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The Artfinder Blog

Suthamma (Ta) Thimkaeo’s incredible journey from sweatshop worker to a globally collected artist

We had a chat with Thai artist, Suthamma (Ta) Thimkaeo, this week to discuss her journey to becoming an artist. From sweatshop worker to artist with artworks in homes all across the globe, Ta's career tells a success story worth shouting about.

Ta's paintings explore subjects from goddesses to sunsets but our personal favourites are her 'ladies'. Her subjects are completed in a range of styles which reflect her enthusiasm for art and learning more about its history. Following recent discoveries of art giants from Botticelli to Picasso, Ta's repertoire of styles includes Modernism, Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism, as well as those inspired by her home in Thailand.

Keep on reading to find out more about how Ta discovered art and how Thailand has impacted her work.

You discovered your love for art when you were quite young. Can you tell us about this experience?

I came from a very poor farming family but was very lucky to attend school until the age of 12. At 12, I worked in the rice fields, 13 I worked in a sweat factory in Bangkok making shirts, 14 I was driving a pick up truck seven days a week 14 hours a day selling vegetables which I did until my early 20s.

While working in Bangkok, I went for a walk but I didn't get far. I came across an old art studio with an old man painting and I watched him for ages. He invited me in, showed me what he was doing and showed me around his studio. I knew I wanted to be like that old man and paint. I loved that old studio, I loved the chaos and the smell of paint. It was fascinating and I was truly hooked. I didn't know how I was going to do it but I knew one day I was going to be an artist. I remember thinking it would be easier to walk on the moon than become an artist.

'Lady wearing a blue headscarf' by Suthamma (Ta) Thimkaeo, $320/£250/€294

How was your life before creating art?

I had a business, I was doing well selling pick-up trucks. Things were looking up with the rice and rubber farmers getting good prices and everybody wanted a pick-up truck. I had a good run and bought some land. After the crash in 2008, it got harder to sell pick-ups, the price of rice and rubber dropped because no one had any money. I struggled on for a while and then I sold the land, paid the bank, gave what was left to my family, cut my hair, changed my name and bought a one way bus ticket to Samui.

Leaving school at 12 meant I didn’t have a leaver’s certificate so finding work was difficult. I knew how to run an office so there were all sorts of jobs I could have done. I could have managed a hotel standing on my head but all I could get was a job cleaning toilets. I recall thinking 'what has my life become, I’m a toilet cleaner, a dogs body, this is not want I wanted'. I’d never worked as staff before, always worked for my family or myself and here I was cleaning toilets.

Have these experiences had an influence on your work?

Looking back, it was a hard and difficult life but I knew no other. The one thing I did have was my imagination. Stooping in that water with the sun beating down inserting the rice plants into mud, sitting at a sowing machine all day, and driving that old pick up truck around the villages in the early mornings gave me plenty of time to think. Sitting at a sowing machine all day gives you time to think ... and my imagination would run wild.

All my friends were happy with their lot. If they were lucky they would do a little schooling, marry, have kids and continue the cycle but I wanted something different. I didn't know what I’d do but I knew I’d do something with my life. I was always different from the rest of the people in my village and I just wanted to escape. I knew there was another world out there just didn't know where or how to get there.

Later in life I had a wonderful opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. That opportunity was art. I’m in it now and I’m not moving, it will continue to change my life for the better and I love it.

'Goddess and temptation' by Suthamma (Ta) Thimkaeo, $2,304/£1,800/€2,144

Were you exposed to art when you were growing up?

To be honest, none. Where I live now there is no art and as such, no art materials within a 10 miles. I used to go to Samui to buy my art materials, but now I’ve found a shop about 100km south of where I live. I can call the owner to order what I want and he will put my order on a mini-bus, which I can then pick-up from the bus stop.

I read once you couldn't be a proper artist unless you went to art school. I thought, 'I wish I had the opportunity to finish normal school never mind art school. I wish I had the opportunity to know great art a lot earlier, walk down the road and buy my oils and go to a book shop to pick up a book. I wish I could go to art fairs, galleries and museums'. But believe me I’m not complaining, I love Thailand.

The locals think I’m a little crazy and think I ought to get a proper job, even my family show no interest if I tell them I’ve just sent a painting to New York.

What’s the art scene like in Thailand?

My first real exhibition was on Samui with a big cocktail party and lots of people all dressed up, I even had to make a speech and thank everyone. Don’t forget I’m Thai and these were all Westerners. I’ve never done anything like it in my life before, my English is not bad but it’s far from perfect. I put on a little black dress and some red lipstick and made the most of it. I loved it, not so much the attention but the fact people I’ve never met before liked my work and wanted to talk to me about it.

I worked in a studio in Samui and learned a lot about painting in a very short time. It was a great place to work but very laid back, I often wondered how work ever got done. Lots of artists from around the island would drop in and talk about their work, drink beer and smoke. They were a great bunch and I learned a lot from them. I also learned if I want to paint and use my imagination I needed to get out of there and start on my own.

Ta at work

How did you feel once you were exposed to classical western paintings? Did this have any influence on your art going forward?

I went to the UK and Ireland a couple of times and I was like a kid in a sweet shop, I couldn't believe the art galleries and museums! I was lucky enough to visit the Tate at a time when there was a Lowry exhibition on. I spent a day in there looking at his work and wondering how could he have painted that using just five colours.

It’s difficult to explain how I felt walking around those cities to people who rightly take them for granted, it was a fantastic experience. It was then I really started to learn about art to see some of those amazing works in museums and books. I’ve never seen so many book shops in my life it seems everyone on a bus or a train reads a book.

I now have some amazing artists who influence me. I now know and love Botticelli, Freud, Picasso and of course Lowry. I’m learning everyday, I’m like a sponge, soaking it up. I find the more you work in the art world the more you learn. I have found fellow artists from around the world willing to offer advice, it’s an amazing world to be part of.

Your nude portraits of women are firm favourites. What inspired you to create this series?

I find it very difficult to explain my work in English but I’ll try. When I’m thinking about a new work I’m in a different world. My world, my imagination. I want my thoughts on a canvas and hopefully people will understand those thoughts.

For me nudes are interesting to paint. I’ve had people say my ladies are gross, grotesque, fat and ugly but I’ve also had people comment that they are profoundly beautiful and I’ve sent them all over the world. I don’t want my ladies put in a box all looking the same just to please a small part of society. They come in all shapes and sizes have lots of beautiful curves, voluptuous of indeterminate origin. They can be confident but always have an inner glow about them that radiates out and I try to capture that glow with every knife or brush stroke.

My ladies have always been with me, my earliest drawings were nudes. When I had my first gallery on Samui I used to have lots of Thais walking by furtively peeping into my shop and lots of kids sneaking a look, all because of my nudes. Thais don’t normally do nudes.

'Daydreamer' by Suthamma (Ta) Thimkaeo, $384/£300/€357

Can you describe where you create your artwork?

I live in a beautiful part of Thailand, my house and studio overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Thailand in a very rural area called Khanom, a well guarded secret. My studio is a large shaded balcony on the side of my house. I also have a beautiful garden which I sometimes use as my studio when it’s not too, hot but in the rainy season I have to move inside the house which I don’t like because it affects the light.

I have my two dogs who like to sit and watch me paint especially in the cool of the evening. I’m also surrounded by the most beautifully coloured birds singing all day, large lizards and snakes which I like to keep a distance from, but my dogs just sit and watch them going about their business.

I’m very lucky I love Thailand, I love working here. I can stop painting anytime to pick a banana from my garden or take my dogs down onto the beach. We also have the most stunning sunrises and awesome sunsets, if only I could capture those colours.

What role has Artfinder played in your career as an artist?

I recently had a message from an Artfinder customer who liked one of my works but was a little worried about buying a painting from Thailand. I asked her to have a look at my reviews on Artfinder, which she did and later bought a painting. It’s now hanging on her wall in Windsor, near where the Queen lives.

One of my best customers on Artfinder offered me some very sound advice and brilliant encouragement. He sent me loads of art books, which taught me every artist ought to have a library. I will be forever grateful to that man, for without Artfinder I would not have got that advice, encouragement or my beautiful books.

There is a wealth of information and I have been tapping into years of experience from artists and staff. I find it amazing that people will take the time to explain things. I’ve learnt so much from it. I don't live in London, Monaco or New York, yet I've sent my work there. It would have been impossible only a few years ago and it was Artfinder that gave me that chance.

What’s next for you? Any exciting plans coming up?

Well, it all started one morning on 6th August, 1974, when I was born. I know it was early because someone remembers seeing the monks out collecting their offerings (local people greet the monks and offer food, which is taken back to the temple and shared with whoever is there).

We Thais have a belief that our life is mapped out for us and what will be will be, but I hope my future is bright. I want everyone in the world to see my work, I hope to be able to make a decent life and be able to pay the bills when they come in. I want a better future for my daughters than I had.

I hope people will say Ta had a difficult first half of her life, but her second half was pure magic. Her art is seen all over the world, she didn’t live in London, Paris, Monaco, Portugal or Peru, but she sent her work there, and to many other places besides. Now she’s looking down from the moon. Not bad for a girl from the rice fields of Thailand.

'Ring of fire' by Suthamma (Ta) Thimkaeo, $383/£300/€358

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