Artist sculpts statues honoring Thai king

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    Sunti Pichetchaiyakul works on a sculpture of the Buddha at his studio in Whitefish. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Sunti Pichetchaiyakul works on a sculpture of the Buddha at his studio in Whitefish. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

As a boy, Sunti Pichetchaiyakul found his passion for sculpting in the clay near his village’s river in Thailand. The Whitefish artist never imagined he’d be crafting statues for his nation’s kings.

Pichetchaiyakul recently returned from a visit to Thailand, where His Royal Majesty King Vajiralongkorn requested him as a guest to his palace and commissioned a sculpture of the late King Bhumipol Adulyadej for his upcoming coronation ceremony.

“Every king chooses their sculptor, and he chose Sunti as his sculptor,” Pichetchaiyakul’s wife Erica explained. “He’s going to be sculpting his father for his coronation ceremony and it will also be in the palace for years to come.”

Originally from Thailand, Pichetchaiyakul’s drive to mold clay into humanlike figures — ordinary people, superheroes, aliens — soon had him stacking up early accomplishments.

At age 4 he sold his first sculpture, and just two-and-a-half years later he won a regional art contest in Thailand.

In art school, Erica says, it wasn’t rare for Pichetchaiyakul’s professors turned to him for advice, and he recently received an honorary doctoral degree in fine art from Rajamangala University of Technology in Bangkok.

Pichetchaiyakul’s path to the king’s palace started in 2014, when he traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts — birthplace of the late King Bhumipol Adulyadej — to sculpt the king’s statue. He worked in clay in Cambridge, returned to Montana to shape the statue in wax and cast the work in bronze in a foundry in Thailand.

Of all the statues presented to the king in his 70-year reign, Pichetchaiyakul’s was the only one the king accepted.

After King Bhumipol Adulyadej passed away last October, his son, King Vajiralongkorn was going through his father’s things when he found Pichetchaiyakul’s statue.

Seeing his father’s likeness brought on tears and goosebumps, the king told Pichetchaiyakul during the August visit. No one had ever sculpted the late king with the rare, soft smile on his face like Pichetchaiyakul had done.

Pleased with the work, the king commissioned another statue of his father for his own coronation ceremony, along with a double-sized monument to go outside the palace and 77 full-body, lifesize statues of the late king to go in each of the 77 states in Thailand.

While at the palace, Pichetchaiyakul walked among the past statues of Thailand’s other eight kings. Some were by Thai artists, while others were the work of Italian sculptors.

Pichetchaiyakul said being able to represent his people and serve his king makes him proud of his country.

“There’s never really been a famous Thai sculptor,” Erica said.

Pichetchaiyakul is set to begin the coronation sculpture next month, though a date for the actual coronation has yet to be announced.

He and Erica are also working on another monumental project – creating a realistic depiction of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

The pair have been working with anthropologist, archaeologists, art historians and Buddhist scholars to come up with an idea of what the Buddha truly looked like, as Buddhist statues and art generally depict the man in a less-than lifelike manner.

The Pichetchaiyakuls are hosting an international conference for the project in Bangkok in November and plan on releasing a full-length documentary on the endeavor in a few years.

“This has never been done before, so it’s going to be absolutely incredible,” Erica said.

Pichetchaiyakul says deciding to be a sculptor was a deliberate career choice early on. Rather than compete with the multitudes of two-dimensional artists, he chose to endure the strenuous training that comes with mastery of the three-dimensional.

In addition to having more work opportunities as a sculptor, there’s also a deep respect for the medium in Thailand, Erica says.

“Sculpture is really significant in that they really, truly do believe that it captures the spirit,” she says. “It’s almost like this little portal for you to communicate with [the subjects] in the spirit world.”

Now the king’s sculptor, he’s happy with the path he decided on.

The young artists now want to be shaping clay and wax like Pichetchaiyakul, and he couldn’t feel more honored.

“Now the painter wants to be a sculptor,” he said. “I’m so proud of myself.”

For more information or to view Pichetchaiyakul’s work, visit Sunti World Art Gallery at 345 Spokane Avenue or http://www.suntiworldart.com/.

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