This is all thanks to my mum who develops a sudden penchant for art and sculpture when abroad, something I never understood as a child, and presumably neither did airport security, eyebrows raised as the form of a spiny feline passed through the scanner.
However, I recently found myself pulling over at Napas Art Gallery in Cherng Talay, drawn in by the striking works at the front of the inviting glass-fronted building. The gallery was opened in April 2013 by husband and wife team Soon Papan and Juffy Joob, who inform me that many of their works are indeed bought by browsing tourists who, like me, were taken by the gallery while passing down the 4018.
What does ‘Napas’ mean?
Juffy: "Napas is from my first name, Nongnapas, which translates as ‘lady of the sky’ or ‘angel.’”
Soon: “When we started Napas, we had nothing. Only an idea, a dream. The logo (image above) is made up of eight fish in a circle. It’s continuous and moving, as we want our gallery to be. The number eight, for Thai and Chinese, is a good, lucky number.”
On display at the gallery are the couple’s disparate and distinctive fine art pieces: land and seascape paintings with surrealist touches by Soon and detailed portraiture of crowned cats by Juffy.
The couple are as vibrant and intriguing as their work, Soon in a vintage-style shirt and desert boots, Juffy in a floral overcoat and white stilettos, both in matching T-shirts bearing an illustration of Phuket Town.
Tell us a little about yourselves.
Soon: “I’m from Kalasin in the north east of Thailand. I studied Art Education at Mahasarakham University in Isan, but realised I didn’t like to teach, I liked to paint. I would define my style as ‘the beauty of nature reassembled by my imagination.’”
Juffy: “I’m from Phuket. My family have Chinese heritage going back thousands of years. My mixed culture comes through in my work which I define as ‘the reflection of Peranakan culture through Thai cats in Baba wedding costume and accessories’. I studied biology at Prince of Songkla University. It was Soon that taught me how to paint.”
Looking at Juffy’s art, it’s staggering to think that, until only a matter of years ago, she hadn’t sketched or painted since her early school years. The careful brushstrokes that define each hair, the cavernous eyes that look straight through you and the intricate detail in the crowns and pendants speak of someone much more experienced. Soon firmly believes that Juffy has always harboured artistic talent and it was just a case of bringing it out with practice.
Cats, on the other hand, have been a constant in Juffy’s life and she recalls having 13 at one point in her childhood. There are four resident felines who strut around the gallery now and I spy a cat encyclopaedia under the office desk too.
Many of Juffy’s pieces are inspired by her own cats, although she paints from memory instead of studying photos or attempting to get the often aloof and apathetic subjects to sit still for her.
As I observe one of her pieces depicting a cat with different coloured eyes, à la David Bowie, I notice the kitten playing around my ankles has the very same peepers. I’m stunned when Juffy tells me that the painting preceded the kitten, a fact that renders the piece with even more majesty.
Why are cats your subject of choice?
Juffy: “I remember seeing beautiful black and white photos of Hollywood stars in the ’50s with Siamese cats. I want people to know Thai cats and know Peranakan culture too. You see a lot of stray cats with no home or anyone to love them. I think my art can help. In fact, my friend said it inspired her to take in a cat. When we started Napas, I wanted to marry Soon but we didn’t have much. So the cat bride is me.
“Gustav Klimt is an inspiration to me. Even though I have my own style, I do love his use of gold in his work and would love to paint like him. Andy Warhol, too. He was so clever in how he worked. No one worked like him at that time.”
Juffy cites Soon as an inspiration too. While Soon paints land and seascapes now, his formative experiences were of drawing human figures in primary 4, aged 10, and light and shadow drawing in the first year of secondary school, aged 13. He recalls having an almost innate understanding of perspective, proportions and ratios from a young age.
Fast forward to 2019 and Soon is now an established artist whose work is kept by TISCO, a finance company that collects exclusive fine art that “reflects the prosperity of the nation”.
Soon’s Pearl of the Andaman Sea is the first piece you see as you pull in to the gallery, taking pride of place in the front window. And so it should, having taken him some 200 hours to paint across a month and a half. Six metres in length across three panels, it depicts the rock formations of Phang Nga Bay. While some of Soon’s work is explicit in its mysticism – with islands in the shape of the ichthys, or fish symbol, bearing the Christian cross – this piece is much subtler. A closer glance reveals a trademark surrealist touch: the birds and elephants in the rocks.
Another piece that catches my eye during our conversation in their office is The Heavens and the Path of Roses, a seascape that sees a winding stream of pink, orange and yellow flowers flow out into the sea.
What inspires your art?
Soon: “I paint seascapes more now because of where I live. With The Heavens and the Path of Roses, in Thai, we have a phrase that the path of life is not lined with rose petals. In my life, I’ve had a tough road, but I hope the next life is an easy and beautiful one. I painted it when we were getting married and it reflects that hope and love. I didn’t intend to do surreal paintings, but it’s in my heart. This is not just about our art in Phuket, it’s about life in Thailand that we’re exporting to the rest of the world.
“I’ve loved Turner’s work since I was young. There’s a romantic feeling in his brushstrokes. Turner was in Europe and I’m in Asia but I feel like I’ve found a big brother. There’s a link or connection with him.”
Soon and Juffy work separately, Juffy in the aircon, which speeds up the drying process of the acrylic paint, and Soon in the open air, as oil paint in an enclosed room can be detrimental to an artist’s health. Fine art, for them, is personal and private. Although their works differ greatly – in their chosen subjects and artistic processes – on display they complement each other well. They hope to exhibit their work together in Phuket hotels in the near future, which they have not done for some years.
What do you think of each other’s art?
Soon: “Because I taught and trained her, I really know her art. It’s contemporary and mixes her culture with her own feelings. If she continues to paint in the future I think she will go down in Thai art history.”
Juffy: “I love his work. It relaxes me. If he’s feeling loved, if he’s missing someone, whatever it is, I can see it from his paintings. He’s a frank speaking person and he speaks with his art. I feel connected to his paintings.”
Napas Art Gallery is located at 24/53 Moo 6, Cherng Talay, Thalang, 83110. Open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 7pm. Closed Sunday. www.facebook.com/napasartgallery
076 390 700 / 0836331204