It starts with a single brush stroke

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Standing at one end of the wall, I peered down to the other end. 30m long by 3m high. How many brush strokes will this take? Thousands, probably. A marathon. And it begins now.

Sitting in the north of Laos, Luang Prabang is a world heritage city with a languid charm. Time seems to move slower in a haze of warm nights, fruit shakes and river breezes. The sweetness of doing nothing – “la dolce far niente” – fits nicely here.

On my first visit, Jo Smith of Ock Pop Tok contacted me, with a warm smile and a laidback vibe. “How would you like to paint the first mural in Luang Prabang?”

I had fallen in love with the city. From waterfalls to gilded wats, saffron-clad monks to French villas, it had a unique flavour that I had to taste again. To return and work on a mural would be a dream. Jo smiled. “Great, see you soon.”

Jo, with Veo Douangdala, founded Ock Pop Tok in 2000, meaning “East Meets West” in Lao, is a name as indicative of the organisation as of its origins. Elevating the profile of Lao textiles and artisans, plus actively supporting women’s empowerment, it’s one of the most important textile and artisan institutions in South East Asia.

The mural would be leading into their Living Crafts Centre. On the banks of the Mekong River, this centre blends museum, gallery, hotel, and cafe with education. With an emphasis on the artisans, the mural was to illustrate the various aspects of the experience.

In preparation, I made numerous sketches of the artisans. I was fascinated by their craft, and many of them in the centre were recognised masters. I felt very lucky to be able to just sit, watch, and study them!

Days stretched out as I painted. My daily routine was repetitive. At dawn I’d ride my bicycle to the market for breakfast and observe the monks perform the alms-giving ceremony. Afterwards, I would ride to the centre, chat with the workers, grab jugs of water and then paint.

The middle of the day, from 11am to 3pm, was too hot. This was my break time, and I’d return in the afternoon to paint until there was no light. My evening ritual was to sit in the cafe and watch the sun spill out over the Mekong River.

Thoughts flow when you paint. The conscience mind dances with the subconscious. Little things take on bigger meaning. The way that blue combines with the yellow. A flick of the wrist. The arc of your shoulder on a broad stroke.

One day, suddenly, I fell ill. Fever, sweat and exhaustion. Dengue Fever. Then muscle pain and fatigue. I couldn’t work and time was running out. It was distressing. My flight was booked and my visa was soon expiring.

Eventually, I recovered. Racing against time and low on energy but able to finish. The mural was filled with weavers, dyers, villagers, cafe dwellers, materials, plants, textile motifs, and, of course, the mighty Mekong River. The gardeners planted a row of shrubs alongside with great effect. To finally step back and proclaim it finished was amazing.

Mount Phousi, perched in the middle, is the heart of Luang Prabang, and holds special significance. Before dawn, I made my way to the top. I could think of no better way to farewell my last sunrise in this magical place.

Thousands of strokes later, it ended like it began – with a single stroke.


Robert Scholten artist:

Ock Pop Tok:

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