Meet the Stars: Nov Cheanick
Live painting plays an important narrative role in “Sokha’. Three canvases are used in each performance. The first is of a traditional Buddha statue which sets the scene of a peaceful, religious and thriving country. The second portrays bombs exploding and causing chaos. The third is of a picturesque rural landscape that slowly becomes more urban with the addition of electricity poles and tall buildings, symbolizing the rebuilding of the country post-war.
Nov Cheanick is the talented visual artist who creates these paintings each night on stage. He also has a thriving career outside of his role in ‘Sokha’. He has had exhibitions across Cambodia, in Thailand and in France. He has taught art in Bovel and Battambang. And he is an important part of the vibrant arts community in Battambang, one of Cambodia’s cultural centres.
Q: What were you like as a child?
A: I liked to paint and draw. I always painted on the ground. At home I didn’t have books or anything, so I painted on any other surface I could find using whatever materials I could find. When I went to school, I always painted in my books or drew in them.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I was born in a refugee camp, Site 2, and we moved to Battambang when I was three years old. It was my father’s home town. We were farmers. We didn’t grow to sell, but we planted things we needed just for the family.
It was hard to make a living at the time in Cambodia, so when I was young, I went to work in Thailand with my mom. My mother worked in a factory and I worked there as well. After a little while I left and came back because I wanted to live my own life.
Q: How did you first come to Phare?
A: I stopped going to public school around 2002, when I was 13 and I came to Phare Ponleu Selpak because a friend told me about it. He said there was an art school. And there was no other art school in Cambodia. I started at Phare in 2003.
Q: What did you study at Phare?
A: I studied Visual Arts. After being there for one week, they held an exam and I did so well I went immediately to the second level. In the first level, it’s only drawing with a pencil, but in the second level we studied watercolour, in the third there was oil and acrylic painting, and in the fourth we studied art history and we specialised. We could choose graphic design, or animation or whatever.
For me, I felt I wanted to be an artist. This is the way for me. Because I tried to do other things, like graphic design, and I can do it, but I don’t like to sit in front of a computer. I can’t sit there for a long time. When I paint on the computer, it’s not free.
Q: What did you like about studying at Phare? What didn’t you like?
A: I like the way of life, the teachers. They would always tell us about things that make you stronger, like they would teach about the history of art, or someone, like Van Gogh. That’s what I feel more interested in. Learning about artists.
I really didn’t like taking exams. I also didn’t like deadlines. I never finished my assignments on time. I was not very good student!
Q: What is so important about art to you?
A: Life is like eating and sleeping and going to work. It wasn’t enough for me and it wasn’t something that I felt passionate about. I wanted to make something before I died that I felt good about, to show people, to leave something behind.
Because even if I lived my life and it was a good life, after ten years I would have nothing to show. So I wanted to make something.
When I work on art and when I look through my work, I feel different things, it reminds me of different times of my life and what it was like then. It feels good to have a record in this way.
Q: Is anyone else in your family an artist?
A: My brother is not an artist, but he likes to draw also. My father is a musician, but just for life, not really as a professional. He plays traditional music. He’s good. When I was a child, he always played and I loved it.
Q: What is like to be an artist?
A: For me, I work by myself. Not really that I want to work by myself, I have no choice. Like I start first to work on art I didn’t know anything, I just learned a bit from seeing some art and I thought I wanted to do that. And then trying to understand what I could do by my own hand.
But after I feel stronger a bit. People must think that, not care what other people think. If you are interested in it, you just do it. If your heart is not enough, the challenge of painting or drawing is not important. The most important is what is in your heart, feeling energy and power.
Some students they graduate from school and learn good technique but in their heart and in their mind it is difficult to decide to do something. They are scared. Is this good or not? Always worrying. But when you’re an artists you have to be strong and very passionate. It is very important to be like that.
It’s hard in Cambodia. Not many people understand about art. They understand about music, like singers. Even the painters, but only traditional painting. They don’t understand modern art. And, for sure, material is difficult to find. I just use the things I can use. Sometimes if I have money I go to buy art in Thailand or something. When I graduated from school I painted with ash or anything that I could find.
Q: If you hadn’t gone to Phare, would you still be an artist?
A: Yes, I always wanted to be an artist. No matter what. Whether someone calls us artist or not, I just want to work. I want to share and sometimes it is selfish, thinking only of what makes me happy, but I want to show my way of thinking to other people.
But Phare gave me a place where I could learn. When I joined, I had stopped going to public school and didn’t know what to do. If I didn’t have Phare, I don’t know where I would have gone.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: Right now I am working on an exhibition in Phnom Penh. It is modern paintings. I paint natural, not just the trees or something like that. It is just what I see occurring in the world. I paint about inside of you, the feeling of you that I see. If I paint a portait, I paint the inside, not the skin, not the clothes, but the inside.
Q: What are your dreams for the future?
A: I still want to be an artist. I don’t know. Right now, I want to be here in Cambodia because I want to show everything that I want to improve in the country. And I want to be an example to the younger generation. If someone wants to walk this way, I can show them, I can share experiences with them. And after they can do what they want.
I have plans, but if I have food to eat and paint to work it is enough for me. For my dream, I want to have a space to teach students and connect with people who really want to work on similar things.
Read more about the symbolism in ‘Sokha’ here.
Read more about the Visual and Applied Arts School at Phare Ponleu Selpak here.