Down a quiet leafy soi in the Wat Umong area of Chiang Mai lies an extraordinary private art museum. Long term resident of Chiang Mai and artist Wattna Wattanapun, who has spent his life dedicated to art in its many forms, moved to Chiang Mai after spending years in the United States and Canada, building himself a studio in 2011 amongst Wat Umong’s vibrant community of artists while painting and teaching art at Chiang Mai University.
With such a large body of work collected over the past half century, Wattana constructed a modern art space where he works and showcases hundreds of pieces of art dating as far back as the 1960s when he was a student at Silpakorn University, graduating in painting in 1968 before going on to study at the prestigeous Rhode Island School of Design.
Walking into the spacious marble-floored interior of the museum, a visitor may be confused at first, thinking this was a public museum featuring numerous artists — due to the number and variety of works. In fact, all works are Wattana’s, the sheer volume a testament to a life in pursuit of answers and experiences through various mediums.
Here a classic 1968 nude with echoes of Degas, there a massive abstract from the ‘80s, part of a collection snapped up by hotel chains such as Hyatt and Hilton to feature in their lobbies. A painstaking painting featuring as well as sharing its texture with local textiles is part of a collection borne of a time Wattana spent months living with hill tribe weavers to learn their skills, his collection an homage to the great amount of detail and time spent on each piece of textile. Another collection features Wattana’s journey into exploration of sa paper, inspired by the Bo Sang umbrella making village, Lanna culture and traditions infused into each and every piece.
This December, Wattana will be collaborating with Canadian artist Billy Braithwaite, yet another exciting new direction for the artist. Braithwaite is known for his use of digital technology to create kaleidoscope art using bold, zesty and vibrant colours, a style vastly different to anything Wattana has created to date.
“Every aspect of life is touched by the digital world,” said Wattana about its foray into a whole new genre. “While Billy uses his computer to generate extraordinary modern colours rarely seen in old paintings due to pigmentation restrictions — magentas, turquoise, shocking pinks — I saw similarities with the ancient Hindu and Buddhist symbols of mandala. Mandalas were traditionally drawn, painted or created with natural dye, so it is fascinating to see Billy’s usage of digital technology to create new shapes and colours.”
Once Braithwaite’s images are printed onto canvas, they are then turned over to Wattana. We wander around his studio where a collection of around 20 paintings in various stages of completion lay, colours and shapes almost crossing the eyes with their boldness.
“I like the word oxymoron,” smiled the congenial Wattana, who seems to love nothing more than talking art. “In some of these images I add human shapes, in others I add soft conflict and interaction through bold textured brushstrokes,” he explains as he points to a kaleidoscopic backdrop seemingly crossed over with thick black paint. The contrast between the colourful two-dimensional geometric patterns of Braithwaite and Wattana’s bold use of brush stokes as well as blank forms and shapes leaves the eye confused and intrigued.
“The figures are on the most part doing yoga or meditative poses, which falls in line with the mandala concept, yet they are fluid and contain movement,” it is this fluid and natural movement which adds interesting contrast to the movements of the digital, which is created through technology, not the human hand.
While many artists find their niche and stick with it, Wattana is not one to sit on his laurels, constantly pushing himself, his boundaries and taking risks.
“Some of my artist friends shake their heads at me and some of my ideas,” smiled Wattana, “but for me, I am curious and I am not afraid. It is this East-West conflict which I have had all my life which has led me through so many phrases.”
If you are a lover of art, then head on over and spend a few hours talking art with Wattana, sitting in contemplation in his gallery, or taking a journey alongside an experienced and accomplished artist, seeing the world through his eyes over the past half century.