Volume 3 No.2

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Cambodian Spirit - Marble Man of PURSAT
By: May Titthara..Photos by: M. Veasnna. ( February, 2003 Volume 3 No.2 )

More than 30 percent of Pursat province's residents carve their living out of the best quality marble in Cambodia, according to Mr. Ly Khean, chief of the marble carving department in the museum of Pursat province.
People of Pursat also earn money picking Krovanh fruit (Cardamom), digging for marble, and climbing the Cardamom mountain in search Khmem Chan Krisna, the heartwood of a tree. Since marble is abundant and more easily extracted in Pursat than in other areas of Cambodia, marble carving is a popular business for residents. This art originated during the French colonization of Cambodia, when marble was first discovered in Krovanh district, said Ly Khean.

Pursat business people hawk their wares in the Kravanh, Sompove Meas and Kan Deang districts of Pursat. Before carving the stone, people travel 80 km out of Pursat to the Thmor Keo Mountain in Krovanh district to dig and extract the marbles. High quality marble - colored blue, green, red and black - is found at this mountain site, Ly Khean said.
As statues must be aesthetically pleasing and of high quality to attract buyers, Ly Khean used to hold a provincial carving school to teach more than 300 students the best carving techniques. He currently teaches fewer students from a studio in his home.
Practice makes perfect for this student, as sculptor Say Lon can attest. This 48 year-old artist has spent more than 28 years carving marble in Peal Gnek1 village in Pteas Prey commune of the Sampoave Meas district. The only time in his adult life when he was not producing sculptures was during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror.
After returning to sculpting with Pol Pot's demise, Ly Khean felt he had lost some of his magic touch. Before his violent break from the art, he had studied with a teacher in Sampoave Meas district, producing various styles of statues. Customers placed orders with Ly Khean and his teacher, carving them a good business business out of an old hobby. When finished with the carving, the artists would pack them up to sell in Phnom Penh. Some stones were preserved in Pursat to show off to local and foreign visitors. Say Lon has three shops in Phnom Penh, where clients can peruse and purchase at their leisure. Orders are placed at least a month in advance, so he can purchase and ship the marble from the villagers of Krovanh in Pursat. Approximately 1 kg sells for 1400riels to 1500riels. Say Lon does not dig the marble by himself, since it can be a dangerous task. Digging the stone in the rainy season is particularly difficult because the rocks are slippery and often cause people to fall. Stone collectors spend at least a month gathering the valuable rocks, while in the dry season collection takes only about 15 days.
When carving the stones, Say Lon said he concentrates very carefully on the image to be made. If he is upset or carrying negative feelings, his work will be marred. "A bad feeling can't help me to carve the sculptures well," he said. Ly Sokkhom, a 42 year-old marble carver in Leach commune of Krovign district, said problem arise for him when breaking large stones into smaller pieces. Despite the challenges, his marble carving business has helped his family lead a happy life. Four students work with Ly Sokkhom, who values being able to pass his craft on to eager young artists.
"If the statue is big, we spend a long time carving the statue. For the smaller statues, we can make three or four statues per day," he said about the production process. Tools used to carve the stone are not expensive, and generally consist of a small and large chisel, hammer, carpenter's gouge and saw. Ly Sokkhom plans to encourage his son to follow in his footsteps to carry on the business. It is difficult for his son to study traditional academics, since schools are far from their house. Although his son has already completed secondary school, Ly Sokkhom cannot allow him to continue studying in Pursat because there are no relatives to house him.
The artist hopes to pass on his skill to his young apprentice in order to ensure the family a prosperous future. "Humans always have one skill to keep their life alive. Like me, even though I am illiterate, I have one skill that keeps my life and my family going on," he said.