by Deborah L. Jacobs
This couple had big plans for their Cambodia B&B. Then, COVID-19 arrived.
At an age when other people might be thinking of retirement, Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne, now 68 and 55, moved from Sydney, Australia to Cambodia in 2014 with a dream and a plan.
Australian artist Morrison Polkinghorne has breathed new life into an old art form by utilising lotus plants to create a wide variety of pointillistic artwork. He collects the flowers from Buddhist pagodas and temples after holy days, and through an elaborate process, transforms them into tools he can use to create art. His latest collection of art is on display now at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra Gallery. “This is my second exhibit in Phnom Penh, but my first at the Sofitel Phokeethra Gallery. It is a wonderful venue. For the opening the hotel decorated the entire lobby with lotus flowers and served lotus-based canapés. I have a total of 31 works on display here,” Polkinghorne tells The Post.
Entitled Khmer Impressions/les Impressions Khmer, the exhibit showcases the Battambang-based artist’s unique adaptation of pointillism, a classical art form developed during the 19th century. His paintings consist of several distinct dots of colour that, when looked at as a whole, form an imaginative image. “My art piece titles incorporate English, Cambodian and French to reflect the diverse influences of Cambodia’s history,” Polkinghorne says.
Polkinghorne found inspiration in his own impressions of Cambodia, formed over 18 years as a traveller, and six as a resident. He combined these with his love of pointillism to put his spin on an ancient art form. Originally from China and Japan, monochrome ink wash paintings are among the world’s oldest artistic traditions. Polkinghorne mixes pointillism with this classic art form to create his own unique artwork. He uses the stem of a lotus plant as a stamp, dipping it in organic ink culled from the plant’s flower petals. The ink is believed to be holistic and spiritual in nature. Polkinghorne thinks the lotus plant is an apt symbol for Cambodia, as the flower represents Buddha’s spiritual awakening, his emergence from the dark depths into light, and his final transformation into a flash of beauty. “I collect flowers donated by monasteries over holy days, remove the petals from the stems, char and distil them in Battambang rain year for a year. I then add a natural fixative.
“For the actual art, I again collect specific varieties of lotus, remove the flowers, and then use those stems as my paintbrush. After just a few impressions, I have to revert to a new cut,” says the artist. The emphasis is on the refinement of every stroke’s varying depths of tone. Each row complements the last, expressing simple beauty and elegance in the final compositions. “The resulting works evoke myriad Cambodian images – its waterways and deltas – the Kingdoms’ true lifeblood – Angkorian pillars, classical landscapes, misty mountains, and tumbling waters,” Polkinghorne says.
He signs each work with its total number of dots or lotus impressions. For this exhibition, Polkinghorne used 132,383 impressions.“Most are framed in metal, as I commissioned blacksmith Sot Ratana to create frames that reflect the timelessness of the art juxtaposed with the industrial future of the Kingdom,” he says. The metal frames, designed by Polkinghorne, are mounted on grey acid-free boards, and he says: “These convey a juxtaposition of Cambodia’s timeless past with its 21st Century industrial future.” The Khmer Impressions/les Impressions Khmer exhibition is comprised of all brand new paintings. They range in size from 12cm sq to 5m canvasses, and he says some individual works take months to produce. It is also a lengthy process to distil the sacred lotus ink.
“As a weaver, there is something both sacred and comforting to counting – from totalling shuttles going from side to side on a loom, to tallying warps and wefts. “So it’s natural and automatic to mentally count lotus points impressed onto these works as they are an artist’s impressions – both literally and figuratively – of Cambodia.”
The paintings range in price from $170 to as much as $10,000 for the larger pieces, which are about 2m tall and 700mm wide. Polkinghorne thinks of his pieces ecologically and holistically, with the Kingdom’s nature and the environment as his inspiration. “This is not my first exhibition. Others are planned for the future locally and internationally. I feel truly blessed to bring Cambodian motifs to a worldwide audience. The Phnom Penh Phokeetra Gallery has free entry and is open daily,” he says.
The Khmer Impressions/les Impressions Khmer exhibition runs through April at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra on Samdach Sothearos Blvd.
In Cambodia, where more than 90 percent of the population are Buddhists, lotus flower is a known symbol for spiritual awakening, born out the mud but gradually evolves into a beautiful flower. For the next two months, Cambodian art lovers will have the chance to see how this plant – typically used in religious offerings – has been incorporated into the works of a talented impressionist artist.
Australian artist and weaver Morrison Polkinghorn has been working for years in Battambang, a province famous as inspirations for artists from around the world thanks to its traditional Khmer artistic heritage and a strong touch of colonial legacy. For years, Morrison has been thinking about creating something different and original yet still depicting the identity of the country he resides in.
He kept experimenting until one fine day – some five years ago – he found that he could use lotus flower to express his contemporary works. Adapting pointillism, a painting technique in which an image is formed by applying pattern of small, distinct dots, Morrison crafted grey-and-black-toned pictures, using lotus stems as his brush with an organic ink made from lotus flower petals.
“I envision my pieces ecologically and holistically, with the Kingdom’s nature and environment as the inspiration,” explained Morrison.
“Lotus stems are my pain brush while the flowers create my tone. Just as with traditional Chinese and Japanese ink-wash painting, the emphasis is on the refinement of every stroke’s depths of tone.”
His artworks comprise of vertical and horizontal rows of varying depths of darkness. The pieces are shaped following the natural pattern of how a lotus flower grows, with each line complementing the last.
“I keep creating the dots to create different shape and tone, and with the intensity of the tone, to create the works,” Morrison said. “It is a very slow, artistic development.”
Meanwhile, the recipe for Morrison’s ink, created after years of studying with artisanal papermakers and traditional woodblock printers in the region, is a trade secret.
“I got the lotus from a very big Buddhist ceremony from a temple in Battambang, where Cambodian people offers the lotus flowers as a form of gratitude to Buddha,” Morrison explained. “The monks allowed me to take the lotus the next day of the ceremony, and I used the petals and the rainwater I collected in Battambang to make the ink.”
“It took me one year before I could start working on my painting”.
Morrison eventually unveiled his newly-found artistry at his solo exhibition dubbed Khmer Impression in the gallery of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra.
The artist named each piece according to the total number of lotus strokes, or points, on each paper and finally applying this figure along with his signature. In total, Morrison has produced 132,383 points or “impressions”.
“As a weaver, there is something both sacred and comforting in counting: from totaling shuttles going from side to side on a loom, to tallying warps and wefts,” Morrison said. “So it’s natural and automatic to mentally count lotus points impressed onto these works. Artist’s impressions—both literally and figuratively—of Cambodia.”
When asked about the messages in his paintings, Morrison said he wants to motivate other art enthusiasts, regardless of their skill level, to do “something crazy” too.
“You may see this idea as crazy, but it created something artistic, something that have a visual feeling that people can enjoy. The point is that you have to think out of the box.”
Khmer Impression exhibition is open to the public for free from February to April at the Gallery of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra.
Battambang-based Australian artist Morrison Polkinghorne unveils his grey- and black-toned paintings made from lotus stems and artisanal petal ink. The exhibition, entitled Khmer Impressions/Les Impressions Khmères, runs from February through April (2020) at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra’s Hotel Gallery.
I kept bumping into Morrison Polkinghorne on my first visit to Battambang during the 2019 S’Art Urban Art Festival. S’Art refers to the beauty of Urban Art and the festival is a community-driven biennial event, which promotes Battambang as an important city for Khmer culture and art. Having just arrived to live in Siem Reap, Cambodia I was already astonished by how accessible everyone was and how the alchemy of connections seemed to simply manifest. I think it only took two ‘bumps’ to know that I was going to be fascinated by this gentleman.
At first glance, Morrison is an energetic and animated man who seems to know everyone in the city and is greeted by all as he walks down the little streets towards his establishment, Bric-a-Brac – Awarded Best Boutique Hotel in Cambodia by . . . .
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WINNER DIFFA CHICAGO
International Artist Award
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