The sounds of tools – mixed with laughter and happy chatter – once echoed through a Kandal sculptural training workshop. The sculptors, who used to enjoy the cheerful atmosphere of the workshop and eat meals together, are now working from home.
Chhum Somonn, who lost both legs to a landmine while fighting in Oddar Meanchey province in 1993, established the small school, which teaches carving and sculpting in wood, copper and stone – and engraving skills – to disabled people and the underprivileged.
He has been a sculptor for more than 20 years, and explained why his artisans were now working from home.
“All 15 of my sculptors are full trained. In the past, we all worked together in one location, because many tourists liked to meet the sculptors and see the process of creating our work in person. Even through the country has reopened, there are not enough tourists to justify reopening the workshop,” he told The Post.
He described the process of working apart from each other. Each artist has work assigned to them. Once it is completed, it is returned to Somonn at his home. Before final delivery to customers, Somonn inspects each piece to ensure its quality. Occasionally, he makes minor adjustments to the pieces before dispatching them.
The years of treatment he underwent after his encounter with the mine left a black cloud of depression over him. Like so many other people who undergo a traumatic life changing event, he sought relief in a wine bottle.
However, eventually he realised that life does not end with a disability. He grew tired of hearing ridicule from people who thought that begging was the only option for the disabled.
“In general, people with disabilities need the most mental strength. I have my workshop thanks to my wife, who encouraged me and supported my dreams. Without her, I would probably be pushing a cart, begging on the street,” he said.
It was his wife who suggested he learn sculpting with a Christian organisation. In 1995 he began a year and a half of study, and then joined the organisation itself. He worked there until early 2015, when funding dried up.
With 20 years of experience and a desire to support the underprivileged, he decided to establish his small organisation in Por Touch village, Kampong Luong commune, Ponhealeu district, Kandal province to provide free meals and opportunities for the disabled and impoverished youth to learn sculpting.
He was flexible with his time. Some people who worked in the mornings come to learn at his organisation in the evening, and same came in the morning. Some of his sculptors went on to open shops to sell their wares.
His organisation continues to produce sculptures for local customers. They make religious sculptures, souvenirs and lucky (Feng Shui) statues.
“The sculptures that are in high demand today are statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus for the Catholic Church, the Buddha, Neang Kong Hing, Ta Kampong, and buffalo’s head statues,” he said.
Will Conquer, Catholic father of a Boeung Tompun church, who supports Somonn’s sculptures, spoke to The Post.
“Yes! He is a good friend of ours. He produces beautiful objects of worship with Khmer designs,” he said.
The Catholic father, who promotes Khmer arts, added that Somonn followed the example of the Khmer Christian style developed by sisters Ath and Lok Kru Sarun in a refugee camp in Thailand. Many refugees had stepped on landmines and were left with only their hands to make a living, he added.
Nativity scenes and statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary were made in the Khmer style.
“He has made beautiful altars with chiselled retables in the Khmer style of kbach,” said Conquer.
Somonn said that prices for both his religious and general sculptures range from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars. Having the sculptors work from home meant that they were able to take care of their families. Most of them resided in Kampong Speu and Kampot while he himself lived in Prek Pnov.
He admitted that working from home was also faced some challenges, especially delivery and communication.
“Having seen our difficulties, sometimes our customers pay an extra fee for delivery costs,” he added.
After the reopening of the country, Somonn – who uses a specially modified car to travel around the country – wants to work with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation to gather the disabled sculptors in the Disabled Centre in Ang Snoul, his old workplace of 20 years. The centre is located in front of Ang Snoul District Hall.
“We have asked for cooperation from the ministry but have not yey received a response. My idea is to integrate the project with the 2023 ASEAN Para Games,” he said.
He added that many organisations know the centre, which had run training courses for the disabled since 1990. Later, the ministry used it as a disabled centre.
“Besides training disabled people, we also trained youths in Kampot and Udong, and in some Catholic communities. We were planning to expand our operations, but then the pandemic derailed out plans and we began working from home,” he added.
Although disabled sculptors need special equipment to engrave sculptures that would be large and difficult even for the able bodied, he team worked hard, and did not want to see the disabled rely on begging.
He said that when it came to the sculptures, there was no difference between the work of the disabled and the work of others, although climbing on large works could be challenging. Ultimately, he confidently said that despite obstacles, what was most important was their commitment.
“Many people think people with disabilities are drunkards. In fact, they do not want to beg for money, and are often ashamed of doing so. They are willing, but lack motivation,” he said.