Besides its small-town charm, Siem Reap has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, evident from the beautiful carvings and architecture of the Angkor temples and in the ancient grace of the apsaras. The visual and emotional expressions exuded by the city has given rise to a burgeoning arts industry which have swayed aspiring artisans and craftsmen of every stature to move to the city and produce thousands upon thousands of artwork that brim the city’s markets. But among the countless artworks that are produced, there is one that truly captures the imagination. The art, the artist and the city are captured harmoniously in one canvas. It is both new and ancient, humble and bold, sacred and accessible. Roeum Bunhak, the mastermind behind the Iron Pencil Sketching is the artist blessed with this creation. Its easy to think that the art of Iron Pencil Sketching could well have been discovered during the Angkor civilization and yet, here it is today, taking shape in modern Cambodia, as if in some spectacular fashion an ancient artist was reborn to complete one final masterpiece.
Inasmuch as the temples inspire awe, so does Bunhak’s sketches. Ingenious in its creation, the art of Iron Pencil Sketching starts off with a canvas made out of neatly trimmed palm leaves. Small pieces of coal are lit to fire up what Bunhak calls his ‘Iron Pencils’ (slim iron rods tipped in the front like a pencil) until it is red hot. These are then used to sketch and shade on the canvas, literally burning the leaves to produce the desired results. The intensity at which the leaves are burnt determine the darker and lighter shades of the sketching. It is surprising how much detail can be achieved by burning palm leaves with a piece of iron, the shades and contrasts that meld into creating the final sketch is simply breathtaking.
Before starting out a career as an artist, Bunhak was among countless Cambodians who moved to the city from nearby provinces in search of a better life. Partnering with a few family members, Bunhak started out his first venture, a print shop named ‘Largest Print Shop’ which unfortunately didn’t live up to its name and soon closed down due to land disputes among family members. Bunhak, shattered by this financial loss went back to his province and resumed life as a farmer – the default option for many in an agricultural country like Cambodia. Of his many duties as a farmer, Bunhak was responsible for burning garbage from the farm every morning. On one such occasion, Bunhak noticed how interesting patterns formed on the surface of a palm leaf right before they turned to ash and this made him think. And in that simple and seemingly meaningless moment, he searched for an artist’s inspiration, tinkering away with never before seen tools for months until he created a new form of sketching with his iron pencils.
After perfecting the art, Bunhak saw appreciation for his skills among family and peers and saw it as a validation of his career as an artist. Flush with a new found confidence and armed with his iron pencils, he returned to Siem Reap to showcase his artwork to Cambodia and the world.
The struggle Bunhak has had to endure is the struggle of all artists. During his second visit to Siem Reap, things got off to a good start. Bunhak started and opened his own art gallery, pouring all his life’s savings into it. He met his sweetheart and life was finally beginning to take shape. But as time went by, Bunhak saw his time being dedicated to external projects that he wasn’t really interested in, but had no option to decline. His art gallery failed to generate the revenue needed to be sustainable, thus forcing him to accept commissioned work from a few hotels and vendors to create murals and sculptures. His soon to be married partner, whom he was madly in love with, worried for Bunhak’s capabilities to provide financial stability for her and a future family and thus abandoned him. This was followed by the lowest point in Bunhak’s life. Through all the trouble surrounding his life, he found other odd jobs painting murals and sculpting, avenues to sustain a livelihood but not the road to success. A few turning points however, led Bunhak to dig himself out of his dire circumstances. During the entire time he continued his iron pencil sketching and his sketches were soon being noticed by some in the arts traders in Siem Reap, a few hotels and a handful of vendors gained his respect and subscribed to monthly sales. However, there was just not enough buzz created around the art and the artist, not even enough to sustain him financially. Living with a distant family member, Bunhak managed to stick on and pursue his dreams.
One of those turning points for Bunhak was being able to showcase his art to travellers from all over the world by hosting guests at Backstreet Academy where he teaches travellers how to use his iron pencils. Everyone instantly falls in love with the concept of sketching with a burning iron. Bunhak’s course has since become a favorite and one of the most popular activities at Backstreet Academy Siem Reap, allowing him to maintain a sustainable income for the time being.
Starting out in July 2014 with Backstreet Academy, Bunhak has hosted hundreds of guests that have come through his workshop. He takes immense pleasure in knowing that his art, while so highly regarded and admired by locals and foreigners alike, is so easily accessible by all. When asked about his fondest hosting memory, Bunhak delightfully recalls Kristie and Ben, a couple from the US who were on their honeymoon in Cambodia. The story goes that Kristie contacted Bunhak without the knowledge of her husband, and conspired to surprise him with the Iron Pencil Sketching experience. Bunhak took the element of surprise a step further and gifted the couple with a honeymoon themed sketch at the end of the course. Bunhak counts this among his favourite memories as a host.
Unlike some of his more renowned peers who have had opportunities to showcase their artwork in high end boutique hotels and up-scale venues, Bunhak enjoys his artwork admired and appreciated in a more down to earth setting, be it in his workshop or in the market.
I don’t want to my artwork to have a rock-star status! I want it to be accessible to everyone. Everyone who wants to learn or buy my sketches should have access to it easily.
Bunhak has by no means achieved the success of an artist in the conventional sense, but he has transformed as a person through leaps and bounds. His confidence as an artist and a host has transformed completely, turning him into a bolder artist than he was a few years ago. His plans for the future includes re-opening his own gallery together with budding artists in the city. He wants his craft to be recognized around Cambodia and perhaps be inculcated in classrooms around the country as an arts curriculum he tells us. He knows he still has a long way to go and often likes to say, “we all start out having big dreams and starting out well, but we may not always start out well to achieve those dreams.”
This is a new phase of Bunhak’s life, he is beginning to find his own as an artist and we are privileged to have been privy and part of this transformation.