Lacquer Re-Implementation

It is the crack of dawn in Siem Reap. The neighboring Pagodas are waking up, and one can hear the monks beginning to chant. The sun is up, and those who are ‘lucky’ enough to have a good job are commuting to work.

Thanks to his artisan training, Bun Leath now commutes to work too, in order to provide for his family. Born mute and deaf, his parents have always worried, unsure as to what the future might hold for him. His siblings and the other children told him he was ‘unlucky’ all his life. But that has changed. In fact, ever since he started learning the craft of lacquer, everything changed. Just like everything has changed for the life of his teacher, Eric Stocker.

Eric started his journey in the world of lacquer at the young age of 16. Trained by master craftsmen Pierre Bobot and Fedi Ferrone, he acquired both a passion and a world-renowned set of skills for working with lacquer. He is now a master of Chinese and Japanese lacquerware, as well as traditional gilding, which uses hand-made gold, silver and copper leaves.

Lacquer in particular is an especially important and ancient Cambodian craft. Evidence has been found that lacquer was used to preserve the bas-reliefs on the Ancient Angkor temples. During French Colonial rule, Cambodia was exporting nearly 50 tons of lacquer per year to France.  Until the Khmer Rouge, harvesting lacquer was a very profitable trade.

In his article in Contented titled “Saving the last of Cambodia’s tree harvesters”, fellow Community First volunteer Jono Imhoff explains “After the Khmer Rouge, the craft was nearly lost and the local price for lacquer doesn’t support much production nor the cost of feeding a family after. Modernisation, deforestation and a decline in interest for an ancient craft has also put Cambodia’s lacquer-producing workforce and tree bleeders at risk of disappearing forever”.

Eric Stocker first arrived in Cambodia in the late 1990s with the task of surveying the state of Cambodian lacquer. With the support of a skilled team of artisans, Eric began the process of saving this fascinating part of Cambodian heritage for future generations by helping found the vocational institute, “Artisans d’Angkor”. Along with his younger brother Thierry, he also created his own workshop and showroom “Angkor Artworks”.  Eric has left a strong legacy here in Cambodia, over 1,300 Cambodians, even those born with disabilities like Bun Leath, and teaching artisans how to make a living from their art.

So, why is it that lacquer is so prized? While originally an Asian tradition, lacquer works have always captured the interest of westerners due to the unique properties of the tree’s sap. As a result, the craft can be found in European and other artistic traditions. While some was for some artistic use, most of the precious liquid was reserved for advanced industrial application. As of today, over 80 laboratories in Tokyo are working on the practical and high-tech applications of lacquer. To understand more about the processes and techniques through which lacquer is used, read our article ‘Introduction to Cambodian Lacquer’

When Community First Initiatives received an incredible donation of 430 acres of land from world-renown tiger training Thierry Le Portier (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0494541/), Community First President and Founder Pierre Mainguy immediately saw the incredible opportunity at hand. By using the land to create a lacquer tree plantation, Community First can help in the Stockers’ mission to revive the Cambodian lacquer tradition while also providing a sustainable source of income upon which future projects can be funded.

In the coming months, Community First will be busy surveying and mapping out the land. Upon the invitation of the Asian Lacquer Craft Exchange Research Project, the Community First team and the Stocker Brothers will also be presenting on the state of lacquer in Cambodia at the Japan-Myanmar exchange conference taking place in Bagan, Myanmar from September 9th to 13th of this year. We hope that this will provide Eric with broader outreach and new ideas to further refine his craft. We also hope that this will strengthen CFI’s global partnership in order to help the people of Sen Sok and others.

For more information on the current state of Cambodian lacquer, Jono Imhoff’s article weaves the incredible story of one of Cambodia’s last remaining tree bleeders, Ta Ly, with the efforts of Eric Stocker. His article, featured on the online magazine Contended, can be read here: http://contented.cc/2014/04/saving-the-last-of-cambodias-tree-bleeders/

How you can help

 

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  • $25 can plant a lacquer tree that, upon maturation, can provide means of living for a single family in the area around the lacquer tree plantation

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  • If you have any knowledge of lacquer-tree planting, the refinement process, or plants that share symbiotic relationships with lacquer when planted side-by-side, sign up for The Exchange, our nonprofit social networking platform, and share your insight!