A common art space
“Chiang Rai has a lot of artists,” said Ajarn Suwit Jaipom, the current president of the Khua Silpa Association.”This is why the Khua Silpa art space has a massive collection of artworks that can be exhibited on an interchangeable basis year-round. Artists, art lovers and tourists should make our combined museum and gallery a priority destination on Google Maps when they come to Chiang Rai.”
Art for artists
“It began with the formation of the Chiang Rai Artists Group more than 20 years ago,” said Ajarn Suwit, who, amongst his other duties, organizes special exhibitions at the gallery. “The main driving force behind establishing the gallery was Ajarn Somluck Pantiboon of Doi Din Daeng Pottery — he became the second president of the association after Songdech Thipthong, a Buddhist artist who was the first.”
“Two key players in the formation of the association were Ajarn Tawan Dachanee and Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, who donated proceeds from the sales of artworks after an exhibition at the Chao Fah Gallery in Bangkok to fund a common meeting and seminar space for artists in Chiang Rai. Ajarn Chalermchai’s donation of 500,000 baht was the largest, but many other artists made donations. Crowd funding supplied the rest,” said Ajarn Suwit.
“Khua Silpa is derived from two words: ‘Khua,’ which means bridge in northern Thai, and ‘Silpa’, the Thai word for art. Together, they carry the idea of an art bridge connecting artists and communities in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand and the world. The Khua Silpa Association is in its 11th year,” he said.
Every inch of Khua Silpa’s building from the threshold of the entrance to the restrooms deep inside are works of art, suggests Ajarn Suwit. The ground floor holds an interchangeable exhibition hall, and the second floor holds a smaller exhibition gallery and a shop selling artworks and souvenirs. Next to the gallery is a restaurant serving edible art, that is, northern Thai fusion food.
Having a bridge to connect people, art and culture has been our concept at Khua Silpa for 10 years. We connect art to society, whether people in the district, the province or the country. Here, people can learn more about art. Art is not complicated — no need to climb a ladder to appreciate it. It is simple and comprehensible; nothing complicated. No right or wrong,” said Ajarn Suwit.
“We hold our Khua Silpa festival every year, bringing together works from member artists around the country. Each year we choose a particular theme. This year’s event, our 11th, is themed on the environment,” said Ajarn Suwit.
“Membership of the Khua Silpa association has no age limit and is not limited to artists. Our members range from senior artists to primary school students. Around 300 members are local people, while another 800 members are artists and art lovers from around the country. Our 2000 baht per share membership fee goes toward organizing activities in the space. Members get special discounts for food and souvenirs in Khua Silpa and can display their art works at the gallery as well.”
“Many people have asked why there are more artists in Chiang Rai than in other provinces,” said Ajarn Suwit. “Perhaps it is because highly respected senior artists like Ajarn Tawan and Ajarn Chalermchai are good role models. Although upcoming artists are egotistical and independent by nature, when they gather at Khua Silpa, they get support from our senior artists. Chiang Rai is an eventful place where like-minded artists create very diverse art. We are like a magnet that draws in people from the art world. When we talk about art, Chiang Rai comes to mind.”
Art for the community
“We collaborate with communities in all 18 districts in Chiang Rai, organizing 4-5 CSR activities a year. We welcome young people who tour the museum and visit the gallery. An artist will lead each tour, helping explain the story behind each piece of art. We outreach to various communities, organizing art activities for primary and secondary schools so that students can appreciate art through drawing and painting. We prepare materials for them and hope that they enjoy expressing themselves through art. At Doi Chang, we took a group of artists to paint a 15-meter-long wall with high hopes that after COVID-19, tourism will boom, and the wall become an attraction where tourists take selfies and share them on social media. The community understands that art is important, that it can be integrated with tourism,” said Suwit.
Khua Silpa artists have continued contributing art, become better-known on a wider scale. Khua Silpa artists have participated in projects like the 46th “Jiang Hai Games” hosted by Chiang Rai province. They painted “The Heroes,” a historical recording of the miraculous rescue of 13 boys trapped in Tham Luang Cave, and they sculped a statue installed in the memorial building in front of the cave that commemorates Sergeant Sam, who lost his life during the rescue.
“Chiang Rai artists are pleased to help. We aren’t here to just work on personal projects, but to work on community projects. We want people to know how art can serve society,” said Ajarn Suwit.
Art and Covid-19
“Our main income is from sales of our art works, 30 percent of which goes to support the space,” said Ajarn Suwit. “During the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn’t open, so the gallery had no sales and artists had to work at home. We resorted to online marketing. We already had a page for communication and public relations, so we opened another page named artbridge.online for artists to sell their works. They sent us files containing images and descriptions of their work that we posted on the platform. Once a work was sold, we transferred the money to them, taking a charge of 10 percent. Collectors from around the world could explore our art works online and neither they nor the artists had to travel, which helped us feel that things were not so bad. Once more, Ajarn Chalermchai was a key senior artist helping us launch this platform by inviting collectors he knew from around the world to visit the page. We were able to donate some of the proceeds from sales to hospitals and felt proud that by working from home we could still contribute to society.”
“I took a media team around to record the artists’ lives, work and lifestyles. The artists said self-quarantine had helped them become more focused and productive as they had more time to do things. We planned the best routes to meet artists and interview them. For example, we followed the route to Wiang Pa Pao, interviewing 4-5 artists along the route and broadcasting their interviews one by one. This made the artists happy and proud of themselves. Artists have become more techno savvy. They know how to sell their works on Facebook.”
Ajarn Suwit talked about the move and expansion of Khua Silpa, which currently uses a rental space inside Wat Khua Krae temple. The new Khua Silpa will be located on a 10-rai plot of land in a new area opposite Chiang Rai Airport. Ajarn Chalermchai is sponsoring all the construction costs, which will be in two phases; the first phase is the construction of an exhibition hall with galleries, restaurants and coffee shops on four rai of land. This will be completed in 2023 to celebrate the Thailand Biennale. The second phase will include a theatre, a permanent exhibition space, a conference room and rooms for guests. In addition, an artist village containing 30 houses for artists who meet the requirements of Khua Silpa will be built at the back of the compound.
“In my perspective, crafts are kinds of art that are very interesting and challenging. Painting may seem a bit repetitive at times, so it is good to also have diverse and unique crafts. Performance, carving, printing and sculpting are all under the umbrella of what we consider as art at Khua Silpa. Chiang Rai is as a city of creative crafts,” said Ajarn Suwit.
Art past, present and future
“Khua Silpa has focused on the transfer of knowledge from the old to the young,” said Khua Silpa’s manager, Phak Wajanee Boonjen, talking about encouraging young learners to engage with art. “We want to nurture their love of homeland. We want Chiang Rai artisans who have finished their education or who are becoming famous to help develop their homeland. We foster this idea in the young, hoping that they understand and pass the message on. We offer scholarships to enhance potential, arrange art activities and encourage young people to join in as best as we can. We want to make people feel that art is for everyone, that art is in our daily life, as Ajarn Chalermchai once said.”
Talking about Khua Silpa’s public projects, Phak said: “Artists had nothing to do with the rescue mission at the cave. We did what we are good at, that is, art.
We recorded this story through paintings to make it more memorable and longer lasting. A lot of artists joined in The Heroes painting project, which the media reported on, noting our contribution. People who saw the news reports showered us with support, complimenting us and sending food and drinks and so forth. The paintings are now exhibited at the cave, which has helped the public better understand our work and purpose. Later, we collaborated with the province for the Jiang Hai Games, for which we were responsible for the overall design, adding value through the art and designs we created. We also asked representatives from the 18 districts to join the province’s parade competition, which added more creativity and contemporaneity to the event.”
Asked about the Thailand Biennale 2023 to be organized by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture in the Ministry of Culture, Phak said this was an international art festival that had already been held in Krabi and Korat, promoting the features of each province.
“Chiang Rai stands out for the number of artists living here. Working with governmental agencies is a challenge and keeping the right balance is key to bringing overall benefit to the community. This is a turning point that can put everybody on the same page regarding the significance of art. Such awareness will help art become more accessible and better understood. Art is all around us. We just need to help it shine.”