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Preserving Culture and Cultivating Creativity in Cambodia

My name is Tomoko Kasahara, a founder of the Small Art School (SAS) in Cambodia. Thank you very much for giving us an opportunity to introduce our educational activity.

Before coming to Cambodia, I worked for 31 years as an art teacher at Tokyo Metropolitan Senior High School in Japan. I came to Cambodia in 2007 when I was 59 years old and I established SAS in 2008. I have taught over 300 lessons with Khmer staff per year since then. I operate the art school completely free for students including materials and lessons from the beginning until now. Many people have asked me, “why did you start a free art school?” I’d like to begin explaining how this school came about.

When I was in high school, I saw Paul Gauguin's philosophically titled work, "Where We Came From, What We Are, Where We Are Going," was greatly influenced and decided my career in art. At the same time, I also vaguely thought, "After living my own life to some extent, I would like to support children born under unfavorable conditions in some Asian countries.”

At the age of 40, more than a decade after completing graduate school and becoming a high school art teacher, I decided to realize the desire that had been in my heart since high school by myself. Over the next 20 years, I began to save my funds for the school. At the same time, I gathered information on countries in which to establish the school, visited Nepal and India and finally chose Cambodia, where the Pol Pot regime had thoroughly destroyed the country.

In Cambodia, many artists and teachers lost their lives in the storm of violence that raged during the Pol Pot regime, and the scars of this tragedy have had a major impact on the current culture and education. There are few teachers who can teach art and other subjects, and children are unable to paint even if they want to. Still, they are waiting for an opportunity to nurture themselves with bright eyes and overflowing intellectual curiosity.

There is something I decided when I came to Cambodia.

  1. Not to impose our own culture on children who live in other countries with different cultural and historical backgrounds.

  2. To have classes which children can enjoy expressing themselves, without demanding hasty results, in accordance with their growth.

Children in many countries today tend to be forced to hurry their growth, but I believe that the growth of the human child is gradual and that the process of gradually increasing what one can accomplish on one's own is important. I also hope that through artistic expression, children enjoy their "childhood" while they are child, use their imagination, and expand their world.

Art expression is not a subject which you can find the answer to if you are taught and do as you are told. Our teaching to Cambodian children is based on the following:

  1. Respect the world as children see, feel, and think for themselves,

  2. Try to nurture the children's ability to nurture themselves and solve their own problems in accordance with their growth,

  3. To respect the children's sensory world of interest, enjoyment, and happiness, in other words, to value the feeling of each child's own heart,

  4. Try different things and have different experiences. Even if the results are not as good as expected, let them know that these experiences will broaden their world of expression,

  5. To show that there is more than one way of expression, more than one value, and more than one way of expressing the world.

Although Cambodia does not have art as a subject in public school’s education yet, through the art lessons with children has made me strongly realize that “human beings, no matter how young, are cultural beings who desire cultural activities and a cultural environment and existence”. I will never forget the smiles of the children, especially those living in the remote areas of Cambodia, when they first experienced an art lesson. They were so excited by this new experience, with shining eyes and bouncing hearts, that they painted with enthusiasm. The sight of the children's joy and delight as they face the canvas makes me feel the preciousness of being a human child. I hope that as these children grow up and become adults, they will be able to enjoy themselves through expressive experiences.

Through the art activities, I realized that "children can do things that adults cannot do”. There are many things that children can only do when they are children, and I hope that children in every country will be able to grow and develop in a living environment that nurtures them slowly and peacefully.

Lastly, thank you very much for your interest in our art school activity. Many people who have visited our gallery have told us that the artwork of SAS children is "full of life and inspiring". We hope that many people in other countries will have a chance to see their works. However, we recently have not had a chance to show them outside of Cambodia. We would be very grateful if you could make an opportunity to introduce Cambodian children and artists who grew up at this school.

-Tomoko Kasahara, a founder of the Small Art School (SAS) in Cambodia

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