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Songdej Thipthong was born and raised in Chiang Rai, as part of a large family out in the countryside of Lanna. Since he can remember he was raised by his grandmother, and wherever she would go, he would surely follow - particularly when she went to the temple to make merit. While there, Songdej had the chance to play around and discover all the paintings and decorations of the temple, which he used as models in his first drawings and sketches. Songdej certainly absorbed everything he learned in temples, the Buddhist teachings, the festivals, and the traditions of the art inside them. He was impressed by everything he saw in these environments. He would also say that his simple life in the countryside made a strong impression in his mind, and had an influence on his life and work later on. When Songdej had the chance to study at the Rajamangala University of Technology, Lanna, he actually discovered that perhaps it wasn’t his preferred field, and really there were many people much better skilled and suited to it. So he lost a degree of interest in his studies, until he attended the lecture describing the artist’s career path, held by Chalemchai Khositphiphat, a Thai visual artist. This lecture inspired him so greatly that he began thinking of this as a serious career path, and started to pursue his art ever more passionately. Recently, Songdej has managed to follow his dream of returning to his hometown, the Mae Chan district, Chiang Rai, and has built an art gallery there. He intends to use the gallery as an educational center for art and culture; a place where all art lovers can gather in Chiang Rai and see a wonderfully unique collection of artworks.
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Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Songdej Thipthong. I finished my diploma from Rajamankala Institute of Technology Northern Campus, Chiang Mai. Then I gained my B.F.A. Painting from The Faculty of Art Rajamankala Institute of Technology Pathumthani and I received my postgraduate M.F.A. Thai Art from Silpakorn University. I am currently President of the Art Bridge Chiang Rai that acts as a centre for all artists, not only in the region but for more than 400 artists around the country.
Could you explain three paintings “Merry”, “Bodhi” and “Buranakata” and a set of 4 paintings that you have called “Dhama Sala”. Where did you find the inspiration for these works of art?
All of my works are influenced by the principles of Buddhism. The peaceful feeling that you experience when you are embraced by all spiritual blessings inside a temple. It is a clear, calm and peaceful feeling that purifies your body and your spirit. I embedded these feelings into my work and I want those who view my paintings to feel the same way. So, the audience will find peace and tranquillity. I generally use monochrome to create this warm and peaceful feeling in my paintings. I also wanted to introduce the concept of faith to conceive the belief in Buddhist principles and meditation concepts. Therefore, all my paintings contain a small line drawing technique to demonstrate the focus and determination required to complete each painting. This enables me to carry this message to the audience.
Could you please explain to us about small line drawing technique?
It is a technique of using acrylic paints. Small lines, using a paintbrush, are applied gradually in patterns to form an image. It does take a lot of concentration because each work starts with an empty canvas and then line by line, and dot by dot, I create the painting.
Is there any implication in using the use of gold flakes in your paintings?
This is a traditional Thai technique that has been passed down through generations. My core concept of art is Thai traditions based on Buddhist philosophy. There is the religious writing journal in Buddhism that refers to gold flakes and the belief that the faith of Buddhism is as pure as gold. So, I choose gold flakes to represent the purity and the value.
Are there any different emotions in the way you present each painting? For example, “Merry” and “Bodhi”?
Actually, the meaning of emotion is the same as I mentioned earlier. I want the audience to be calm, clear and peaceful. The way I present the painting reflects my experiences. Lotus (referred to “Merry”) represents the joy, the enlightenment and the extrication in Buddhism. The bodhi tree (referred to “Bodhi”) is where the Lord Buddha found enlightenment. These are the symbolic links to the story of Buddha himself. General symbols that easy to interpret and to link with Buddhism that refer to inner peace.
Do you consider your art to be traditional or contemporary Thai art?
My work is best categorised as a traditional Thai art. But in fact, I wasn’t thinking about the concept when I painted. I just let it flow. However, when the scholar asks me to justify the work I would reply that it is traditional Thai. To some extent the format is the traditional Thai but I took the original Buddhist principles to exhibit in my signature style without changing any originality in both message and pattern. In conclusion, my work sits within the traditional Thai art segment.
What do you think about this project where the Siam Kempinski Bangkok hotel is promoting Thai art on the website and creating online gallery?
This is a really great opportunity for artists. It is an absolute dream for artists to create work that is being published, especially in the digital format that can be seen in every corner of the world. If the collections are only decorative inside the hotel it is impossible for the public to enjoy them unless they are guests or visitors to the hotel. This is truly the next step in promoting not only the paintings but also the artists. To me it is the great appreciation because when I sell any art it will be showed privately to a limited number of people associated with that location. I am always happy when one of my paintings is shown in public spaces such as temples because anyone can see it. Siam Kempinski Bangkok is creating an open space for everyone, providing easy access to see our works of art. Anywhere and at any time.
What do you think is the biggest factor when creating a valuable art piece?
The most important factor is the emotion applied by the artist that is perceived by the audience. For me, I feel accomplished when an audience is able to follow and understand the messages that I have embedded in my work.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
The main challenge as a Thai artist is to survive in business. You have to make a living with the work of art. You also have to create something of value with a spiritual meaning.
Talking about your life’s work, what would you like to communicate or how would you wish to inspire your audiences?
What I would like to share is the impression of what I have experienced and what I have learned about Buddhism because it is the link to my life and made me the way I am now. I want to express this knowledge to other people to feel calm happy and peaceful. In order to be happy, we might not need as much as we want. Happiness is not about having more than someone else but rather to be sufficient in life and live the life with peace of mind. That’s the best reward in life that I seek.
Do you have any opinions about Thai art industry?
I have been in this industry for more than 20 years. There are a lot of improvements in terms of the number of people that interested in the arts, especially when compared to my early years as an artist.
What do you think about the art collectors that might not choose Thailand as the first target of collecting?
For me it's about the point of view and personal preference. However, it could be that in Thailand there is a lack of support for the industry and that we have yet to reach the international standards, unlike our neighbours in Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. They get a lot of support from the government side. Our industry is surviving because of the private sector. Most collectors are business men, for example. The Siam Kempinski Bangkok is supporting us by buying our pieces to decorate the hotel. This is an excellent example of major support from private sector. Most artists can continue in the business because of this support from private sector rather than government which has provided no support in any policy relating to promoting Thailand’s art or the artists themselves.
Do you think if the government provides more support this could generate interest from collectors?
It could be a major opportunity as we can learn from Singapore. They set the policy to support art galleries. The high standard galleries belong mostly to the private sector and the current art buyers and collectors are mainly business people and private sector companies.
What is your message to the younger generation of artists?
Being an artist is another possible occupation. If you love the arts, focus and pay attention to your work and one day you will be noticed and supported. I believe strongly that if you are really serious in this field you can become successful.
Interview by Art Consulting Asia
Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok, August 2017
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