In the quiet halls of Cheyou Pagoda in Kampong Cham province, venerable Chhorn Ravuth breathes life into clay, shaping dragons, Hindu and Buddhist mythological creatures and giants with a distinctly Khmer flair. 

Despite his civil engineering degree, the monk embraced his true calling as a ceramicist, his sculptures reflecting a vibrant Khmer style. 

Born into an agrarian family, his passion for sculpture emerged early, leading him to enter monkhood at Cheyou Pagoda at 16.

After earning a degree, he honed his craft under fellow monk Sim Chandara in remote Oddar Meanchey province before returning to the pagoda in 2020.

“I didn’t go to a fine arts school; instead, I learned from a monk. He took the time to teach me, sharing knowledge and guiding me in artistic styles through practices,” he shares.

Ravuth says that in 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic when travel was limited, he started sculpting in the Khmer art style, creating diverse sculptures.

Currently, he has completed sculptures portraying the creation myth known as “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk” and a dragon. He is also currently sculpting a Buddha.

“Creating ceramic sculptures requires precise sizing; it’s a meticulous task. I adhere carefully to the modelled size, evaluating the shape for suitability. If it doesn’t align correctly, adjustments are made accordingly,” he says.

Clay’s silent dance

For sculpting, the monk shares that he uses clay from Kampong Chhnang, a province best known for fine clay pottery. This choice is based on its durability and absence of gravel, characteristics typically found in clay used for crafting kitchen utensils. 

Gravel-free clay is essential in pottery as its inclusion can interfere with the shaping process. Cost-wise, a 50kg bag of clay is priced at 100,000 riel ($25), and creating one sculpture requires 200kg of clay. The funds for purchasing the clay are provided by the pagoda’s chief monk.

He explains that each sculpture is meticulously crafted by hand and then replicated using a template. This artistic process combines imaginative intuition with a careful examination of the artwork being created.

While inspired by the style of temple sculptures, his creations aim for a resemblance to the original, although not a 100 per cent exact replica.

A seven-headed naga statue was sculpted by venerable Chhorn Ravuth in Kampong Cham province. Chhorn Ravuth, FB

“Pottery and ceramic sculpting differ from other forms of imaginative sculpture because in imaginative sculpture, we follow our thoughts and ideas. On the contrary, when adhering to a specific modelling style, we must carefully examine and incorporate all the details of the original form,” Ravuth explains.

Ravuth shares that he currently serves as a Pali language teacher at the primary school inside Wat Yo pagoda in Speu commune.

Alongside this role, he is assembling instructional materials, including books provided by the Department of Culture and Fine Arts, to educate young people aspiring to further their artistic knowledge and skills.

Cultural mastery

Rat Tysak, deputy director of the Kampong Cham provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, observes during his visit to Cheyou Pagoda that all the statues crafted by the monk adhere to authentic Khmer art forms and showcase exquisite ornamental designs. 

Recognising this skill as a valuable resource for preserving ceramic expertise, the department has provided him with books showcasing intricate sculptures of Khmer art. These books also serve as documentation to aid in teaching younger generations.

“Upon inspection, I noted that he has executed his designs accurately. Furthermore, he knows how to craft soft silicone moulds; upon removal, the positive remains undamaged and possesses depth. However, in the case of some moulds, the resulting pieces are hollow rather than deep. If any ornamentation is too deep, there is a risk of breakage upon removal. Observing these details brings me joy,” Tysak says.

He shares that the department actively supports this endeavour by motivating him to persist in his work. Recognising the significance of individuals engaged in artistic pursuits across different regions, the department consistently promotes the value of all forms of art and provides reference materials to enhance their understanding and appreciation of each artistic form.