On a sweltering afternoon at Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao market this week, people on motorbikes crowded around a bright green tuk-tuk. Surrounded by stalls offering mobile phones and other electronics, Phe Sophon was selling iced coffee, fruit sodas and ice cream. His sister-in-law was helping mix the drinks.
“Now we’re waiting for customers. It’s quiet,” he said.
Mr. Sophon had been parked at the market since 3 p.m., bantering with other vendors when customers were sparse. At 5 p.m., he would drive his tuk-tuk to the next spot, Ekkareach market, then to Wat Pouthinhean, following his usual daily route before returning to his home in Stung Meanchey commune.
The tuk-tuk was his own design. “We designed it a long time ago, but we didn’t have the money to create it, so we had to save money,” he said.
When Mr. Sophon saved up enough, he brought his design to a builder on Street 271 and painted the final product green. “I like green,” he said with a wide grin, explaining that to him, the color represents life, and growth.
But the tuk-tuk isn’t his only creation. The 32-year-old is also an artist, and his first solo exhibition opened at The Asia Foundation’s country office on Tuesday.
Born into a poor family in Kompong Thom province, Mr. Sophon said he never expected to learn how to paint, let alone establish a career as an artist. He first came to Phnom Penh in 1999, hoping to become a motorcycle and car mechanic.
“But I didn’t have talent for fixing vehicles, so I couldn’t follow it as a career,” he said.
He did, however, have a knack for drawing. As a teenager, he liked tracing images in the dirt or in his writing book. But in the countryside, there was no opportunity to study art.
In Phnom Penh, a friend recommended that he consider the Reyum Institute of Art and Culture, a school that has since closed. He spent five years there, graduating in 2005.
His work, ranging from painting to sculpture, has been exhibited in group shows, including at the Sofitel hotel in Phnom Penh last year.
But Mr. Sophon said it was hard to support his family while pursuing art, particularly since his son’s birth. His wife is now three months pregnant with their second child.
“It’s really hard to survive as a full-time artist, especially because I have a wife and child, so it’s very important to have an extra job to make a living,” he said.
Two years ago, he acquired the tuk-tuk and started selling drinks for 3,000 riel (about $0.75). In a day, he can sell a few dozen cups. When expenses are taken out, he nets about $400 per month.
“My son is now 4 years old, so I hope I can make money from selling drinks on the street to support his studies,” he said.
Mr. Sophon divides his time between selling drinks to students and workers on their breaks, and painting in his makeshift studio at home.
“I spend mornings and nights painting, because I love art,” he said.
For this first solo exhibit, entitled “Time Pieces: Livelihood of Phnom Penh,” Mr. Sophon is showing nine acrylic paintings created over the past three months.
The paintings are done in vivid colors, depicting typical characters of a Phnom Penh streetscape: a coconut seller, a banana vendor, workers piled on a truck. All are painted with a naive aesthetic. Mr. Sophon himself makes an appearance in one piece, driving his tuk-tuk in front of Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh.
“It’s about daily life in the city,” the artist said. “The people in my paintings are the real people I see from my street-vending job, for example, the man selling bananas at Wat Langka, the old lady selling Khmer noodles along the street.”
Some sections of the paintings are layered with detailed designs, an homage to classical Khmer art. Many of Mr. Sophon’s characters also wear traditional Khmer headdresses, which he says represent honesty.
But beneath the vibrant colors, there is a dark undertone. In a depiction of Wat Phnom, for example, a silhouetted female figure symbolizes prostitution in the area.
“It reflects the real life of the poor that I observe from my street vending,” he said. “Since it’s a fast-growing and fast-changing city with a mushrooming of tall buildings and technological advances, there is still a big gap between the poor and rich,” he said of Phnom Penh.
Mr. Sophon’s paintings celebrate those who make an honest living, rather than resorting to crime.
“Poor people are struggling hard to make a living in the city, but they still do a decent job to make money,” he said.
“Time Pieces: Livelihood of Phnom Penh” runs until December 29 at The Asia Foundation’s Community Art Gallery in Phnom Penh.