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Battambang artist brings giant animals to life

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Soth Synath spent seven months creating this 13m crocodile sculpture. Many of his sculptures are commissioned by pagoda committees to decorate temple areas. Photo supplied

Battambang artist brings giant animals to life

The giant reptile’s gaping mouth appears ready to consume its latest victim.

It stands taller than a person and is incredibly life-like with authentic colours, a long spiky tail and detailed scales adorning its entire body.

If it wasn’t 13m long, you may just be fooled into thinking it’s a real crocodile.

The intricately crafted statue is the work of Battambang sculptor Soth Synath and his unique style has garnered attention on social media.

Unlike sculptors who only use moulding processes, minimal carving, and less complicated colour painting, the self-taught Synath focuses on the details – the crocodile’s scales, skin and scars.

Synath spent months carving the scales, one by one, layer by layer. He says covering the croc’s backbone to the end of its spiky tail in scales is a consuming task that requires skill, creativity and patience. But the hard work is worth it when he sees his finished product.

The 37-year-old Synath tells The Post: “This crocodile is enormous. It’s rare to see people making [sculptures] this size.

“Creating this crocodile, we had to do it little by little. And the most challenging part was underneath the abdomen, where we were required to add a lot of detail to its thick and rough skin.

“So, it’s a little difficult to get the details and the natural scars exact. Another important point is that its scales have to look natural. It needs to be re-touched multiple times to make it look like a real animal. The process took me around seven months.”

Synath was born in Toul Ta Ek district’s Dangkor village in Battambang province. Battambang is known as Cambodia’s art hub and several famous artists have grown up in the north-western province.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Synath transitioned from painter to sculptor with help from his father. Etching each scale in cement is a time-consuming task which requires great skill and patience. Photo supplied

His animal sculptures have won the attention of Cambodians recently, especially on Facebook where Vann David wrote: “This is called a beautiful and artistic sculpture. I have always had a desire to see this kind of work.”

And Kjol Sakmoth says: “I find it difficult to describe. It looks like a spirit in a sculpture!”

Synath’s path to becoming a famous sculptor wasn’t linear. He partly inherited his art skills from his father, who was a sculptor, but he fostered his sense of creativity by himself.

One of his first artistic jobs was painting religious works for Buddhist temples. One day, a pagoda committee asked him to assist in creating sculptures. From that moment on, he became his father’s student.

Transforming from a painter into a fine sculptor is not an easy task, but Synath managed to master the skill because of his newfound love and passion for the art form.

He says some of the first sculptures he learned with his father were Gautama Buddha as a prince riding his horse and a different one where the prince is cutting his hair.

He also created a mythical giant. These works were put on display in Komnop pagoda in Battambang.

“This [learning from my father] was not the only thing I did. I did more research, trying to look at patterns and how to make realistic sculptures through YouTube, Facebook, and written documents,” Synath says.

Many of his new sculptures have captivated audiences through social media, such as eagles, giant cobras, elephants, crocodiles, chickens and other animals.

Synath says that many of these works are made of cement.

Near the fierce crocodile are two giant hissing cobras and two eagles which stand almost 2m tall.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Synath transitioned from painter to sculptor with help from his father. Etching each scale in cement is a time-consuming task which requires great skill and patience. Photo supplied

The elephants are designed with a friendly face and their trunks lifted high in the air with ears so detailed the blood vessels are marked.

Small and big works ranging from chickens to crocodiles have been ordered by the pagoda committee at Baksey Cham Krong temple in Pursat province.

“A huge set of sculptures, including a chicken, a monk, a couple of cobras and a crocodile, costs $7,500, while the 13m crocodile alone is worth $ 3,500,” he says.

Synath generally takes an average of four months to complete an animal sculpture with his two apprentices, depending on its size and detail.

“When the weather is hot, the cement is too dry. It cracks easily and it’s hard to shape the animal.

“And while we are working in the monastery, we have to endure the heat. If it rains, it will affect the work of the carver. It causes the cement to easily melt and break,” Synath says.

He says he can earn an average of $1,000 to $2,000 from each of the detailed designs. For instance, the eagle statues cost $2,300.

After completing his works, Synath posts each sculpture on social media and receives good feedback. People keep sharing his posts and some even ask for the exact location of the sculptures so that they can visit and take pictures.

Synath would like to share his love of sculpting with others and says: “I’m not secretive about teaching, but it’s hard for me to teach. I was self-taught . . . therefore, I don’t know how to convey my skills and teach students properly.”

He currently has two apprentices who learn regularly, while others come and go as they please.

“I want to give thanks to all the Khmer people who have supported my handmade work.

“A lot of people now contact me on Facebook or by phone. I apologise for not being able to reply to some that added me. But I am thrilled that a lot of people appreciate and support my work,” he says.

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