Damien Hirst is arguably the modern mind-bending master of this. Tiger sharks preserved in formaldehyde, an 18th-century human skull encrusted with diamonds and, most recently, artefacts from a fictional discovery of a 2,000-year-old shipwreck. Although the latter was ‘sunk’ by critics, the sight of a Mickey Mouse statue coated in barnacles and corals certainly captures the imagination as contemporary culture met ancient history on an imaginary seabed.
Perhaps that’s what draws me to the work of Duangnapha Nusen, or Sai, a Thai artist who creates seaside scenes from driftwood found on Phuket’s west coast beaches. Sai sees something in these knotted, woody remnants that others do not, or rather she sees what they have the potential to be, and she carefully transforms them into rustic homes, streets and villages – small, distant worlds suspended in flotsam and jetsam.
Best of all, Sai uses the proceeds from her art to purchase food for the stray dogs and cats that roam the beaches she collects the wood from.
I meet Sai in Kalim, where she puts her degree in tourism to work seven days a week as a tour guide, and she greets and jokes with me like an old friend. Perhaps this derives from spending each and every day in a customer-facing role, but her light-hearted, convivial character never feels forced or disingenuous.
Sai, originally from Songkhla, has called Phuket home for two years, but only began creating art – under the moniker ‘Art of the Sea by SAI’ – last month after finding herself between jobs and with free time for long walks on the beach. Initially a pastime, her art quickly picked up traction online, and overnight her inbox was busy with messages from interested buyers as far away as Hungary.
“I woke up and saw all the chats on my phone. My hands were shaking. I can’t explain the feeling. It’s deep in my heart,” explains Sai.
There are factors that make keeping up with this demand challenging, such as Sai’s full-time job, the bespoke nature of each piece and changing weather conditions, but she finds time to collect materials from Surin, Bang Tao, Layan, Leypang and Kalim beaches when weather permits, and pieces them together when she can.
“It’s like a game,” says Sai, “When I walk on the beach, I see items of different shapes, sizes and beauty and I see what I can make. For example, a cylinder-shaped one could be a lighthouse, the seeds from a tree could be cut in half to make a boat.”
Asked how she then makes her art from these materials, Sai replies, “With love… That’s a beautiful answer isn’t it?!” and laughs. “With love and imagination.”
Alongside love and imagination are glue guns, construction adhesive, poster and acrylic paint, basic hand tools, nails and screws that sit on a pleasingly chaotic, crowded desk in a small corner of her bedroom. A rolling stock of corks, string, seeds, pistachio shells, rusted metal fragments collected from second-hand shops and other paraphernalia sit in a bag nearby.
“It’s not always so easy when I work. There’s lots of detail. For example, the window on a lighthouse can take 30 minutes to get straight and neat using hot glue. And it’s done by hand. No machines,” explains Sai.
Sai’s coastal scenes are a far cry from those found in Thailand, easily passing as Scottish fishing villages or fjord towns in Norway, and she admits she isn’t sure exactly where the inspiration or vision for them originated. What Sai is crystal clear on, however, is her inspiration for creating and selling her art.
“I want to help stray animals in Phuket. My old dog, Peanut, I rescued from outside a 7-Eleven a few years ago. She was shaking and had ticks on her body. After I moved house, she got lost and I can’t find her. I miss her. I connected with her,” Sai explains, “I can’t change what happened, but I can help animals like her in the future.”
Sai uses 50% of the money generated from the sale of her art to stock up on paint, tools and other supplies, and the other 50% to purchase food for animals in need, like Peanut, which she dishes out on her beach walks.
The joy of art, for Sai, lies in her ability to define what she cares about, what she loves, and positively impact it through her work. There is endless magic in taking from the beach whilst also giving back to the animals that call it home.
Visit Sai's page here.