After looking around Wat Salak Phet I started asking the people still working there painting the sculptures, when the sculptor was coming back, and if I could help when he does. Everyone said he left in a hurry for another job, and no one really knows when/if he is coming back. Too bad, I really wanted to know more about the process. Although I can deduce a little bit about how the sculpture is made, that still tells me nothing about what kind of cement mixture he is using, or about any kind of prep work you need to do to the surface before applying the ornaments. I don’t even know how long you leave the cement in the plaster mold before the cement completely adheres to it! I’m sure there is plenty of steps I am missing, and the only way to know is to see it done.
When I was asking around about the sculptor I had photos of my work with me, and the head monk of the temple came over to take a look. He was impressed and said I could make a sculpture for the temple if I wanted to, and they would provide the supplies! Since Koh Chang means ‘elephant island’ I suggested making an elephant. The monk showed me a patch of grass where I could make a large sculpture, which was nice, but I didn’t want to get in over my head.
First I needed some clay so I could make a few quick studies, or maquettes. I asked one of the painters, Phoom, who spoke english, if he knew where I could get clay. He said yes, and that I could come back the next day to go with him to pick up some clay. The next day, he took me to a ditch further down the road and sure enough, there was clay there with rocks and roots and all! I could tell it was nice white clay, and it was going to take some work, but it was free–and I can go back for more any time I like.
So it took a full week just to dry out the clay, crush it up, take out the big rocks and roots, and let it sit in water for a night. There were still too many little rocks in the clay, so I had to filter it a second time with a finer screen. Now I have a pretty good amount of clay, but it is still slip (clay in liquid form).
I managed to dry enough in the sun to make a maquette. Here it is:
Here I am working on the maquette, with the head monk, Pa Ahjahn.
and it took another two weeks before I could get a ride to the mainland to buy some plaster for a plaster table for drying out wet clay. Now I have the plaster table, and some old plaster molds I found in the inner temple courtyard but they still need to dry out before proper use.
The lack of readily usable clay doesn’t prevent me from getting started on the larger elephant model. The temple has plenty of extra steel rod lying around, and there is a workshop down the road with a welding machine. The workshop I went to is used mainly for boat repair.
Plenty of space to weld an elephant armature! First time I’ve welded without gloves, and in flip flops!
Next, I applied drywall plaster to the armature. Now all I have to do is wedge out a lot of clay…
‘Wat’ is Thai for temple, and Salak Phet is the fishing village down the road from Salak Kok, where I am staying on Koh Chang.
After my first week on Koh Chang I went down to Salak Phet to see the temple that was built over the last couple of years. I was very impressed with how elaborate the temple was for such a small town. The temple is surrounded by a giant snake, and each corner has a god representing north, south, east, and west. Here is the impressive entrance.
After walking once around the temple I noticed that some parts were still unfinished.
As a sculptor, this is actually a great opportunity to learn more about how the Thai sculptors work. It is a combination of modeling and sculpting cement, and mold making. Everything is added directly to a steel armature and built out. In the photo above, you can see the armature of the elephant still exposed, as well as the partially finished underlying form. When I walked into the inner courtyard I found more clues on how the sculptures are made.
It looks like for ornaments/elements of finer detail, small molds are made for fast application. For example, above you can see leftovers from the scales on the snake. I imagine it’s the same process for all of the little ornaments. They are applied to a built out form.
So I imagine that for the snake, first they made a long, rolling tube-cage out of steel rod, and then wrapped that in chicken wire, then applied the first coat of cement. After achieving a uniform shape, they then started adding the scales with little plaster molds for days and days… a little silly, but more direct, and probably faster for unique sculptures like these. There is also a second kind of white cement, which is kind of a mix between plaster and cement, which is used for the detailed top layer in places where the molds don’t fit, like when the snake bends around a corner. It’s very interesting to see, and I hope the sculptor comes back soon, although it looks like he left in a hurry…