Carving a Niche for Thai Art
(or ‘Repro Madness’)
It has been said that every Thai artist under the age of 55 has passed through her hands. But Sumpoaw Sarekul Conner became the ‘godmother of Thai art’ through happenstance. In 1987, she married a Thai artist named Adisak Sarekul, the couple started an artist’s studio in south Pattaya, but soon afterwards Adisak and three of his fellow artists were killed in a traffic accident involving a drunk driver.
Sumpoaw, however, felt an affinity for the artists she had come to know and was determined to sally forth with the studio. The problem was she wasn’t an experienced businesswoman but as fate would have it a visiting Scot named Paul Conner, happened upon her store, bought some canvases and took them back to the UK. His London friends were very impressed and soon started placing orders with him as he made several return visits and soon he began to realize that here was an untapped market and that Sumpoaw’s reproductions could fetch top dollar in the European market and elsewhere.
Armed with this information, he arranged to see Sumpoaw and offered to help her market her products. His accumulated experience as an international marketing executive with several big software houses gave him the background in sales and marketing required and before long a partnership between east and west was born. Through their collaboration Paul and Sumpoaw eventually fell in love, and their partnership took on a new dimension.
Still living in London at this time but commuting up to five times a year to Thailand, Paul realized among other factors, that his phone bills were becoming higher than his plane fares and he knew something had to give. So in 1995, he decided to leave his high-paying job with a software firm in London and throw in his lot with Sumpoaw. In August of that year, the couple then decided to move their studio to the island of Koh Samui.
This was a successful relocation but as with many facets of Thai life they soon found out that a good business idea is often copied and before they knew it word had spread that Koh Samui was a great place to buy high quality cheap art and other artists, many of whom had been trained by Sumpoaw, started to roll up on the island and set up art businesses for themselves.
Competition being fierce the two art lovers soon decided that it was time to look for a better location. Coincidentally, this came at about the same time one of their first really big customers, a Belgian art dealer, summoned them to a meeting in Phuket. Patong Beach seemed a perfect location to open another branch of the Artist’s Studio, so within a year of moving to Samui, they were off again.
Today, several reincarnations on, the combination of Sumpoaw’s ability to handle the temperament of Thai artists and Paul’s savvy marketing ability has them playing host to probably the world’s largest stock of original and reproduction art on canvas.
The people working at the Artist’s Studio are not paint by number specialists. They are highly qualified artists in their own right and command high salaries and hopefully Conner says, lead a good life. Paul bristles at any hint of a sweatshop, pointing out that one of their artists, Pan, can fetch up to Bt150,000 a month for his work. He’s a Renoir and Buddhist image specialist and can knock off a good reproduction, sometimes in less than 24 hours. Rookie artists start out at Bt20,000 (plus free room & board) and can soon start making much more money. Paul jokes that they have become used to a middle class western lifestyle. Under Paul and Sumpoaw’s direction, they work in rows in eight hour shifts using only English oil paints and Italian canvases, the only artistic medium that the gallery uses.
The couple have occasionally caught some flak for their work though. Some European reproduction studios, fearing the loss of their niche market, have, in the past been furious that the gallery sells such high quality reproductions at such reasonable prices.
Their broad based client list which includes other galleries around the world, shows quite clearly though that their work is much appreciated.
And even though the gallery is surrounded by hawkers selling knockoffs of various brand names from Gucci to Ray Ban, Cartier and Rolex, Paul takes umbrage to the term ‘fake’ when classifying the studio’s work. “Call them renditions or reproductions, but we never pretend to sell a real Van Gogh or Gauguin, everyone knows what they are getting, we never misrepresent ourselves, ” he says.
The couple has also dabbled in furniture reproduction, reproducing classic pieces from such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Renee MacIntosh, and if they like you will still take special orders for these works which they see as a labour of love rather than a business commitment.
The majority of their clients are walk-ins from Beach Road in Patong. Many just pop in to see the artists at work, and when the realize how affordable the paintings are (they usually run from Bt4,000-Bt40,000) they end up having a portrait or painting commissioned for themselves. It’s interesting to note what people request, a US Navy captain asked for a portrait of his ship, and by nationality Swedes tend to ask for reproductions of their homes and boats; Italians, their cars and kids; while Finns have a hankering to see renditions of their float planes.
The Artist Studio Gallery has about 3,000 paintings in stock including a wide selection of original Thai art. The bottom line is that it is a place where, under the supervision of European management, professional Thai artists work in European gallery standards. Sumpoaw and Paul want to raise the bar when it comes to Thai artists, they want them to gain more international recognition and to take time and pride in their work. A testament to their devotion is that almost every artist starting a studio in Thailand, particularly in the southern part of the country, has passed through their hands.
But what makes these Thai artists so good at their work? Both Paul and Sumpoaw believe it starts with Thai script writing. Because of the way the language is written, Thais have excellent handwriting abilities and it is the skills they learn in their early penmanship that enables some of them to go on to be great reproduction artists.
Paul himself has been dubbed ‘Mr. Big of the art world copyists’, and whether he wants to acknowledge or not he’s surrounded himself with copies of the greats - Turner, Dali, Picasso, Lichenstein, Botticelli, Botero, Chagall, Braque, Monet, Hopper, Kandinsky, Warhol (canvas not silkscreen), Lichtenstein, and de Lempicka’s – a veritable cornucopia of art through the ages. Plus these days, a noticeable number of original Thai art works from their own staff.
The gallery has been featured in the International Herald Tribune, the Daily Telegraph, Die Welt and the New York Herald. Clients have included Donald Trump, snooker star Ken Doherty, German soccer coach Rudy Voller, and the Pantheon Gallery in Belgium has previously commissioned a number of original pieces which were very well received in Belgian art circles.
A visit to the gallery is an all encompassing experience from the canvas to the oils to the finished products. You can revel in the reproduction of some of the world’s great art works and see some talented young artists at work.
68 Patong Beach Road (Laimai Hotel)
Tel: 076-292-631, 01-535-2500