I went there one rainy afternoon to meet with Somrak Maneemai, de-facto head of the village, who introduced me to his village which he imagines would be a place where art is involved in everything.
In a quiet soi on the road to Naiharn Beach, a group of eight artists came together to build the village. I was greeted by a “PhuCAT” map at the very spot where I turned into the soi, and I knew that I had come to the right place.
The map was Somrak’s idea – a map of Phuket with detailS as seen in every other map. But this one is in the shape of cat, with art village as the cat’s brain.
Five years ago a group of artists who were living and working around the Rawai area called themselves Rawai Art Village, and created their own original art. But that first attempt at making an art village went unfinished as Somrak Maneemai took a teaching job at an art college and moved to Nakhon Sri Thammarat.
In late 2010, Somrak, who is from Krabi, returned to Phuket with his ambitious idea to complete his dream of an art village. He had found a piece of land in Soi Naya 2 in the Sai Yuan neighborhood and shared the plot with seven other artists. This time the Phuket Art Village became a reality.
In front of the village is a metal sign which, Somrak explains, is actually a banana.
“If you look closely, it’s six bananas, because we started with six artists. Now we have eight artists but we ran out of space so the banana sign is still six bananas.”
Somrak says they grow banana trees in the village because the artists love bananas as they can do many things with it. “You can eat the fruits, can use the leaves to wrap the fish and barbecue it, or you can even use the leaves to make a roof.”
On this one-rai plot of land, each of the eight artists started building their own home in February. Each home is full of each artist’s own style and upon completion these homes will be their studios and galleries to showcase their work. There is a common area where artists have their live concerts and events now such as children’s art day, music jamming session and other artistic projects.
The artists want their village to be a place where original arts are created and every art form is welcomed. Visitors are welcome to see how they live and work. There will be painters, sculptors, musicians and a nang talung (shadow puppet) masters living in the village.
Somrak says they want their village to stand out from many other galleries, as their art works are unique. “Every artist in our village has their own style different from the others.
The first house to be completed was Somrak’s Red Gallery, a lofty, spacious high-ceiling building with large windows that stands at the entrance of the village, waiting to greet you.
“The artist homes will be built in U-shape, we will leave an area in the middle to be common space, where we can use for everything.”
Then there’s the village landmark, a house made from driftwood, pieces of wooden planks from disused fishing boats and things others might called junk, but in this village, they are turned into a small and colourful house called the Love Art Studio.
Artist Kittipong Ngowsiri said he collected the wood and built his house piece by piece. He has his small studio and a small kitchen on the first floor and wants to turn the second floor into a cozy homestay where guests can visit the village and stay in his sculpture, as it were.
“It’s doesn’t look like much now, but I want people to be able to stay here in my home and experience art in everything from when they wake up to when they go to sleep. We will eat art, smell art, sleep art and even live in one. I hope to get two more homes up in the back of this one. But that depends on where can I find enough driftwood to build them,” he says with a laugh.
Somrak says that while there are many galleries in Phuket and Patong, there are very few that make original work. Copy painters reproduce Van Gogh or Monet on demand in big volumes and sell for a few thousand baht a piece.
“They can do that but that’s not what we want to do here. We want our art to come from us. That is why we decide that we should come together so we can support each other, spiritually and maybe a bit financially.
“Unlike other things, it’s difficult to find an indicator to measure the success of art. Even at school, for example, how do you measure if this child’s art is better than the other child’s art? For artists like us, it is just like that. You just can’t measure your own art. And to get the support from the Government means that I must be able to present to them what can art do, what can art produce.
“For example if you look in something like tourism marketing, you do one marketing campaign for tourism, and then have numbers to show how many tourists come to Thailand, how much money it generated from that one marketing campaign. But when it comes to art, there’s no such indicator for it.”
“Therefore, we agree that it is the best for us to help ourselves by coming together, forming our group, and building our village. It is also good for us this way so we can maintain our own identity and personality without having to worry that one day our sponsors who give us money will ask us to change to suit their preferences.
“At the moment we start working small projects with schools, last month we had children from ABC Nursery visiting us here and creating their art with us. We also worked with the Rawai Administration Office to set up a small live performance in June to raise money to help with the tsunami relief in Japan.
“We hope that one day when people see us as we grow, they’ll notice that the village is part of their community and they will come to us with the help we need,” Somrak says.
– Kazira Hanshanasattru
How to get there: From Chalong Circle head to Rawai on Viset Rd, at the first traffic lights, take a right turn into Sai Yuan Rd that leads to Naiharn beach. At the T-junction, turn left to Naiharn Beach and not right to Kata Beach.
About 150m past Da Vinci restaurant on the right is Soi Naya 2 with the Thong Thai Gold Shop and the PhuCAT map on the side of its building. Turn right into the soi and the Red gallery is about 100 metres along.