Teeing off for success

They’re quirky bronze sculptures, they’re artistically creative and they have a distinctly golf theme – but golfers hardly ever buy them.

"Dedicated golfers don’t like to spend the money," says Charoen Ngoenchan, the sculptor who designs the limited-edition creations with titles such as "I Am The Winner", "There Goes The Ball" and "It Has Been A Long Round".

"Golfers like our products, but our market is not the golfer. It’s relatives and friends of the golfer. A lot of collectors buy too but golfers – never. They prefer to buy a new driver or putter."

Charoen works for his own art business, called Art Fun, along with business partner Chalitpan Niyomyam, another artist, and Charoen’s younger brother, Seksan, who looks after Internet aspects of the business.

The two artists met around five years ago while they worked for an interior design company, developing concepts and creating ideas for artworks in hotels. "We worked on over 20 hotels across the Asean region," Charoen says. These included the Radisson, Imperial Queen’s Park and Le Meridien President in Bangkok, the Pan Pacific in Kota Kinabalu and the Intercontinental in Phnom Penh.

Charoen studied visual arts at Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Fine Arts and graduated around seven years ago. He then worked as an art dealer in a gallery on Silom before moving into interior design.

Chalitpan studied at Silpakorn University, and majored in graphic arts. He ran a shop at MBK selling souvenir and designer items he made himself, but found he had to create ten or so designs just to sell two or three. He, too, moved into interior design.

"But after the economy slowed, the company was affected," says Charoen. The company started letting some of its employees go. We started talking among ourselves about what we could do. I knew I wanted to be an artist again – I had stopped for seven years. So I started doing some sketching."

Fate was at work. Charoen was working in Malaysia, and had some spare time. "A friend who was a golfer started talking to me about golf. There was so much to talk about, and plenty of jokes," he says. "So I then had the idea of doing sculptures related to golf. I sketched over 500 designs in six months. After that, I started to actually make the sculptures, with another friend."

Perhaps fate had been at work even earlier: a group of Charoen’s friends had nicknamed him Tiger because he reminded them of the golf star, a long time before this plan hit the sketching board.

So far no money had been earned, but Charoen says he was having a lot of fun and new ideas kept coming to him. "I ended up actually sculpting nearly 100 designs," he says. The sculptor works in wax before casting a mould from which the bronze scuptures can be produced. "Then we decided to make a collection. We selected 28 to cast into bronze."

The small business’s first exhibition was held in October last year, at the luxury golf club Par 3 Master at Hua Hin, and they opened the doors to their new office at around the same time. "It’s easier to work with just a few people," says Charoen. "If there are many people, there are many ideas."

"Although getting the exhibition was not too difficult, selling the sculptures themselves has been a challenge due to the economic downturn," Chalitpan says.

There was, however, a lot interest from golfing magazines, TV shows and newspapers. "People called us, but the one problem is that bronze is expensive," says Charoen. "And our collections are made in limited quantities – we could sell a lot more for a lower price, but that’s not what we’re about."

They’re starting to sell their work over the web. "Our market is not really in Thailand – it’s exporting overseas," says Charoen.

At the moment the artistic entrepreneurs have distributors in Germany, Austria, Holland and Belgium. "In America, Australia and Japan we’re just talking, talking, talking," Charoen says. "Again, the problem is the price – when people compare our sculptures to other products they can import from Thailand, then we’re relatively expensive."

Charoen is currently working on his wax sculptures for their second collection, due to be ready by around March next year. "I also want to create some life-size sculptures, but I really need to find a sponsor to support me," Charoen says. "If there is no sponsor to be found, we will eventually have to sponsor ourselves! I want to make these life-size pieces in very small quantities, maybe ten pieces from one design." He hopes to target them to museums or golf courses.

For the Thai market, they are creating resin trophy collections, which they’ve been selling successfully to various golfing clubs across the country since January. And Chalitpan is concentrating on producing artworks with an Asian theme to export. These are hand-painted pieces with silkscreened outlines done on coffee-stained paper to produce an antique-like effect. "So far, these are bringing in more money than the sculptures," Chalitpan says.

And their business skills are developing along a steep learning curve. "We are not really businessmen," says Charoen. "Our background is that of artists."

"Actually we often lose money when we’re negotiating with customers," admits Chalitpan. " ‘Okay,’I say, ‘We can discount,’ when really I shouldn’t."

The two are happy with their current situation, and defend the commercialisation of their art. "We have nobody controlling us. We lead the artist’s life. We are relaxed, and we use our own ideas," Charoen says. "We try to make our art commercial – most artists cannot do business. Artists have to know the market. It’s very important beccause our future depends on it."

Charoen explains his philosophy behind making his art more accessible to people. "I think that people can start to learn about art through buying cheap art. If we were to sell only expensive pieces, very few people could afford to buy them. But if we try to make our works cheaper, then maybe in a few years the people who bought our work will start to buy more expensive pieces of art."

Charoen cites Ittiphol Tangchaloke, a professor at Silpakorn Univeristy who specialises in painting and mixed media as his favourite artist, while Chalitpan names Sutee Kunavichayanont, a masters graduate from Sydney University who creates installation works, as his.

And have they tried selling any pieces to Tiger Woods? "Not yet!" answers Charoen. "About three months ago one American dealer wanted to contact Tiger Woods for me, so I made lots of drawings for him. The dealer also ordered some of our products, but he hasn’t yet collected them, even though he’s paid for some of them."

The determined entrepreneurs are optimistic about their futures. "The world is a very big place!" says Chalitpan. "Just waiting for our products! Hey, maybe you can sell them for us in Australia…"

Art Fun are located at 30 Soi Chamchan, Ekamai Rd, Klongton Nua. Ph. 391 2508 or email manager@golfartfun.com for further information.

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