A Break in the Clouds


A Break in the Clouds

By Carla Sommers

Carla Sommers discovers what inspires the Lao-Canadian artist Thep Thavonsouk over tea.

It is mid-afternoon in Bangkok. An elegant man with greying hair enters the Authors’ Lounge at The Oriental Hotel. He doesn’t seem to walk so much as float through the lounge. His unruffled appearance and graceful demeanour suits the room’s polar-white tranquillity perfectly, even though outside, the first storm clouds of the monsoon season threaten a late afternoon downpour. Thep Thavonsouk appears completely at home in Asia, even though the 59-year-old painter left his Laotian hometown of Vientiane in his 20s, spending more than half his life in Calgary, Canada. Thep looks every inch the mid-career success story — yet his clothes also give away some of his secrets. Wearing a white linen shirt, grey trousers and hand-stitched lace-ups, he looks every bit the dapper and polished gentleman. Then as we sit down, I catch sight of his socks — the exact shade of grey as his trousers, but festooned with a wacky, geometric pattern. An unexpected accessory and one of Thep Thavonsouk’s trademark quirky twists.


This is a man who has taken his early Laotian heritage, mid-life Canadian experiences and his proudly global soul, and amalgamated them into an artistic recipe that can be repeated again and again. Borrowing from his hybrid background, his work is quiet, pondering, yet hardly contentious. “No, I was never a rebel,” Thep concedes. His work can be seen in one way as strictly traditional, and in another way — like his socks — unashamedly singular and very contemporary. Over the last 30 years, this former diplomat wannabe, accomplished linguist, ex-language teacher and one-time Canadian Federal Government employee has unashamedly climbed the ladder towards commercial success. Since 1978, his work has been shown across the world from Tokyo to California to his hometown of Vientiane. His artworks now command up to US$72,000, with wealthy collectors in his adopted home city of Calgary happy to drop US$50,000 a painting. Some have even assembled collections of his works in parts of their homes which, he is proud to add, are referred to as “Thep’s Rooms”. The rest of the town satisfies themselves with viewing his Saffron Robes painting that joined the Glenbow Museum’s collection of artwork last year.


Born to a well-off, French-educated father and a steely mother, whose Buddhist piety he seems to have (he claims unwittingly) absorbed, Thep Thavonsouk is typically proud to be Laotian. Like many of his fellow citizens, he left the former French colony during the 1970s when Laos became embroiled in what was later called The Secret War, because so few knew about it. But unlike the rest of his classmates, he eschewed a scholarship to France and insisted on going to an English-speaking country. It was to be a stint in America, then ultimately, Canada. Thep returned to Laos in the 1990s and reconnected, not just with the family he had left behind, but with his spiritual roots in this devoutly Buddhist nation. The artist rediscovered Laos’ unspoilt pastoral beauty and also a climatic phenomenon he had all but forgotten —the monsoon, an element of thunderstorms that prompted an important series of paintings entitled June Rain. Far from encapsulating the dark, looming clouds of impending storms, these passionate and lively images are, says Thep, optimistic visions of life and nature. “In all these paintings, you will see a line, a shaft of light through the clouds. So you see, I am an optimist. I have to be!” he explains cheerfully.


Never one to follow the crowd, Thep prefers to lead, and has hence created his own style in every sense, blending a fluid, Oriental easiness with sharp Western flair. This is a trait that has flowed into his paintings which, at times, take on a mystical charcoal moodiness or can be a symphony of vibrant tangerine and violet, or turquoise and green. He paints mostly semi-abstract scenes of swirling hues depicting skies or watery pools; they often incorporate minute figures of saffron-robed monks toting umbrellas, purposely dwarfed against the magnitude of nature. He works in oils and in inks, on canvas and on richly absorbent rice paper, and speaks of his influences — masters such as James McNeill, Whistler and JMW Turner. Yet, at times, the impressionistic strokes and chromatic clashes of colour also reflect another influence, the acclaimed abstract artist, Mark Rothko.

Unusually, his artistic training incorporates the rigours of Chinese painting, which he learnt in Taiwan (he cites the unparalleled Chinese painter Zhang Da Qian as a major inspiration). He also spent a period working laboriously in Japan, studying the art of woodcuts, and learning Japanese. The effect of his stints in these two countries are apparent in the simplicity and misty opaqueness of his watercolour landscapes that feature both Chinese and Japanese elements. One gets the impression that whatever Thep Thavonsouk sets his mind to do, he does to the end. Painting, he says, was within him since a very young age, but after following in the strict, disciplinarian footsteps of his Oriental masters, he found an artistic liberation of sorts — what he terms his “own way” — in Canada, albeit feeding off the colours and emotions of his Laotian childhood.


 In the last decade, hundreds, perhaps thousands of displaced Laotians have returned from new lives in France, the United States, Australia or Canada to give something back, or in Buddhist terms, “buy merit,” by helping rebuild the country. Thanks to the efforts of these returnees and the Laotian government’s increasingly open policy towards enterprise and tourism, Laos today is a country that is fast gearing up for those changes. Thep has recently opened his first gallery in Luang Prabang, which held its grand opening in December last year. The space is called “Saaifone”, a combination of the Lao words saai (thread) and fone (rain), his popular artistic theme. The gallery is downstairs in a traditional Lao-style home but — as one might expect — it has a wholly modern interior. He hopes it will also serve as an arts centre for friends and colleagues intent on rekindling Laotian arts as well as serving as an escape from the harsh Canadian winters for a few months each year. Indeed, the small town is now taking on larger, more global roles, such as the conference of international museum curators held last October, headed by renowned art historian and curator, New Yorker France Morin. Thep sees this change as part of the evolution of life — something that his Buddhist heritage emphasises as an inevitability, not just a mere possibility.

Saaifone Contemporary Gallery opened its doors in December 2006 with an inaugural exhibition of recent oil paintings and works on paper by Thep Thavonsouk. Look out for the sign at the entrance to the alley of the Maison du Patrimoine (World Heritage House) in Vat Xieng Mouane district. For more information on Thep Thavansouk, his current exhibitions and the new gallery, visit www.junerain.ca or email thep@yahoo.ca


Suddenly Thep jumps up mid-sentence and halts the interview. Something outside has caught his eye. The sun is setting over the Chao Phraya River and, through the long lounge windows, he has seen something that excites him. “Sit here!” he commands, patting the cushion beside him with some urgency. Outside, high over the west, there are two long strips of white clouds heralding the end of the day. “You see that light?” he asks. “That light in between the two sets of clouds?” He points to a bright luminous patch of sky shining mercurially. “That’s what June Rain is about!” Even over high tea at The Oriental, Thep Thavonsouk’s eyes are feasting on the light outside; the changing sky; the world around him; the inspiration for one of his most recent works; the beauty of Asia, his home; the silver lining that he, as an optimist, must cling to. He appears to be a man who has cut is earthly moorings to drift to another level — a floating spirit who inhabits a shaft of illuminated light caught between two layers of silvery, monsoon cloud.