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Thursday, July 18, 2024
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PeopleSasha Constable

Sasha Constable

‘Reflecting on one’s life as we all endure this period of isolation feels quite poignant. It’s a challenging time for everyone but artists tend to work alone and I am thankful to have a creative outlet to occupy my mind and time.
Life seems to have come full circle lately. I was born in a cottage hospital near Glastonbury and moved to Norton-sub-Hamdon when I was six where we shared a large house with my paternal grandmother. It was an idyllic childhood, my brother and I were left to play outside in our beautiful garden, build dens in my father’s overgrown asparagus bed or roam around the woods on Ham Hill.
My father was a professional artist and we knew not to disturb him when he was in his studio. He was also a very productive gardener and grew an abundance of fruit and veg the success of which he maintained was due to the extra nutrients that came from the neighbouring churchyard. Dad’s variety of produce and my mother’s cooking skills gave us a healthy start in life. Her resourcefulness also filled some of the gaps left by his low income. Whilst his imagination got lost in the layers of a hedgerow my mother introduced us to foraging the delights they have to offer. It was a very 70’s model of self-sufficiency.
My father passed on his love of nature and collecting random quirky, captivating objects. Skulls featured heavily and picking up roadkill and driving home with a dead fox or badger on the bonnet of the car was quite normal. Digging up a buried animal to reveal a newly picked clean skeleton was always a thrill. The natural world and his own experiences fuelled his vivid imagination and I, in turn, absorbed both of these as foundations for my own inspiration.
At school, my time was largely split between the art department and the sports field. In the run-up to my A levels I had a week’s work experience with a picture restorer in London which was fascinating. It gave me an invaluable insight into the complexities of different artists’ techniques. I spent a great deal of time spitting on to cotton buds using saliva to clean the surface dirt on various oil paintings by some of the modern masters.
Having been accepted on Kingston Polytechnic’s (now University) art foundation course I moved to London, aged just 17. One of the last projects during my foundation year was sculpture. Finally, I felt as though I had found my calling. At the same time I became absorbed in relief print-making, satisfying a craving to create more complex two-dimensional images in a medium that still involved something of sculpture’s physicality. It was one of my large woodcuts of 3 pig carcasses hanging at Smithfield market that was to change my life.
In New York early in the summer of 1989 there was an exhibition of 6 generations of Constables, an intimate family exhibition. John Constable is my great-great-great grandfather; each generation since JC has produced at least one artist. My woodcut was included in the exhibition and although it wasn’t for sale, an art collector made me an offer of $2000. That unexpected sale enabled me to travel in Thailand for 3 months, a period that was incredibly important as I developed a deep love for Asia and exploration that has both informed and enriched my life.
Back in the UK I began a 3-year sculpture degree at Wimbledon School of Art, a small institution with an emphasis on skills. In the first year we covered many sculptural techniques; modeling, welding, construction, carving and casting, however it was still stone that resonated most with me.
After completing my degree an old school friend and I painted our first mural together in Germany. When we finished I spent a few months traveling around the country studying various print collections, particularly the German Expressionists. On my return my friend and I painted another large-scale mural at Brympton D’Evercy, a stately home near Yeovil.
Making a living as a young artist was a struggle so in my mid-twenties I embarked on a PGCE course to teach art and design at secondary school level. Teaching is another invaluable skill that has helped shape my life. However, I decided that full-time teaching was not for me and in 1997 I decided to focus on stone again and travelled to India to study its magnificent temples, feats of sculpture and engineering.
Then in 2000 I met the director of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in Cambodia and was invited to visit for 3 weeks as an artist in residence. Those 3 weeks turned in to 17 and a half years meaning in all I’ve lived more than half of my adult life in Asia. My first experience of the temples in the Angkor Park was 2 weeks after arriving in Cambodia. The World Monuments Fund together with the Grand Hotel D’Angkor had organized a VIP function at the East Gapora of Preah Khan temple. Travelling out to Preah Khan in the back of the WMF pickup truck and then walking through the temple after dark, the corridors lit by candlelight, was utterly magical. I was smitten.
I fell deeply in love with Cambodia and its extremities, its culture, landscape and people. It was wild and tranquil, beautiful but harsh, exciting, sometimes disturbing. So many emotions, so much history to grapple with in how a country that has been constantly torn apart can be rebuilt through time. When I arrived in the town of Siem Reap in 2000 the expat community was small, a mix of nationalities working in different sectors; NGO’s, UN, hospitality, business or general wanderer. My time was divided between working in the Angkor Park, days out on the Tonle Sap lake, dirt bike trips, adventures to remote temples and nights spent in the 3 bars the town had to offer.
My work with WMF led me to the Fine Art department at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh where they were keen for me to teach. In 2001 I set up a relief print-making workshop. It was a huge success and of great significance as I realized I could use both my artistic and teaching skills and make an idea for a project happen through fundraising, coordinating and curating. The following years have been filled with a mix of them all.
One of the ideas that became a reality was The Peace Art Project Cambodia (PAPC) which I co-founded in 2003. PAPC was a project turning weapons of war into symbols of peace and was to be another important moment in my life. A key experience as it was the first large-scale art project that raised awareness about a serious global issue; with PAPC it was the proliferation of small arms in conflict and post-conflict countries. Other large-scale projects followed every few years addressing different issues. Curating and promoting artistic talent became a focus; it was an exciting time where there was a developing contemporary art scene with some beautifully passionate, talented, clever artists, in a country where ninety percent of Cambodian creatives had died under the Khmer Rouge. In this post-conflict environment education was key to the country’s development. Being a teacher in Cambodia was a pure joy, feeding young minds hungry to learn and with no discipline problems whatsoever…
Quite unexpectedly I also became the British Embassy to Cambodia’s Honorary Consul in Siem Reap. When I started in 2008 there was a huge rise in British nationals visiting Cambodia so the FCO deemed an Hon Con a necessary role. I was a frequent visitor to the hospitals, the police station and jail assisting British nationals and citizens from the numerous other countries that the UK covered with assistance abroad.
My son was born in Bangkok in 2013. Around the same time my father was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Over the following two years my son and I split our lives between Cambodia and the UK helping my mother care for my father as he rapidly succumbed to dementia’s debilitating effects. Dad died in September 2015. His passing was probably the catalyst for deciding it was time to relocate back to the UK. Now we are settled once more in the West Country having swapped the temples of Angkor for the Cerne Giant, the Jurassic coast and Dorset’s other wonders. It feels like the wheel of life has turned and I’m back where I began and although Cambodia changed my direction, ultimately it has led me back to my homeland.’

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