With the fingers of both hands stained with sticky clay, Bin Chharan stares blankly at a large piece of clay. With a flurry of movement, he begins to carve and sculpt the shapeless mass. In no time at all, a human figure was revealed. From head to toe, the sculpture appears almost real as it smiles beautifully at the talented artist.

Chharan – who now lives in Prey Doeum Thnoeng II village, Prey Doeum Thnoeng commune, Sithor Kandal district of Prey Veng province – recalled that he was born into a poor farming family in Porsvay Ming village, Ampil Tapoak commune, O’Reang-ou district, Tbong Khmum province.

Due to the poverty of his family – and being one of eight siblings – by the age of seven, Chharan was only attending school for half of each day. He spent the rest of his time searching for scrap materials that he could sell, or carrying palm juice on a shoulder yoke to sell in the village. At the age of 15, he asked his parents if he could enter Porsvay Ming Pagoda and become a monk.

Chharan said that after two years, he retired from the monkhood. He had met a painter who worked on the Buddha statues in the pagoda, and asked him to teach him his trade. He followed him from pagoda to pagoda from one district to another for three months before he felt he had learned enough to work on his own. He asked his two older brothers to work alongside him, painting at pagodas by themselves.

However, wanting to strengthen and improve his drawing skills even more, in 2005 he came to Phnom Penh, searching for an art school which he could study at. Unfortunately, he was unable to afford the tuition fees, but began learning what he could from outside the fence of the Royal university of Fine Arts.

He said although he gained some experience this way, he was not yet satisfied with the level of skill he had reached. On the recommendation of a woman in Kratie, he went to study in Siem Reap. There he learned painting, wood carving, stone carving, clay sculpting until he felt he had mastered his art.

The sculptor said that after graduating from art school in Siem Reap, he got a painting contract at Prey Doeum Thnoeng pagoda in Sithor Kandal district, Prey Veng province, where he fell in love with a young woman. He taught her to draw like he does, and they are now married with four children.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he could not go and work in pagodas, and began painting and sculpting clay at home.

“I was very bored at home, as I am so used to going out and working. That was when I decided I should use all of the skills that I have learned so that people would get to know my work. At that time, I chose a Cambodian hero, the then Supreme Patriach Chuon Nath, the father of Khmer literature, as my inspiration,” he said.

Bin Chharan working on a statue of the late Beat Richner, founder of the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital, sculpted from clay. BIN CHHARAN VIA FACEBOOK

Chharan said that the skills he used every day in the pagoda are landscape painting, work and stone carving, and smelting copper.

Regardless, he decided to apply himself to the most difficult task he could, realistic sculpture moulding. He said there were few people remaining who hold this skill. This means that he can charge a premium for his work, but it also means his standards must be consistently high.

For sculptures which are moulded like portraits, he charges $800 for a mould that is made from cement or plastic. If a customer orders it from copper or heavy timber, it may cost up to $4,000.

A whole human figure made of rubber costs $2,000 dollars, but the price can rise to $8,000 if it is made of copper. A copper sculpture may take two or three months to complete, whereas cheaper materials can be finished in a month.

“When I sculpt something, I use creativity and my imagination, that is, before I begin, I look at the material in front of me and remain calm. When I am working, I am not thinking about the money, but how to make the work the best it can be. This is the key to my success,” he said.

He is currently sculpting a likeness of famous philanthropist Beat Richner of copper, at his own expense. Beat Richner is the founder of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital. With a weight of 30 to 40 kilogrammes, he will donate it to the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital when it is done.

At present, he does not earn a high enough income to have a comfortable life. He said if the public would like to support and preserve the artistic heritage of sculpture, they should help him by buying his paintings and sculptures – or even commission him to create a realistic sculpture.

Chharan said that in the future, he will teach this skill to the next generation and will not charge the young people who come to learn from him. He will not charge any fees because wants the next generation of Cambodians to preserve the legacy of Khmer sculpture.