and over again by the older generations of artists.
Sam Ath hopes the next generation of sculptors will do something new and creative rather than continually replicating the works of the past. This is yet another reason that he is determined to eventually send his sons to receive a formal education in art.
“Having raised my four sons, I noticed that they all have a passion for the art of sculpture like I do,” he says.
Sam Ath decided to send his eldest son to the Royal University of Fine Arts where he could get proper arts education and be inspired by true professional artists.
“In the meantime, my other three sons have been watching and learning from me. They really pay close attention to what I’m doing. By the time they graduate from high school, I hope I will be able to send them to Phnom Penh to attend art school like their eldest brother,” Sam Ath says.
Whether sculptors are self-taught or formally educated, Sam Ath believes that they should focus on becoming more creative as much as they do on improving their technique.
His eldest son, now 20, is a sophomore majoring in fine arts’ sculpture. He is already skilled enough to create sculptures on his own having gotten a head-start by learning from his father while growing up.
“He is able to create a traditional solo character like male or female angels sculpted in traditional costumes with fine details .
“But he still hasn’t done a full relief depicting a scene of Buddha’s life story yet while guided only by his own imagination – that will be the real test for him,” Sam Ath says with a smile.
For those who would like to commission a Eng Sam Ath sculpture call him at 099 34 88 83 or 097 28 888 19.