With Lotus Leaves as Canvas, Couple Creates Color, Taps Tradition

In the lobby of Phnom Penh’s TeaHouse Hotel, a melange of colors evoke the seasons: a teal-and-indigo panel echoes summer and a gold-tinged white painting whispers winter. But forgoing canvas, the colors glimmer on lotus leaves.

The exhibition “Lotus Inspiration,” which opened last Friday, is displayed as the work of Teck Inthavong, a Vientiane native now based in Bangkok. But the leafy panels are a collaboration between the Laotian painter and his French wife, Catherine Cajean.

A painting from the 'Lotus Inspiration' exhibit by Teck Inthavong and Catherine Cajean, currently on display at TeaHouse Hotel in Phnom Penh (Alicia Guthert)
A painting from the ‘Lotus Inspiration’ exhibit by Teck Inthavong and Catherine Cajean, currently on display at TeaHouse Hotel in Phnom Penh (Alicia Guthert)

“I helped,” Ms. Cajean said shyly during an interview Tuesday at TeaHouse, explaining that she contributed a few pieces including a red panel with gold details.

Mr. Inthavong said their inspiration to use lotus leaves was rooted in a cross-national Asian tradition.

“My ideas are to bring Khmer, Thai, Lao, all Southeast Asian culture to the people,” he said via email.

The exhibition is accompanied by a workshop led by Mr. Inthavong and Ms. Cajean that runs through Friday.

The couple has a somewhat unorthodox approach to art. They met while Ms. Cajean was studying Chinese at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics and Mr. Inthavong was working for a dairy company.

“Nothing related with art,” Ms. Cajean said. Yet the couple shared a passion for art.

“I told my husband: I want to go back to painting,” she said.

After living in China for more than a decade, they quit their jobs and moved with their two children to Bangkok in 2011 to open an antique furniture store. The two then brainstormed ideas for an art gallery, until they found their unique medium.

“This is a work about color,” Ms. Cajean said.

Each lotus canvas is prepared individually: A fabric is stretched over wooden bars, then overlaid with leaves, forming a surface that—unlike white primed canvas—has the raw contours of the dried leaves.

“On a lotus leaf, you have texture,” Ms. Cajean said. “You can do an infinity of different shades…. Here it’s brown, yellow…here it’s darker, here it’s lighter.”

Rather than commanding the colors onto white fabric, the artist must work with the natural surface and stains of the delicate leaves.

“I use brush, sponge and spatula,” Ms. Cajean said, adding that she uses oil, acrylic, watercolor, inks and pastels to conjure different effects. A piece can take about five days to complete, she said.

It took the couple a year to craft the best method to treat the leaves.

“It’s not only about letting the lotus leaves dry. You need to put some treatment to get the leaves as soft as a piece of leather,” she said. “It’s a very long process… to find the right formula for preservation.”

The collection of 11 paintings is on display until January 4.

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