Painter Of The Gods
By: Jon Bugge.Picture by : Jon Bugge ( August, 2002 Volume 2 No.8 )

To visualize the gods is something one would associate with the goal of an esoteric practitioner, however it is all in a days work for this 27 year-old. Ouk Chisen is a pagoda painter. To be precise, he paints the murals; through whose vibrant colours legends, tales of kings and the Buddha come alive. Originally from Phnom Penh, he now tours the country painting pagodas. He is not sure when he first started painting and drawing; "Since I was small I have always enjoyed this type of thing." His passion for art grew when he enrolled at the Royal University of Fine Arts, in Phnom Penh. He spent five years studying drawing and painting, graduating in 1998. He remembers the days of a student and says he was determined and would "practice and practice until I became better and better." He then managed to find work with a team of painters who travel the country restoring or decorating pagodas. One of the pagodas he is working on is in Sre Ambel and is called Angkor Phnom Klong Temple. He has just finished a huge painting depicting the Boddhi tree, under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. This spreads from behind the large seated Buddha and covers his head and the wall behind. The attention to detail is astounding: each leaf drawn and animals within the tree are beautifully rendered. This part of the murals, which one-day will cover the walls, took twenty days to finish. The entire pagoda may take an additional five months to complete. In one year he will paint between three and four pagodas. He sleeps in the pagoda and works throughout the day. For extended periods he leaves his parents and siblings and carries out his work. First the scene is drawn on the wall and then the paint is applied. He works and manages the four-man team, from a company called Khmer Achievement. When asked what made him choose this profession he simply puts it that: " It is good for me and I enjoy it." The trademark luminescent colours and detail speak tomes of his commitment and skill as an artist. The depiction of the Buddha is not undertaken lightly. Each time the Buddha must be prayed to. "Before I begin I must pray to Buddha to ask for his help with the work in hand." When asked if the art form itself is a manifestation of religious devotion, Ouk replies:
" It is similar to praying, through my work I must show the Buddha as he was and praise him. It has to be an inspiration to those who will visit to help them understand and realize the truth of the Buddha." It is a busy time for Ouk, he is working on four pagodas, whilst more and more are being built or restored. He seems to have work for many a year to come. Although from Phnom Penh he enjoys traveling the country and seeing different places. There would be enough work in the capital as he puts it: "There are many new pagodas in Phnom Penh but it is not for me to draw them all." It is a simple life but one that seems to be filled with a sense of enjoyment and achievement. To look upon a pagoda when the walls are alive with tales of old and of stories of the gods, knowing that once the walls lay bare. To be able to represent the gods solely in two dimensions, is to truly be a painter of the gods.