A thing of beauty can live forever

Nuttha Charoenpanich, (Aor to her friends and Khun Aor to her many students).

While it is true that a thing of beauty can live forever in the eye of its beholder, the art created by Nuttha Charoenpanich, (Aor to her friends and Khun Aor to her many students) is much more fragile.

Aor works with glass and is one of a growing number of Thai artists choosing to work with this mesmerising medium in modern times, although she tells me Thailand has a history of ancient glass beads which goes back around 2,000 years.  

Aor is keenly aware of the delicacy of the glass she works with.  In her little pineapple-shaped studio, one of two studios she has on her property, her most influential and powerful work today sits on a shelf, minus its crowning glory. The piece is made of delicate, transparent tendrils of glass, looking almost fluid, forming a cage around some clear glass foliage supporting a small blue glass bird.  Alas, the bird is no-more, broken at the hand of an incautious admirer. 

The glass cage and branch are a poignant reminder of both the timelessness of art but also its vulnerability.  Although Aor has created other birds, she chooses to let this piece sit and remain in its incompleteness, with a little white sign reminding people not to touch the art pieces. I sensed a profound sadness, as well as resignation, as we discussed this beautiful creation, which was exhibited in the Thailand Glass Art Festival 2018 in Siam Paragon in Bangkok, a moment Aor sees as perhaps the pinnacle of her career so far. 

Aor is interested in glass in all its forms: stained, slumped, blown and shaped into beads and sculptures of all colours, shapes and styles, and will continue to innovate with new materials and techniques for many, many years to come, entranced as she is by the “magic movement inside glass”.  Aor has a Bachelor’s Degree in jewellery design from Silpakorn University here in Thailand as well as a Master’s of Art degree from the University of Sunderland, in the UK. Her almost 2 years there gave her ample time to explore England, Scotland and even Paris via public transport, but left her infected with the travel-bug.

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Khun Aor lives in a house at the top of the pineapple fields behind her cafe, LittleBlues Crafts & Cafe, which sits on Phetkasem Road just opposite the turn into Soi 101, which heads into Khao Tao, towards the reservoir.  She lives in the house with her parents, on land purchased many years ago by her grandparents, who used their land as an escape from the pace of life in Bangkok.  Like every Thai born outside Hua Hin I have had the pleasure to meet, Aor has an early memory of horse-riding on Hua Hin Beach. She too loves the local natural environment and the friendly people and appreciates her life here as a respite from the hectic lifestyle of Bangkok.  She cannot avoid Bangkok entirely though as she uses her training, talent and skills to teach other budding young artists at three different universities, meaning she drives to and from Bangkok on a weekly basis.

Also residing in the house are Khun Aor’s eight dogs. Over her lifetime she has loved and cared for a menagerie of pets including goldfish and Koi, cats, dogs and even rabbits, which she inherited recently from a friend who went to live in the Czech Republic with her newly married husband.  Aor showed me the home screen on her phone, which always showcases her Bambam, a poodle she had from the age of 10 for 15 years, which remains unchanged no matter how many times she upgrades her phone.  It is clear that Bambam holds a pivotal place in her heart, as the mere mention of his name is enough to bring tears to her eyes (and then to mine as well). There is something unquantifiable about the purity of love a dog has for its owner, and it was clear to me that this love was fully reciprocated.

Perhaps Aor’s love for her poodle was so strong because of her shy, introverted nature.  Our chat was more brief than normal because I appreciated that Aor was not totally comfortable and somewhat reticent to talk about her achievements, many and varied though they have been.  Aor mentioned that she is closest to her mother because her mother, also a woman of artistic talent, always supported and encouraged Aor’s creative ambitions.  Aor’s mother followed a career into law because her own parents wanted her to have solid, money-making potential and discouraged the arts because it is hard to achieve the fame necessary for financial reward to follow.  Even with this in her own life, or perhaps indeed despite it, Aor has always been encouraged to follow her dreams. 

I did point out to Khun Aor that many artists of great renown were unacknowledged during part or even all of their lifetimes and that remark drew a wry, and rare, smile. About 5 years ago now, Aor and her partner opened LittleBlues Crafts & Cafe as both a money-making venture and a way to showcase their art to the public.  Aor finds succulents fascinating too, for their unusual patterns, shapes and vibrant flowers, so she has a greenhouse where she cultivates, grows and sells these too.  Her partner is skilled with terracotta and makes and paints the cutest pots, ever, to enhance the precious little plants.  I can vouch for just how hard it is not to purchase every time I visit.

The cafe is also brimming with handcrafted items to purchase, from watercolour paintings to oils, from sketches to crocheted bags and of course Aor’s glass creations including pendants, bracelets, earrings and even pipes. I wonder what the good folk of Hua Hin might smoke in them?

My husband insisted I enquire about the providence of Little Blue’s totally delicious signature cheesecakes.  It turns out the cheesecakes are made by Khun Aor’s partner, the terracotta pot-maker, after rigorous instruction from Youtube, like so many skills you can master these days. It is unfair that some people are so multi-talented.

If Khun Aor could add another talent to her already wide repertoire which includes reading the French language, it would be the ability to fly a plane. She would also like to win the lottery, not for herself but to donate the full amount to the Stray Dogs Foundation, such an animal welfare enthusiast is she.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its shut-downs have made Aor keenly aware of the fact that things can change at any minute, without warning, so she is keen to live life in the moment, while being prepared for all eventualities.  She is very involved in the local community and uses her facilities to assist others.  One example of this is firing works of clay art by students from Patravadi School in her glass kiln.

Indeed, to pass on her love of glass, Khun Aor has only recently established a second, purpose-built glass art teaching studio on her property, and is now offering workshop sessions to anyone interested.  Guess what I have already locked in as my birthday present for next month?  Khun Aor also arranged for a guest visit and demonstration recently from Alexx Cheng, the renown Thai-born Canadian glass artist and now retired former owner of Hellfire Studios in Chiang Mai. Alexx has been the sole designer and provider of glass beads to Pandora, of international jewellery fame, for well over a decade.  His visit to the glass studio at LittleBlues was an inspiration to young and old alike, as all participants left with a small gift. It was a testament to Khun Aor’s determination to pass on her fascination with glass art.

In her daily life, Khun Aor is a simple person, with simple needs.  She loves poached chicken served over egg-fried rice, a glass or two of red wine and cycling to the beach on a fine day.  She spends a lot of time at home, with her family and pets, because it is her favourite place in the world to be. To make other people happy, she is usually prepared to do what they want, and doesn’t like to waste her time, or allow others to waste it by being unpunctual.  She shows great concern for the world and people around her and is an advocate for sustainability.  She showed me a photo of one of her favourite projects at university, a stained-glass Tiffany lamp she had designed and created using only recycled glass. 

I think with Khun Aor, there was a lot of her that I did not see. Still waters run very slowly, but deep!

Post-script – I have just completed my glass bead workshop and had a wonderful, productive time.  Highly recommended, ladies and gents!