Painter Helps Graduate Art Students Live Off Their Passion

When artist Ricardo Casal first moved to Cambodia in 2012, he created a workshop for more than 20 pupils at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. He saw great talent among the students, but feared the country’s limited art market and support for the arts meant a low likelihood of employment after graduation.

Mr. Casal, a Spanish-French figurative painter who has exhibited in Paris, Barcelona and Shanghai, saw a need to guide the young talent with whom he had worked so closely. Over the course of nine months, they completed “90 Khmer Figures,” a project of portraits of Cambodians from different walks of life.

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Ricardo Casal, left, points to a painting during a workshop with students Morm Tola, center, and Tep Chanthy at Casal’s studio in Phnom Penh last week. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Meant as a tribute to King Norodom Sihanouk, who had died on October 15, 2012, just weeks before his 90th birthday, the paintings were exhibited at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra hotel the following March.

Mr. Casal’s artistic endeavors did not end there. Over the years, he perceived a gap in Cambodia’s cultural policy, with few grants or other financial aid for young painters. Coupled with little chance to sell their work, they faced many challenges at the start of their careers.

So three months ago, the 59-year-old painter opened The Atelier, his first studio, with a specific long-term objective in mind.

“I want to teach them everything I know, to guide them, to be their coach, to motivate them to go further. To put together all the pieces,” he said. “That means to not only instruct artists but also the public, to make them understand the interest of art for their family heritage and the national heritage.”

The workshop in the capital is light and airy, adorned with Mr. Casal’s recent and older pieces.

Morm Tola, 30, one of the artists who took part in the “90 Khmer Figures” master class five years ago, is eager to learn from him.

After his graduation from RUFA in 2014, Mr. Tola was unable to find a job as a painter and struggled to afford materials. It wasn’t until 2015 that a few orders started to come in from Japanese and French buyers.

With the opening of The Atelier, he is now able to continuously receive and deliver client orders under the guidance of Mr. Casal in a fully equipped studio where both canvases and frames are made in-house.

Through the years, his admiration and respect for Mr. Casal has transcended from that of a student-mentor relationship to a father-son relationship.

Painting entitled ‘L’Enfant aux Mangues’ by Ricardo Casal (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Casal “brings out the best in me…. My realistic style has evolved since working with Ricardo,” Mr. Tola said.

Tep Chanthy, 30, a classmate of Mr. Tola’s at university, has also joined Mr. Casal’s studio, painting under his supervision. “It is difficult in Cambodia…. After RUFA, we don’t know how to find a job,” he said. “He [Mr. Casal] has helped me get work.”

While his workshop is still in its infancy, Mr. Casal hopes to invite the four best RUFA graduates each year to help them continue their training and give them more exposure as artists.

“The greatest success for an artist is to pass on his knowledge to a generation who will then pass it on to the next,” he said. “Once the wheel is set in motion, it works on its own.”

The Atelier

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Tuesday to Saturday

Where: #3 St. 19, Phnom PenhOpen to the public

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