BATTAMBANG Province - At Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts organization in Battambang city, Ot Veasna has been learning painting for about five years now.
The 31-year-old artist, who has been deaf and dumb since birth, told VOA Khmer in a recent interview that the skills have helped him express his feelings through abstract paintings. Using sign language and an interpreter, he explained the meaning of the painting skills he is honing.
“He wants to say that in this painting he would like to show the interconnection and interdependence of human beings and animals,” the interpreter, an artist friend, said. “He said that humans must love animals, whether land or water animals, and vise versa.”
Ot Veasna was a troubled youth before he joined this painting class. So were many other young people and children at this organization, whose name means Brightness of the Arts.
The non-profit has provided free education and arts training to more than 1,000 children and youth.
Suon Bun Rith, the director of the organization, said the majority of these children and youth were vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, street gang violence and drug use because of their families’ poverty. His organization has been trying to change that.
“We use arts to develop these vulnerable children and youth to rebuild their lives, their hopes and their self-esteem,” he said. “And more importantly, when they have these skills, they can earn income to support themselves and their families.”
In addition to painting, students here can choose free training in other skills, including animation, music, dance, circus performance and acrobatics.
Yam Sopheak is a long-time circus student. The 17-year-old says the skills enable him to earn about $100 per month from his twice-weekly performances, which he uses to help support his family.
“Apart from the income, I am also proud of myself because I can do this,” he said. “I never imagined I would be able to.”
The organization holds a live circus show every Monday and Thursday night and uses the earnings to support the artists and buy food for the children.
Suon Bun Rith said these artistic skills have so far given some students the opportunity to perform outside of Cambodia.
“They’ve gone to Europe, Asia and other countries,” he said. “Because of arts, they know how far the horizon is.”
Khuon Det, one of the founders of the organization, said he is continuing to search for venues in Europe and Asia. The group is planning to set up a permanent big tent in Siem Reap, he said, “so that students graduating here can perform regularly there.”
Performer Chheoum Vanny has been to Vietnam and Laos to compete in acrobatics competitions. The 19-year-old, the son of a food vendor and construction worker, said he never thought he would fly in an airplane, a dream of his.
“If I had not been trained in acrobatic skills,” he said, “I don’t think I would have been fortunate enough to visit even Phnom Penh.”