Leaves are often overlooked, generally viewed as nothing more than waste. But a group of high school students from Kandal province’s Mok Kampoul district have elevated this humble greenery into stunning pieces of animal art. Their creations have not only captured the public’s attention but have also garnered numerous orders from across various provinces.

Inside an office room where occasional gusts of wind cause flora to scatter from table to floor, Thong Sreyroth and her team skillfully transform them into intricate wildlife figures.

Sreyroth, a 17-year-old grade 11 student at Samdech Akka Moha Thamma Pothisal Chea Sim Prek Anchanh High School, leads a group of 10 members, both male and female. They specialise in crafting diverse animal forms, a skill Sreyroth has honed since her 10th-grade year.

Any leaves can serve as the natural fabric for their creations, provided they are dry. Sreyroth and her team initially collect fresh foliage from their village or nearby forests. They then place them between layers of newspaper or inside books, allowing them to naturally dry for roughly two weeks. Once dried, they’re ready to be moulded into various shapes.

For example, when crafting a bee, tasks are divided among team members. One might cut the raw material into wing shapes, while another selects differently coloured ones to form the bee’s body. For details like the bee’s black eyes, they use black coat buttons to make the figure more appealing.

“The art of leaf processing isn’t for everyone,” Sreyroth explains.

“It requires both passion and patience. If you have an inclination for drawing or creating cartoons, this skill allows you to elevate your work to an even more beautiful level,” she adds.

Working with larger leaves, such as those from jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) or jambolan (Syzygium umini) trees, offers the opportunity to craft the various body parts. Smaller ones typically serve for creating legs and wings. Occasionally, the team turns to the internet for inspiration, replicating the beautiful images they find. Once completed, these leafy works of art are affixed to paper, framed in glass and displayed at high school events.

The visibility of the group’s work surged after teachers began sharing photographs of their art on social media. This led to a wave of online orders from provinces like Battambang and Siem Reap. Prices for these artworks range from $5 to $20, depending on the size of the animal figure.

Sreyroth says that even teachers purchase their creations to adorn their homes.

“Now, when teachers want to reward outstanding students, they often buy gifts from our group. What we once considered rubbish can now be turned into something valuable, fostering our enterprising mindset for the future,” she says.

The money earned is saved in a collective fund. At year’s end, the sum is equally divided among team members. A portion is also allocated to the teachers who provided training. In 2022, each participant received around 300,000 riel ($75).

Saing Sokhai, a biology teacher at the high school, says the processing technique was initially introduced as part of the 10th-grade curriculum. Sokhai primarily offers guidance and suggests design improvements.

“I’ve even purchased one of their creations. It has remained intact in my home for three years,” the teacher says.

Principal Sao Chantha emphasises that the leaf art club, overseen by Sokhai, is open to students from all classes.

“Our students show remarkable creativity in transforming the seemingly useless into something useful,” Chantha says.

Phon Sophan, the director of the Education, Youth, and Sports Office in the district, lauded the initiative. He noted that it not only encourages environmental stewardship but also fosters a sense of achievement and knowledge-sharing among students.

“Their ingenious work adds value not just to themselves, but also to their teachers, parents and community leaders at various levels,” he said.

In transforming overlooked leaves into creative works, these young artists are not just creating beauty; they’re also cultivating conservation awareness, entrepreneurial skills and community pride.