Half-finished relief carving of people in ancient dress
Art,  Crafts,  Lens-Artists

Works in progress around the world

He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.

Saint Francis of Assisi

One thing I always enjoy while travelling is to see artists at work or locals demonstrating local crafts. It helps me to understand and appreciate the artistic traditions of a country. It can also open my eyes to the amount of effort that has gone into creating some of the beautiful things I see around me.

For this week’s Lens Artists challenge theme of Work in Progress set by Ann-Christine, I want to showcase some of the artists and craftspeople I’ve been fortunate to observe. And of course, their individual works in progress.

Often of course these experiences are linked to opportunities to shop. While I shun any that feel like hard sell, I don’t mind if a talented artist or craftsperson encourages me to consider a purchase, especially in places where I am confident it is the local creators who will benefit if I do buy. And yes, sometimes I do, as I treasure the objects brought home from my travels. You can see many of them in this post from a few years ago!

Angkor Artisans, Siem Reap

Angkor Artisans is a craft workshop in Siem Reap where locals (many of whom, we learned, are deaf) are trained in stone or wood-carving, metalwork, weaving and other skills.

I was especially fascinated by the stone pieces reproducing elements from Angkor. The faces of the Bayon, the friezes of Angkor Wat and more. If I had a huge penthouse apartment, and the wallet to go with it, I could imagine I would be tempted by one of those friezes. As it was, I settled for some hand-made lemongrass soap!

In my feature photo above you can see a part-finished replica of one of the Angkor relief panels. Note the difference between the left and right sides, with the former much nearer completion. Definitely a work in progress!

In Santuk, Cambodia

On the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap we passed through a village where every property seemed to be home to a carver of stone Buddhas and other statues. Our driver Han heard our exclamations and pulled over so that we could take photos. A man working on a statue nearby was happy to let me take a few photos. I watched him shaping its shoulder at first with a chisel and then smoothing it with a sander.

Thangka school, Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu

Near Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu we visited a school teaching the traditional painting style known as thangka. We were shown the different designs used but saw just one student at work (most were off for a holiday).

Of course we were urged, politely, to buy, but not pressurised. I was tempted but felt it was too soon in the trip to be choosing what to take home. I spent the rest of the trip regretting that decision as I never again saw such lovely examples at such reasonable prices!

Block printing in Jaipur

One of the most traditional crafts in the Jaipur area is block printing on cotton or silk. Most visitors are likely to be offered an opportunity to see craftsmen at work. We went to the Shree Carpet and Textile Mahal where we were first shown the technique by a father and son working together on a design. The colours are all natural: turmeric for yellow, spinach for green, saffron for orange and so on. They work as a team. The father was doing the first colour and the son following behind to do the next, carefully aligning his block with the first print. We were told that the minimum number of colours (and therefore blocks) used in a pattern is four, and there can be up to nine.

We liked the resulting pieces so much that here we did make a purchase, a beautiful throw adorned with my favourite elephants, still in use on our sofa. You can tell this is a genuine hand-made piece. Machine-printed fabrics appear perfect, while those printed using the small hand-held blocks show the staggers and uneven lines where one block meets the next. You can see this clearly on the border of our throw in this photo.

Fabric printed with elephants and leaves
Our block printed throw (note the stagger in the design in several places)

Parchin Kari, Agra

Parchin Kari is the term given in India to the technique known in Europe and elsewhere by its Italian name, pietra dura. This involves inlaying marble or another hard stone with small pieces of coloured stones (often semi-precious or even precious) to create a decorative pattern or picture. In India its use reached its zenith in the time of the Mughal Empire, especially under Shah Jahan. It is seen at its very best as an art form in the Taj Mahal.

Because of this perhaps, the craft is still very much practised in Agra today. There are a number of workshops where you can see Parchin Kari objects being made, and of course sold! Visiting one of these you get a close-up look at the craftsmen and can really appreciate the painstaking work that goes into even a small piece of Parchin Kari. Imagine then the work that went into the Taj Mahal! Every piece of stone has to be cut to a precise shape to fit the exact same shaped indentation on the base stone. Even a small flower can have twelve or more pieces: individual petals, stamen, stem etc. Once all the pieces of a design are in place the object is polished to a very high sheen. This makes the joins between them almost invisible.

My photos were taken in the workshop, in a special demonstration area set up for tourists to see the technique. Most of the pieces though are made in the workers’ homes as this is very much a cottage industry.

Other artists at work around the world

Some of these artists have featured at more length in previous posts, for example in Paris, Cartagena, Laos and recently in Hampshire. There are many more I could have included! A worker with tin in Cuenca, Ecuador. A woman restoring ancient murals in Pisa. A young artist painting at Karen Blixen’s home just outside Nairobi. An artist at work in the Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile …

So here are just some among many ‘works in progress’ that I have enjoyed observing.

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