Pakitsilp Varamissara was born in Lopburi in 1954. He trained in the discipline of traditional Thai painting at Silapakorn University in Bangkok, which has served as a foundation for the artistic challenges of his impressive body of work.
Solitary stroller, oscillating between tradition and modernity, the artistic approach of Pakitsilp Varamissara subtly borrows the heritage of the Lanna School bringing it to a timeless level. He freely infringes Thai traditional painting codes, bringing them smoothly to fresh, modern and unique compositions.
After his much celebrated retrospective in 2012 at the National Gallery, organized by the Toot Yung Gallery with the support of the French Embassy, Chiang Mai based painter, Pakitsilp Varamissara invested the new Toot Yung Art Center’s residence to explore the techniques of oil painting for the first time.
Interview of Pakitsilp Varamissara by Myrtille Tibayrenc
M.T: Tell me about your childhood and how art came into your life.
P.V: I was born the 6th of June 1954 in Lopburi. My father was an officer in the Land Army. At this time the Thai government encouraged men, and especially soldiers to take more than one wife, so when I was 9 years old, I moved with my mother to Bangkok, as my father took a new wife in Lopburi. I can recall that I wanted to be an artist even before moving to Bangkok, so it must have been when I was around 6 or 7 years old. I used to draw with anything I found, dust, mud, pencils, anything! And when I had nothing I drew imaginary lines with my finger. When I did, my family punished me. They were against the idea of their son being an artist. They were afraid I would turn poor, mad or both!
M.T: Tell me about your education, when did you first start learning art?
P.V: When I was 15 years old, my parents had to come to the fact that I could not do anything else than being an artist. I entered the Chang Sing High School which prepared for university entrance. It was academic teaching; basics in painting, drawing and sculpture. I was not a good student so when I finished high school I studied one more year anatomy and figure. I was very passionate about it and I did a lot of studies after Raphael and Michelangelo. I finally entered the Silapakorn University when I was 19. I really enjoyed studying at the Silapakorn University. I studied basics in all subjects for 4 years, and then I had to choose a speciallity. I chose traditional Thai painting because it was the field in which I had the best grades. I studied this subject for 4 years before graduating at the age of 27.
As a student I got to explore the Thai traditional paintings in the temples, and made numerous field trips to study them closely, with my classmates or alone. I was especially influenced by the Ayuthaya period. I found that the lines were so fresh and powerful! I studied a lot the frescoes in the Wat Suwan and Wat Manance in Pethburi. At the time I also made some renovations in temple wall paintings.
M.T: What did you do after graduating? How did you start your life as an artist?
P.V: When I was 28 I was forced to go to the army for one year, I really hated it. After this, a classmate of mine, Chalerm Chai, persuaded me to move to Chiang Mai, where they needed a painting teacher in the Technology Lanna University. It was my first trip to the North of Thailand, and I visited all the temples and really loved it! It was quite a revelation, especially the Wat Bua Khok and of course the Wat Phumin in Nan Province. I sketched and painted a lot in my room during this period, always in a very traditional way. I could not see any opening to this traditional method. A few years later, at the age of 32, I met the sculptor Haritorn Akarapat, who had a great influence on me. He pushed me to paint a lot and we had endless conversations about art, he opened my mind and made me change direction. I started painting subjects with brighter colors, and including personal elements in the compositions. At this time I started a three year project of a wall painting for the Phaghang temple, between Chiang Mai and Pai. I painted in the traditional frescoe technique, but I chose a modern subject. I wanted to honor a project from the King which promoted life in accordance to nature, how to live a balanced life, using all natural elements around us and not destroying anything. I wanted to express my opposition towards the mass agriculture in Thailand, the unique crop and the high use of pesticides.
Another major turning point in my practice came with a workshop, to which I was invited, in the Klong 6 University, near Bangkok in 1994. I had a very short time to make a painting, so I discovered acrylic paint. I used to work only with very traditional techniques such as tempera, egg painting, natural pigments and glue, etc. Acrylic paint was really a revelation. It was for me a new way of thinking art; the brightness of the colors, the simplicity of use of the material…
This period of my life was very intense and confusing emotionally, and I needed time to be centered and in peace again.
I started being very productive only in 2007; again encouraged by my good friend Haritorn Akarapat. I once again felt a flow of freedom. Now my main focus was COLOR! I continued to include notions of traditional Thai painting in the compositions and the subjects, but it was just a tool to experience true freedom in art. I worked a lot at this time. I painted on anything I could lay my hands on! Just like when I was a boy! I even took some used canvases from my students!
M.T: In 2009 I met you and you started working with the Toot Yung Gallery. Are you happy with this adventure?
P.V: The workshop, exhibition and cultural trip we made together in 2009 truly opened my eyes on a lot of things. Our visit to museums and galleries in Paris, South of France, Barcelona, Madrid and Bilbao had a big impact on my work. I was very inspired in the South of France, where we stayed one month and set up an exhibition in the Chapel of Salinelles. The light, the people, the local culture! I was also filled with deep impressions of what I had seen in the Paris museums just before, especially Georges Rouault and Gustave Moreau’s technique.
M.T: Tell me about the way you compose your paintings. I find the compositions very original, complex and at the same time easy to grasp.
P.V: My compositions are mainly inspired by the traditional paintings we find in the Thai temples. I love the way this huge wall provides space for a wide landscape we can grasp in one look, and then as we get closer we can enjoy hundreds of details filled with humor and messages. It is like there is a double reading of the same painting. It is also as if we could understand the world with a higher point of view. I also like the simplicity and humanness of the subjects. Looking at a mural in a temple is like reading a book. A story about the everyday life of the people and as your eyes looks towards the ceiling it is the story of Angels, Gods and Buddha. There is a direction in the reading, a rhythm, like in a book.
My daughter also influenced me a lot in my paintings and compositions when she was 5 years old! The freedom and simplicity of her compositions! I practiced a lot to find again this freshness in my own work.
M.T: I noticed you made some political paintings in 2007, you made a view of Bangkok and the yellow shirts protest. When you first painted it was bright yellow, and when I came back to see you months later it was in many subtle tones of grey and pink! What did you want to express with this work?
P.V: With this painting I wanted to show my respect for humanity. I covered the colors to show that I was not on any political side but on the side of Art. I think Art can elevate the people’s mind and it is its purpose. It is beyond any political movement or party. I didn’t want to express any anger or to judge this event, I just wanted to immortalize it and show the ambiance of Bangkok in this chaos.
M.T: I have also noted that since the beginning of your career you have always placed elements of Buddhism in your works, how important is this to you?
P.V: I am a Buddhist myself and I think it is very important that my work contains elements of the Buddhist theory. It is for me a subject like any other, it is part of life, and it elevates people’s mind.
M.T: Do you ever have any doubts on the quality and truth of your art?
P.V: It is very important for me to have friends around me who truly understand and appreciate my art. In the past I had a lot of doubts because I didn’t have anybody who truly understood my work, I didn’t have any constructive criticism.
M.T: So you need people to believe in yourself and grow?
P.V: No. I was just sad at this time of my life because people around me seemed blind. I felt they couldn’t see the truth in art. There is no concept or theory in my work; I just can feel I’m on the right path when I am in the making.
M.T: Why do you think it is important to paint?
P.V: I paint for the people. I hope that when they see my work they can wake up from a sort of sleep. I hope they evolve to a higher state of mind.
M.T: What do you teach your students?
P.V: I encourage them to go their own way. I follow each of them in their own path so they can truly understand themselves.
M.T: What do you think of art institutions in Thailand; the museums, the schools?
P.V: I feel they are not on the right path. If you want to change something you have to start by changing yourself. Teachers should follow the students more closely and accompany them in their way instead of dictating false directions to take. They are the future! I am also sad to see that there are historical museums and contemporary art shows, but there is no real modern art collection in any museums. The government should collect art and engage in a real international and local collection of modern and contemporary art.
M.T: Your latest series of works look like primitive art, where did you get the inspiration from?
P.V: I wanted to get closer to a pure form. I was inspired by a book of Nepalese sculpture. It is also a way to explore our origins and understand evolution.
M.T: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
P.V: I would take the Transiberian train to Europe with my painting material and I would stop on the way to work and exhibit my paintings in many unknown cities!