An unlikely journey to become an artist has been portrayed by a former kickboxer and tuk-tuk driver in a series of 20 watercolour paintings that make up his first solo exhibition Dreamscapes, set to open this week.
Speaking ahead of the exhibition’s opening reception at Chinese House, Long Lavy tells The Post: “These watercolours reflect scenes from my previous occupations before I became what I am today. I’ve been through hardship from my previous jobs in which I could not earn enough to support my family.”
Born in Pursat province, Long Lavy spent most of his childhood in Tomnop Kob Srov, formally in Kandal province but later incorporated into Phnom Penh.
The 38-year-old father of two says he loved to draw and paint as a child and dreamed of becoming an artist. But he recalls that when he entered his teenage years, poverty prevented him from pursuing further education in art.
“I finished my formal education at grade 12 at Hun Sen Takmao high school, but I didn’t get a chance to take the exams and get a high school degree,” Lavy says, adding that unable to go to art school, he went straight into a series of low-paid odd jobs.
Among these was the dangerous and cutthroat world of professional kickboxing when he was in his late teens, while he also worked as a security guard for a few years. But for 14 years, between 2005 and 2018, he drove a traditional Khmer tuk-tuk.
“When I was 17-years-old, I became a professional Khmer kickboxer. From 2000 to 2004, I would go to the arena with an offer of merely between 30,000 and 40,000 riel ($7.50 to $10) per fight.” Lavy says.
All of these jobs inspire his paintings. In one piece, entitled My Home, Lavy depicts a pair of kickboxing gloves dangling from an electric wire in an idyllic countryside landscape.
Also among the watercolour paintings is Far Away, which depicts an empty Khmer tuk-tuk sitting in cloud-like water. The painting has a melancholic feel as it expresses his loneliness being away from his family in Prey Veng province as he struggled to get passengers in Phnom Penh on what he says is a dying mode of transport.
“One of my works reflects the situation of the Khmer tuk-tuk, or reumork, which was also my previous way to earn a living. Nowadays, the number of Khmer tuk-tuks has decreased dramatically as its popularity is down after the arrival of the Indian-style tuk-tuk and ride-hailing services such as PassApp.”
But through his tuk-tuk job he met Lauren Lida, director and co-founder at Open Studio Cambodia. Lida, a Japanese-American artist from Seattle, in the US, runs an art space, studio, art supply shop and informal gallery in Kampot town, aiming to promote emerging Cambodian artists, especially people with disabilities.
“It was on my last job as a tuk-tuk driver that I met Lida in Phnom Penh. We talked about our interests and hobbies. She told me that she’s been working as an artist and she also wanted talented people. I expressed my interest in art and she saw my promising talent as a potential artist."
“I decided to become a member of Open Studio Cambodia in Kampot and travelled back and forth between Kampot, Phnom Penh and Prey Veng province where my wife and two children are staying,” Lavy says.
Many of the studio’s members have overcome disabilities to become artists with the help of Lida, who provides them with spaces to work and expand their opportunities in art.
Lida says, who arrived in Cambodia more than a decade ago, tells The Post: “I’m a visual artist and I have a lot of art material, so I decided to open the door to my house and invite emerging Cambodian artists to come and practice with me in my house, sharing all my art materials and expertise. We frame the art and start exhibiting the art together.”
Upon joining Open Studio Cambodia, Lavy began working on his 20 watercolour paintings at the end of last year. His watercolours paintings are available for purchase, with prices ranging from $120 to $ 500.
“In terms of income to support family and the difficulty of the work, I count myself lucky to have become an artist. Sitting in the studio and painting is much easier than working as a tuk-tuk driver who has to deal with unpredictable changing weather every day,” he says.
“I hope I will grow expertise in this job I’ve wished to do since I was a child. Hopefully, this dream job will be able support my family from now on.”
Lavy’s exhibition Dreamscapes opens on Thursday at Phnom Penh’s Chinese House near Sisowath Quay.
Visitors can meet with the artist himself on the opening day to learn more about his life and inspiration.