The story of King Taksin moving his troops to Chanthaburi reminded me of the life of the greatest artists in Thailand, Pratuang Emjaroen. According to Thai history, King Taksin let his troops enjoy the last meal outside the city of Chanthaburi where he decided to seize. He ordered everyone to break the earthen cooking pots and utensils before fighting. This meant they had to win the battle; otherwise, death will be the answer. So does Pratuang who totally put himself into the world of art. He applied a similar strategy to King Taksin. He did not care about his living nor anything which almost caused him to death.
Pratuang Emjaroen was born on the 9th of October 1935 in Ban Rim Klong Bang Sai Gai, Thonburi Province where King Taksin used to reside. Currently, Thonburi Province has been merged and become one of the districts in Bangkok. He was the second son of the three siblings of Mr. Chit and Ms. BoonChuay. As his family was not well off, he had to attend the nearby primary school called Thessaban Wat Sutthawat School. His dad died after he finished grade 4, so he had to stop learning to earn some income for a living. Instead of playing with friends, he had to do laborious works: gardener, sweet seller, labor, steel forger, waiter, and a lot more.
He and his brother got irritated that his mother got remarried, both decided to run away from their home. As his big brother, Mr. Chamnarn, had graduated from Pohchang Academy of Art, he had a solid background in artistic knowledge. He took Pratuang to earn a living by painting the billboard and the small spirit house, washing cars, or any kind of job. They earned so little that they could only buy little food and drinks for a living. If no one hired them, they had to drink water from the canal for living. Since they were homeless, they had to sleep with the other destitute people, four-leg creatures, or in the park where the mosquitoes were waiting to suck their blood. They lived in the penniless state for half of a year and could not bear the dismal condition, so they returned home.
After reuniting their family, his big brother had got a job at the billboard company called ‘Es-Chan Advertisement’. He took Pratuang to work in the company, too. Pratuang worked as a janitor and a painter assistant with a salary of THB 80 per month. He was so industrious and intelligent that he was promoted to be a painter with an earning of THB 1,000 per month within a short time. The company’s owner called ‘Shing Sae’ was Pratuang’s first art teacher. Shing Sae’s hobby was painting and Pratuang was always beside him to be of his service. Shing Sae’s brushstroke was swift and thick like an impressionistic style. His painting expressed different feelings from the billboard advertisement that Pratuang used to make. Therefore, his painting was a new realm of imagination for Pratuang who never learned about art before.
On holidays, Pratuang always came to help his younger brother, Prasert, to paint the movie poster. The work was so tremendous that his young brother could not cope with it. When the new movie was released, the artists had to paint the new pictures from the movie. There were several new movies launching in the cinemas at that time and the new cinemas entered the market like the mushrooms in the forest. Therefore, his working on the holidays was not enough to handle the great demand for the new movie poster painting. He decided to quit his job at ‘Es-Chan Advertisement’ and turned himself to work for the movie business full time. His amazing painting skills were renowned in the market. He could make a lot of money with an income well over ten thousand THB per month. This could be regarded as a very high income 60 years ago as at that time the price of gold was THB 400 per 15.2 grams.
An artist with a high income became a hot guy. Of course, Pratuang was not beyond this saying. He married two wives within a consecutive time. They were ‘Khamyod’ and ‘Nittaya’ who gave birth to his children. They all lived in peace with Pratuang who was the breadwinner of the family.
Pratuang spent his free time studying art by himself. He met several people, visited art exhibitions, reading some foreign books, going to concerts and plays, and watching movies. Mostly, he did not pay for the cinema tickets as he was the poster painter. Watching the movie was his favorite activity. It was not because of a free ticket, but it was because the movie was the result of artistic interdisciplinary branches which were literature, painting, music, and performing art. If we pay good attention to the movie, it will broaden our sense of art. One day, he watched a movie called ‘Lust of Life’ played by Kirk Douglas who depicted the life of Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch Artist whose reputation was widespread across the world after his death. Pratuang liked this movie very much. It could be said that he got crazy about it. He watched it several times until he could perform like Kirk Douglas as he could memorize every single line of speaking.
The life of Van Gogh has triggered some questions about his real goal in his life. He thought that his current job would give him a lot of luxurious living but not for his ultimate soul. Working as a poster painter did not elevate the mental life nor contribute value to human beings. It’s just a job. A normal job. He felt like he’s born for nothing and would die with nothing. After crystallizing his ideas, he told his wives about his decision of quitting his high salary job and starting to be an artist. Everyone got startled about whether he took the wrong medicine. However, they gave him kind support.
In 1962, Pratuang was 27 years old. His abrupt change would be a massive bet for him in his life. Everyone in his family lived comfortably with his handsome salary from the poster painting job. It was the turning point for his family, too, because the contemporary art circle in Thailand just started, and there was no art center to be the artist’s showcase. The people at that time viewed art as something new and non-related to them. Artists could not make money from their artworks and there were no prospect customers to approach, unlike the artists today.
During his first period of being an artist, he had some obstacles in his life which had been piled up until he could not manage them. He set up a small coffee shop beside his home called ‘Art and Joy’ to earn some income for the household expenses but it was not successful. Although there was no ‘Starbucks Coffee House’ at that time, a lot of coffee cafes nearby were ready to beat his shop out of their ways. Furthermore, his boy was diagnosed with cancer and died young. His mother got mental sickness, and she stabbed a knife into her throat. Of course, she was hospitalized thereafter. By facing a lot of problems, Pratuang’s artworks looked dim and dark. Each brushstroke looked like the bloodshed and tears dripping from the artist. He had delved himself in sadness for several years and nobody would want to purchase his works.
When his family was short of money, vegetables with chili-paste became their main dish which caused them malnutrition. Their house was dilapidated. The doors and the roofs were broken and there was no electricity as they could not afford the bill. They had to sneak out of the house as there were debtors waiting to collect the payment. Not long after, his house in Bang Sai Gai Canal Area was confiscated, so they had to move to the Bangkhae area.
Pratuang let himself go unlike when he was working a full-time job at the company. He had long hair and a long beard in an untidy way with old worn out black clothes. Everyone insulted him for his failure to be a professional artist as he did not graduate from an art school nor possess any solid background in art. Therefore, he had to work harder than anyone else. He did not have any support from any business circles or friends.
Luckily, he did not get insane or commit suicide. He continued to produce his artworks and he did not fear living in poverty. All his life, he had been through millions of deprivations that fortified his mind. Even though his life was poverty-stricken, he had sufficient support from his family and his artist friends: Tang Chang, Kamol Tassananchalee, Somkiat Panasirisilp, Somchai Hattakitkosol, and Suchart Vajanadilok.
In the world of darkness, there would be a glittering light of success from his work. He won a silver medal with an abstract artwork named ‘ฺBlood Gold and Concrete’ in The National Art Contest 17th in 1967 with THB 5,000 for the prize which helped him to pay off his debt. He also sent his work to the contest in the following year. Of course, he won again and again. He became so famous that there were many people coming to learn with him. Until one day, there was a group of teachers visiting his place and Pratuang met a young teacher named ‘Boonying’. Both of them had tied their knot and stayed together since then. Hence, Pratuang’s family became extended.
Pratuang had a good reputation for his artworks whose sales gradually increased. The dim and dark works were adjusted to be brighter. He got inspired by the shiny sun. He woke up so early to see the first light from the sun and observed the shifting tones of the light during the day until the sunset. The sun almost blinded his eyes, but he could feature abstract pictures about the universe, constellations, and various forms with details and impressive variegated shades.
After that, there was a protest from the university students on 14th October 1973 causing innumerable death tolls. Pratuang created his work reflecting the political issues and social unrest through illustrating national flags, skulls, blood drips, weapons, and bullets. His works on this occasion reminded people about social turmoil. This could be a lesson about the past that shouldn’t have happened again in the future. That collection became legendary and has been retold several times to retrieve social accountability.
When peace had been brought into the country again, Pratuang searched for inspiration from nature. He observed everything in the forest in detail such as rocks, sand, dirt, dew drops, leaves, grass, and bodies of water. He let the tropical lushness soak him and his feelings until he would be able to create his work. Though most of his works are featured in an abstract form, it is not difficult to interpret or get the real message from the artist. Their composition, details, and color are breathtaking.
Meanwhile, Pratuang also wrote some poems which illustrated his thoughts. He compared himself to a tiny flower plant by the path exerting itself to an alluring full bloom before it was visibly withered. He did not get worried about whether there would be anyone fascinating his paintings or not. He just exhibited his capability as much as possible when he could do it, so he would feel no regret doing it.
It seems that the tiny bloom has grown to be a huge tree towering in the forest. He has been widely accepted in the Thai art circle even those who used to look down on him admitted his success. Pratuang was honored to be a national artist in the branch of visual art in 2005.
Even in his eighties, he still continues to produce his artworks tirelessly. He has relocated from Bangkok Province to Kanchanaburi Province and established an art center called ‘Emjaroen Art Center’ by Mae Klong River which is open to the public.
After learning about the adventurous life of Pratuang Emjaroen, I would say that it would be harmful if we lived our lives like him. This was his individual capability to survive and it is difficult to follow unless you are sure enough. I’m afraid that my readers would follow his path and quit their job to pursue the sweet dreams like what Pratuang did.