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Terracotta artist keeping Vat Phou heritage alive

Down a small road in the old section of Champassak town, Mr Soulivan Phounthareuansy, 57, sits in a small workshop underneath his house concentrating on the carving of a terracotta Naga.

Terracotta artist, Mr Soulivan Phounthareuansy.

Mr Soulivan is the owner of Champassak Pottery, the first Khmer era pottery and carving workshop in the province, located in Meuang Sen village, Champassak district and province which also happens to be where the Vat Phou UNESCO World Heritage site calls home.
Mr Soulivan says he has always been fascinated by the art of pottery and was inspired to make terracotta when he was a young boy based on the familiar architecture of Vat Phou, a place that was once his childhood playground. 
Mr Soulivan graduated from teacher training college in his hometown before working for the Champassak Education Department for five years and spending another half a decade with the provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department. 
He then became a member of the restoration team at the Vat Phou UNESCO World Heritage site from 2000-2005 before finally setting up his modest workshop three years ago.
His artwork depicts the figures of gods and other mythological creatures that figure prominently in Vat Phou architecture, most of which is meticulously carved by himself while other pieces are created by his two young assistants who help him during their spare time from their grade school studies.
“At the heart of my work is the attention to detail given to the figure or piece at hand; one small mistake can make a big difference so that’s why I still spend a lot of my time learning and doing research when making new figures so I can keep my work in line with the original as best as possible,” Mr Soulivan said.
Currently he’s creating anywhere from 10 to 20 pieces a month but most of the time his numbers depend on how big or difficult the piece is to carve and some of his work can take months to finish.
Mr Soulivan says he gets his clay from the foothills not far from the Vat Phou temple grounds and other times buys it from a brick factory in the province.
The price of his artwork can range anywhere from 30,000 kip to 2,500,000 kip. About 80 percent of his customers are foreigners with most of them being tourists.
Visitors often buy his small pieces such as the figures of Uma, Shiva and Apsara because they are easy to carry and take back home while the bigger pieces are usually sold to hotels. 
Mr Soulivan said he has had the full support of the government, especially Champassak’s Tourism Department, as his workshop is the only one of its kind in the province and is located within arm’s reach of the UNESCO World Heritage site. 
In the near future Mr Soulivan plans to upgrade his workshop by improving or maybe even rebuilding his pottery kiln to make it larger and to ensure the final pieces created are of higher quality.
In the meantime, it’s possible that Mr Soulivan will run a beginners’ course for young people or tourists to learn the art of carving terracotta, especially pieces in the Vat Phou style in a small gesture to keep the carving heritage alive.
Anyone interested in saying hello to Mr Soulivan when visiting Champassak old town can contact him by phone: 020 52542393 or by email: champasak-pottery@gmail.com.


ByPhoonsab Thevongsa
(Latest Update May 24, 2017 )

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