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A True Metal Guru

Say Tola / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Sok Sovann Vibol, the master metal artist. Photo: Yeng Chheangly

Sad but true, passion for arts does not guarantee instant fame and wealth. For metal artist Sok Sovann Vibol, the road towards the fulfilment of such goals is still long. But he is an artist – and he holds on to this identity as he continues to create pieces of his beloved art. Say Tola tells his story.

My heart melted when I arrived at Sok Sovann Vibol’s rented home – a small place standing on the left side of a narrow and dark alley in Khan Chakarmon.

The two-story wooden house was silent when we entered. Vibol’s mother, an 80-year-old lovely woman, was there sitting and waiting for her son. It was already 7 in the evening.

Vibol turned the light bulb on, and I saw his art materials, machines and keys scattered around; his sofa was ripped.

“This is where an artist like me lives. It’s a mess, isn’t it?”

Vibol was smiling as his eyes navigated around, looking for a lighter to light the candle near his copper art pieces installed on a shelf. All his art materials laid under it. His copper installments – images of Buddha, Kinaris (depicted as half-bird, half-woman creatures) and himself – gave brilliant reflection of the sun, giving his home a dramatic lighting.

Kinnara, a half-bird and half-man creature. Photo: Yeng Chheangly

Turning 36 years old this year, Vibol had his passion for drawing and painting since he was young – with soil and sand as his first canvas when he was 10. This passion got more intense as he grew up. But because of his family’s status, his dream of going to the Royal University of Fine Arts where he planned to foster his skills remained a dream. But once an artist, always an artist, as the saying goes. Vibol didn’t let his lack of formal art education hinder him from making his mark in the local art scene.

He came to Phnom Penh in 2008 and worked as a store keeper in a supermarket. He was occupied with his job in the store the whole day, but he made sure his nights were about his drawings, about his art. He then became a hotel receptionist, where he wasn’t just paid higher salary but was also introduced to the professional art sphere. The hotel owner made him study painting and colouring, knowing Vibol had an innate talent that just needed to be recognised. The hotel also bought some of his works.

Ten years since he made his first “professional” art, Vibol continues to do what he has always loved doing. At present, he makes art pieces made of metal. He has already created countless carvings for costumers of different nationalities.

But what’s more amazing is the fact that Vibol learned arts by himself. He didn’t have any book or teacher to guide his hands on how to make what. He taught himself how to draw, making use of what was readily available in his home in the outskirts of Phnom Penh and translating whatever was on his mind into beautiful craft.

He credits his passion and talent to the spirits of his ancestors.

“I haven’t been to school to learn about all these copper carving. I believe that I inherited this skill from my Cambodian ancestors. Why I say so? Because I can only draw at night when everyone’s asleep. Seriously, I have no basic education in drawing. But I can draw a lot of images such as Buddha, Kinaris and other things that I have seen. I can draw the wall of a temple fast and easy at night,” said Vibol, his eyes fixed on the Buddha carving in front of the candle light he just lighted.

“And I can’t draw whenever I wish to. It all depends on my emotional state. Every piece I make, it takes me at least three nights to draw. And I can cut the mental and shape it for eight hours straight during day time after I drink my first cup of coffee. I always feel that I am guided by spirit. Perhaps that’s the reason I feel tireless doing my art.”

Most of the time, Vibol likes drawing “Kbach” – a Khmer traditional ornament – as he is tremendously inspired by old canvas and painting in pagodas from the French colonial period. He was also inspired by sculptures of “Kbach” at the National Museum.

“There are four forms of ‘Kbach’ – there’s vine (soil), flame (fire), Angkor (wind) and Phnhi Tes (water). All represent the four elements of the Earth. My favourite is Phnhi Tes. And I believe my soul is connected to water element.”

At present, Vibol pays his bills and feeds his family from his earnings in his metal art. But he knows that his art isn’t a stable financial source. In fact, he had thought of giving up the art several times before and decided to find a more secure job.

A metal carving of Buddha and a Kinari copper art. Photos: Yeng Chheangly

“My mother and sibling have told me to stop this since it really can’t help me survive in life. I stopped and went to Thailand twice to look for a job. But I came back here. I couldn’t really adapt to the food there, making me end up with chicken egg every day. And that wasn’t what I wanted.

“What I really want is freedom. Freedom is the core element of my life. This is why customers can’t ask me to do something for them right there and then. All the pieces I do, I pour my heart and soul into it.”

Vibol said that he decided to make his metal art his full-time work and passion after he learned more about the craft from an instructor at the Royal University of Fine Arts last year. It was also when he discovered more resources to know about “Kbach” through the research book from Reyum Publishing.

“Learning, drawing, practicing and cutting ‘Kbach’ is my greatest happiness. I can say that doing what I love is even more thrilling than eating good food. All my hardships have paid off as a lot of people now know and support my work.”

Currently, Vibol is working on Buddhist carving and Hanuman key chains for clients who got to love his works through Facebook. He carefully and accurately bends the metal to create his desired shapes. When he finishes and delivers his newest work, he knows that he didn’t just pass on his art; he is passing on Khmer art.

Vibol also aims to let his art be known by the young generation. He welcomes all those who want to learn metal sculpture with him for free.

To support Vibol’s works, he can be reached at 010929153 or through Facebook at

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