Like her mentor, the father of Thai modern art Professor Silpa Bhirasri, Lawan Upa-in is as much a teacher through and through as she is an artist. Struggling with a way to have a nuanced conversation with a stranger she's just met, she finally gave in to her "habit", asking if she could just address herself as khru (teacher).
"Calling myself dichan feels really awkward," Lawan said, referring to the formal first-person pronoun she had been using with difficulty early on in our conversation.
"I've been calling myself khru all my life."
"All my life" might sound like hyperbole, but in Lawan's case, it's more or less a fact. The painter, renowned for her mastery of portraiture, was the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree from Silpakorn University's Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts, and was offered a teaching post even before she graduated. It was only last year, at the age of 76, that she practically retired from teaching due to ill health.
Her studio - located right at the front gate of her house - was quite a mess during our encounter. Nearly 200 paintings, each wrapped in brown paper and identified by a photograph of it, were all over the place, ready to be dispatched to Silpakorn University's Art Centre, where they'll be on show for Lawan's first solo exhibition in almost 50 years.
"It's labour jobs from tomorrow on," joked Isr Upa-in, Lawan's fashion stylist son, while arranging photographs of a number of paintings to be exhibited on the floor. A small box was also handed to this interviewer. Inside, there were dozens of photographs, old sepia and monochrome, that showed a young and beautiful woman.
She's armed, in several images, with a paintbrush, and wearing a student uniform in a very 1950s, a la Mad Men way: a tiny white shirt that's not as nipple-squeezing as the shamed uniform of the post-millennium era, and a full skirt, with her enviable 20.5-inch waist cinched with a belt.
PHOTO: PUNSIRI SIRIWETCHAPUN
If it were not for the paintbrush and the canvas, you could simply mistake it for a photograph of a young lady dancing with a gentleman at a ball. With her royal lineage (her family are descended from King Rama III), enrolling at the prestigious art school at a time when there was hardly a female presence in the world of art made her quite a media darling.
"She was quite a star back then, she was in all the famous magazines - today's equivalents would be Praew, Priaw and Lips - and there's even a picture of her in the Bangkok Post!" joked Isr, looking up to check his mother's reaction. Lawan was smiling gently, although all through our conversation, she'd rather recall her young image with words like "nuts", "weirdo" or "eccentric" - those stereotypical terms people would use to describe art students, then or now.
But Lawan was called, or more precisely condemned, with something even worse. Despite being a talented portrait artist who could boast about royal commissions from Their Majesties the King and Queen, Lawan's life was plunged into a mess during the most tempestuous and bloody eras in Thai politics.
She was first accused of being a right-wing tyrant during the student uprising of October 1973 for taking a painting commission from the then military prime minister, Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn. The paintings in question, which she had spent over 50,000 baht on and a year to complete, were destroyed in her studio at the university by radical students.
That was nothing compared to what she experienced during the massacre of students in October 1976. Lawan was spending time at home caring for her daughter who had been injured in an accident, when the Tank Corps Radio named her as the person behind the make-up work for students in the mock-hanging performance that triggered the lese majeste accusation, and the subsequent bloody crackdown.
Although she managed to resume her work normally after her father promptly held a press conference denying her involvement in the incident, life was never the same - people stared at her when they saw her at the university, some even calling Lawan a communist right in her face.
"There's no way I could describe my feelings back then, so I painted this picture, Why?," she said, gesturing to one of her best known paintings. Unlike the memorable portraits she created, Why? depicts a rose, stripped of all its thorns, with blood dripping off like latex.
"I don't know why I was in such trouble. I was just a painter, so why was my life drawn into such national issues? It was like I had so much inside me I couldn't express, so I painted this picture. I felt relieved after it was completed."
Despite her insistence on being just an artist, Lawan was never politically inactive, and this is evidenced in her collection of works. Lawan portrayed a number of the country's political leaders and thinkers - those whose actions have driven the course of Thai politics and academia - Pridi and Thanpuying Poonsuk Banomyong, Puey Ungphakorn, Sulak Sivalaksa and Chiranan Pitpreecha and Thongbai Thongpao. There are two notable paintings of Thanpuying Poonsuk - one memorable head and shoulder portrait which the late Thanpuying requested to be used at her funeral, and another full shot she painted from a familiar picture when Thanpuying was photographed on her way to a court hearing, escorted by a number of soldiers and armed only with a little box and a shoulder bag.
"I admired her fearlessness in this picture," said Lawan. "Ajarn Pridi was in exile and Thanpuying was fighting in court for crimes she had not committed. She's just a woman and look here, she's surrounded by police officers and she kept her chin up. She was such as character."
The exhibition "Lawan Upa-in: Life And Work", which is on show at Silpakorn University's Art Centre until Jan 25, is a testament of not just the artist's mastery of oil-on-canvas portraiture, but also her interests and what she has seen during the past 52 years. From the landscapes during her years as an art student to some less immaculate portraits of family and those she admired, painted after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, the collection unfolds the life of a great artist who lives by art, even when her condition can't fully support it.
"I will continue to paint and there are still some people whose portraits I have never done but want to. One of those is poet Naowarat Pongpaiboon," said Lawan, when asked what else she wanted to do after almost 60 years of teaching and the arduous job of staging a large-scale exhibition.
"Then I would just paint. I'm happy when I paint, so happy I forget to eat and can't hear any sounds. And when the painting turns out great, it's cathartic."
About the author
- Writer: Samila Wenin
Position: Muse Editor