Tracing the sculptor’s path from a small village in Thailand to the Flathead, and to global renown

By Brian D’Ambrosio Photos by Lido Vizzutti
The power of merit and grace that radiates from the face of one of Sunti Pichetchaiyakul’s hyper-realistic sculptures is externally different from that of all other bodies of art. Examine the fine tranquility of the eyes or the dignified awakened spirit of the chin, nose, and mouth. Look over a work that is freed from even the chronological characteristic of a beginning and an ending.

It is no stretch to say that Sunti’s art is the source of his life. When Sunti listens to the murmuring of his artistic impulses, it puts him at ease. As a young boy his artistic mind was eager, joyful. His was an alive mind from the start – and it stayed alive, sinuous, learned.

Born in 1972, Sunti grew up on a small farm in a quiet village with his parents and five siblings in Chumpuang, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. Sunti’s mother, Tongpoonsi, worked as a seamstress, while his father, Chan, taught Thai language. As early as age 4, Sunti contributed to the family earnings, picking and selling fruits, vegetables, and sugarcane, and recycling bottles and cans.

Sunti made figures out of river clay at the same young age.

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul molds a sculpture while working in his new gallery in Whitefish.

“I was enthralled by the soft, supple earth,” Sunti said. “My imagination took hold at the first touch of clay oozing between my fingers.”

He would sneak charcoal into his bedroom and draw pictures of shapes and faces on the walls. He made sure to wipe off the pictures before Chan returned home from work. Sometime around age 7 he was securely and confidently competing in elementary school art competitions. At age 11, he was determined to build a realistic figure. One day, he packed a dummy full of fresh hay and left it strewn in the center of the road. When the ice cream man stopped his truck and started yakking animatedly at the dummy, Sunti laughed.

As a teenager, hoping to learn the precision of anatomy, he would attend autopsies and surgeries in Bangkok hospitals. He worked at a brass foundry that molded miniature Buddhist monuments. In the swelter and sizzle, he absorbed the knowledge of wax casting, brass pouring, and mold making. His assignments not only encompassed boiling and shaping wax, but also sweeping the floors. He would arrive early, leave late, and earn approximately three dollars a day. Later, he met enlightened masters and was attracted by their diligence.

“I want my sculptures to look as if they can talk,” said Sunti. “People are sometimes crying when they look at the sculpture. They can see the spirit in the eyes. That makes me proud. I feel like I know the subject on a deeper level or I myself am meeting the subject face to face.”

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul

Tatanka Yotanka / Chief Sitting Bull – a bronze sculpture by Sunti Pichetchaiyakul.

Sunti esteems bronze sculpture as a method of preserving history. Sculpting is the merit of devoting himself to a spiritual practice – to his ancestors, to his relatives, and so on. He receives and feels directly all the mind waves that go back and forth in all directions. Karmic ties are linked in this way, both vertically and horizontally, and involve thousands of people.

“In Thailand, we have more of a tribal family,” he said. “We feel a connection, a village connection, where people look after each other. People work together. People love the land.”

While Sunti settled in Bigfork in 2008 and recently relocated to Whitefish, where he lives above his new art gallery, Thailand cultivated his character. And that reputation was hard fought, as the term “artist” isn’t throwaway or lightly regarded in the East; it’s a weighty moniker. To be a master is to be designed as an artist in Thailand. Sculpting is an act of cultural exchange, an enriching investment with ancient echoes pulling the strings.

“There are spiritual beliefs and traditions that cause people to commission a sculpture in Thailand,” Sunti said. “There is a deeper reason behind the sculpture. You have to earn your way up to having the honor of sculpting.”

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul

Using intricate tools with quiet speed, Sunti Pichetchaiyakul expertly brings the eyes of a young “Navajo Boy” to life in clay.

Sunti’s sculptures appear in approximately 70 temples throughout Thailand, where he’s commonly referred to as “Amazing One” or “One.” He’s made television appearances in the United States (including CNN), Japan, Korea and China, and has thick binders of more than 5,000 media clippings.

Sunti could be called the dreamer of sculpture. When he is working on a piece, he is restless, “visioning that sculpture in my sleep,” he said. Just like the sun gives light to all life forms to help them grow, Sunti gives out life to mud and clay. The moment he commits, he receives an odd sort of luminous energy and reaps new strength.

“I want to know the sculpture,” he said. “I can talk to him. He can talk to me. When I am done, I can feel the energy. I have an accelerated heartbeat, goose bumps. The work is alive. Every piece is alive.”

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul

Crazy Horse – a bronze sculpture by Sunti Pichetchaiyakul.

Though his work is painstaking, Sunti has been abundantly productive. His Whitefish gallery fuses East and West, showcasing not only original works, but a selection of handmade gifts from the coasts of the Bay of Bengal to the islands of the Andaman Sea.

Native American chiefs are one of his most sentimental subject matters. “I see the Indian culture in Montana similar to our culture in Thailand. There is respect for elders, like respect for monks. When sculpting leaders of tribes, it’s my way of paying tribute and honoring their stories. I use clay to commemorate celebrated figures in history. I aspire to not only identically duplicate my physical likeness, but for the sculpture to emanate spirit and bring peace to those in its presence.”

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul

A sculpture at Sunti Pichetchaiyakul’s studio in Whitefish.

Indeed, just as sculpting peacefully resonates from deep within Sunti’s mind, the meditative state of his bronze statues are characterized by calm, stability, and the absence of distraction.

Sunti does not compete to go ahead of others; he knows how to wait for the right moment. He is patient, true to the present, and open to new possibilities. He has cultivated his mind and learned a great deal from it.

How much will he make for the next commission? What will people think or say about his style or his technique? He shrugs off negative waves. Such worries would only tie down his mind. What drives Sunti is the knowing, the immersion, and the collective insight of fine art, self-creativity, and universal creation.

“There are many things my children can learn from my sculpting,” he said. “They learn about knowing your elders, spending time with them, and generosity. They learn to look at a person’s heart and not judging a book by its cover. They learn that we can’t forget where we come from.”

View more at http://www.suntiworldart.com.

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul

Sunti Pichetchaiyakul sits for a portrait with his children Dyami, left, and Tony.