Kandal sculptor turns tyres into artistic treasures

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Sculptures made by artist Mean Tithpheap from old tyres displayed at his workshop in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district. PHOTO SUPPLIED

In a green meadow in Kandal province stand an eagle, a zebra, a crocodile, and even King Kong and a huge lion. This is not a CGI Hollywood movie effect – this is the work of one of the Kingdom’s unique talents, who painstakingly crafts sculptures from up-cycled motorcycle tyres.

Mean Tithpheap is now an art school graduate, and has also been praised by the Ministry of Environment.

“I use recycled motorcycle tires to help reduce the potential breeding grounds of malaria carrying tiger mosquitoes and also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If they are burned, they emit toxic fumes, and because they are not biodegradable, they cannot be left to sit,” he said.

His journey to becoming a celebrated sculptor, however, was not an easy one.Born to an impoverished farming family in Kampong Speu province, Tithpheap enjoyed school, especially art.

Financial pressures brought his early academic career to an end, and in 2006 he dropped out of school during tenth grade and moved to Phnom Penh, where his cousin offered him a place to stay near Silep Market.

He quickly found work as a security guard, but soon discovered that the salary was barely enough to keep him fed.

One evening, he was walking through the night market, when he met a painter who was working on his easel. He recounted his love for drawing to the artist, who gave him a piece of advice that would change his life.

The unnamed artist recommended that he study under a teacher named Sovanra at the School of Fine Arts, and his long journey to becoming a well-known artist began.

After five years of study, he launched his first short-lived attempt to become a full time artist, renting a market stall and selling his paintings.

However, his sales were less than expected, so he returned to his home town, Kouk Romlech village of Kamheng commune, and planned to spend a year painting in pagodas. During his time at the pagoda, he found he was learning more and more skills from his fellow artists, first learning the art of applying gold to statues, and eventually learning to sculpt.

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His skills progressed rapidly, and led to the head monk of Preah Thom Trai Pagoda in Prey Sar commune hiring him to carve various statues on the walls of the pagoda.

“By then I knew how to sculpt and I knew how to paint, but my career as an artist felt like it had stalled. I knew that everything I was doing was laying the groundwork for something special, but at the time, I did not know what it might be,” he said.

This changed thanks to chance meeting in 2020. He was visiting Peak Sneng Resort in Siem Reap province, and struck up a conversation with the owner of the resort.

Upon learning that he was an artist, the owner asked him if he knew where he could obtain large sculptures for the grounds of his resort.

Tithpheap had been turning the idea of working in a different medium over in his mind for some time, and proposed that he could produce the sculptures the owner wanted – but they would be made from up-cycled motorcycle and bicycle tyres. The owner was intrigued by the idea, and gave him the job.

He said the sculptures were such a success that after posting pictures of them to social media, he was overwhelmed by enquiries from people across the Kingdom who wanted to know if he could produce more for display in their businesses.

Originally, he was able to obtain old tyres from repair shops and mechanics, sometimes for free, but as demand grew, he found that he must pay for them.

Many customers now approach him about custom work, he added, and he is so far yet to find a subject he hasn’t been able to recreate in his chosen medium.

He was recently tasked with making a large Garuda statue. It took three of his assistants a full month to create the sculpture, which sold for $1,800.

“$300 worth of tyres went into that particular sculpture,” he said.

His sculptures, which generally sell for between $1,000 and $2,500, are on display at many of the kingdom’s finest resorts.

He has also received recognition from the environment ministry. In November 2021, minister Say Samal presented a certificate of appreciation for his work.

“Through his environmentally friendly work, Mean Tithpheap contributes to environmental protection, natural resource management, biodiversity conservation and sustainable living,” the certificate noted.