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Snow on the Tonle Sap

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: May-26-2012 in
Photo Credit - Samphon Soch
Bronwyn Sloan

When Australian Aboriginal art meets Angkor, the result is stunning. From within a myriad of perfect dots, a jumble of Hanuman monkey warriors emerge in the shape of a sacred elephant storming to battle, its feet floating on a carpet of flowers and stars. Each flower alone is formed from at least four tiny dots of brightly coloured paint. Ian 'Snow' Woodford's work is even more remarkable because the working class Australian boy from Sydney is colour-blind.

"I worked as a pit boss in Darwin for seven years," he says during an interview at his Chroy Chang Var bar which he has turned into a breathtaking gallery of his art. Mining isn't known for creating great artists, but in the far north of Australia Snow watched Aboriginals creating masterpieces in the form of didgeridoos, carefully decorating the long wooden instruments with thousands of careful dots until they took on a life of their own and became beautiful.

"I could watch those blokes for hours. Then when the trouble happened in 1997 and we were stuck in doors with nothing to do, it sort of came back to me and I started to teach myself how to do it. It was a long road, because it isn't easy, but I think I've perfected it now," he says.

From masks to vases and massive 'canvasses' like his elephant masterpiece, Snow's bar Maxine's (named after his eight-year-old Australian-Khmer daughter) vibrates with colour.

"I started by dotting pictures of women in kramas," he says. "There's something about the way Khmers look at you. There's something about Khmers. It's beautiful, and you can't escape their eyes. That gave me the inspiration, and in the paintings too their eyes follow you around the room wherever you go." A row of three women in the different kramas of their birth provinces quickly became Snow's signature painting, their serene faces surrounded by a sea of dots making up their head dresses.

But when a tattooist mate showed him a tattered picture of the elephant of the Hanuman warriors, he quickly became obsessed with a new topic.

"I've always been decorative. even at school I always used to draw, but art was extra-curricular so I used to cop a lot of stick for the lads, teasing me and calling me a girl for wanting to paint. A lot of stick," the tall, lanky Aussie says. "But I have always loved things to be bright and vibrant and beautiful in any home I've ever had too. This elephant lights up the room, doesn't it? And the beauty of it is that if you change the light or the time of day or where you are standing, the entire painting changes with it. She's a beauty!"

Each painting starts as a blank sheet, and the outline of the subject is drawn on before layer after layer of dots are painstakingly applied to give each piece its personality. He's been offered big money for his elephant, but so far he hasn't been able to bring himself to part with it. A similar work of art in gold is already near completion. He hopes maybe he can bear to sell that one some day.

"But the thing about this type of painting is it takes a long, long time and as you see each piece coming together, you fall in love with it. They have their own personalities and charms, and you bring each piece through its own problems and make it as perfect as possible - sort of like your kids," the 50-year-old says.

Although he had been engrossed in this unique style for a decade, near tragedy has been the secret to the art really blossoming, he says.

"I was sold some fake medicine by a clinic last year and before I knew it, it was touch and go whether I would make it or not. It took out my liver and part of my lungs. A mate got me to hospital in Bangkok but even they didn't know if I would pull through for a while there." Fake or counterfeit medicine kills scores of people in Cambodia each year.

"The good thing that came out of it was, I had a bloody lot of time on my hands, and that's when I reckon I really got this dot style right. It was like relaxation. Therapy. I can do it for hours, and after I was poisoned, hours is what I had."

"Khmers love this stuff. They bring their friends and show them too. Some foreigners don't get it straight away - it's a bit like those three dimensional things you stare at for a while and you see the whole picture I guess. But I've had plenty of compliments, and I've sold eight pieces since Christmas, so I've been working hard."

Snow first arrived in Cambodia as a contractor for UNTAC, nursing a broken heart and a spirit of adventure. He drove trucks of supplies through Khmer Rouge areas, met the people and fell in love with the country. After teaching English for years, he cobbled enough together to set up his dream bar on the Tonle Sap across the Japanese Friendship Bridge, and it has been called one of the most original and best bars in Southeast Asia by people in the know - mostly because of Snow's unique sense of style.

Bells dangle from the roof, each individually decorated, chiming gently in the breeze, and his art is everywhere. Outside on the river balcony patrons enjoy a drink while watching the sunset before coming inside when the blue lights go on to browse through the artwork.

"I don't know if I could do this if I saw things like most people see them. Sometimes its a challenge. Sometimes getting the colours right is a real problem. Once I coloured in brown when I meant something to be red, but overall, bright colours are what I see, and the picture sort of jumps out at me where it might not be there for other people straight away until I've finished it. Some dots are big, some are small, some shapes take four dots just to create. The only thing is patience. If you smudge one dot, that can be the end of it and start all over again. Someone told me it was called pointillism, whatever that means, but whatever it is, it's mine and it took me a long time to perfect it."

Snow never forgets to credit the role Aboriginal art has played in inspiring him. Nor Cambodian art, people and places for adding to it. If the two styles had not come together here, he says, his art would never have been born.

"It's a bit easier now than it was back just after the war here to find the materials, but they are still tough to find and then apply properly," he says of the paints and backgrounds that go into the reams of raised dots. "I still don't tell anyone where I get the gold paint," he adds, gesturing towards the shimmering elephant painting. Some of it has been luck or just plain circumstances ("I painted three women to start with because three women is what fitted on the page and we didn't have a lot of pages to go around") but perseverance and an eye for aesthetics have played an even bigger part, he says. Few people would have the patience to create paintings like the Hanuman elephant, which takes between a month and six weeks to make.

"I've always liked beautiful things," he says as the painting changes again in the sunset light. Snow's work can be purchased by calling him on 012 200 617. (CW)

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