Outside Sunti Pichetchaiyakul's art studio, a monk wrapped in an orange robe sits meditating on a grassy knoll. He looks ancient and content, and I'm careful not to bother him as I step out of my car.
Pichetchaiyakul and his wife, Erica, emerge from the small cabin studio to greet me. They pay no mind to the monk, talking to me instead about the studio situated in what's known as the Saddlehorn eco-development just outside of Bigfork. Eventually, though, they beckon me over to the monk and, grinning, Pichetchaiyakul drags the elderly man into the sunlight.
He's not real.
Instead, it's the likeness of Luang Boo Luan, an 87-year-old Thai monk. Pichetchaiyakul made the statue with fiberglass resin, using a process that includes clay, wax and plaster. But even up close it's hard to tell. The monk's browned skin shows liver spots and light blue veins. His collarbone juts out just right, and delicate white eyelashes curl from his dark, downturned eyes. Even knowing that Pichetchaiyakul creates sculptures didn't prepare me for such realistic work.
In his home country of Thailand, Pichetchaiyakul sculpted Buddhas, Thai angels and other Hindu figures on commission. His sculptures appear in at least 50 temples throughout the country, and he's had governments and private groups in Laos, Taiwan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Japan, and the United States request his work. He's made 37 television appearances in Thailand, Japan, Korea and China, and has appeared in more than 8,000 magazines and newspapers across the world. His wife says that across the Siamese Kingdom, he's known as "Amazing One" or "One."
But even at an early age Pichetchaiyakul always romanticized the Western culture of American Indians, cowboys and pioneers. Now, at 36 years old, the Thai artist has made his home in Bigfork where, among other things, he makes bronze sculptures of American Indian chiefs.
"I wanted to sculpt Indians since I was little," he says through Erica, who works as his interpreter. "I always wanted to come here. And now, I'm here."
Pichetchaiyakul grew up on a small farm in Chumpuang, Nakhon Ratchasima, a poor village in northeastern Thailand. His mom was a seamstress and his dad was a teacher who dabbled in the arts. They were both supportive of their son's artistic endeavors.
Pichetchaiyakul says he sculpted toys out of river clay while other kids his age were in school. But after school, he says, kids would come down to the river to try to buy the toys. Eventually his father made him go to school, too, even though he felt out of place with his long hair and artistic interests. At age 7, he says, he began winning art competitions in the region.
When it was finally time to go to college, Pichetchaiyakul applied to an art school in Bangkok but failed the admissions test. "He didn't want to go home until he actually got a degree," explains Erica, "so he stayed in Bangkok for a year with a friend who was working photographing autopsies and surgeries. Sunti attended all of the surgeries so he could see what was under the skin and that helped with his sculpting."
Erica met Pichetchaiyakul while she was teaching and studying in Thailand. She often went with him as he transported his monk sculptures to various temples for ceremonies. "They believe that the spirit can come back and live within the sculpture once they die," says Erica. "It's kind of the highest 'thank you' you can present to someone is a sculpture of themselves."
Transporting the resin monks proved to be a comical adventure for the couple. Often Pichetchaiyakul would be delivering the sculpture at the last minute and get pulled over speeding. But once the Thai cops saw the monk in the backseat, they'd let the couple go, sometimes ushering traffic to the side or calling other cops to let them pass at full speed. Sometimes the couple would stop to eat and people would nervously peek at the monk in the backseat. One time they watched from a distance as a waitress approached the car with a tray of water, slipped off her shoes and asked the monk if he would like to drink. She asked a second time, and then turned red at the realization that he wasn't real.
In fact, one of the couple's first introductions to Bigfork was displaying a monk outside of the Electric Avenue folk art and gift shop.
"People were going out of their way not to go near him," says Erica, laughing. "Sunti thought that maybe they didn't like that he was a Buddhist or they thought the art was too weird." Finally, they put a sign over him saying he wasn't real. "After that everyone knew Sunti as the artist who made the monk. People are big fans of him around here. They joke with him and say, 'If I see that monk walking down the street you're in big trouble!'"
Pichetchaiyakul likes to show off his monk, but his recent focus has turned to American Indian art.
"Native Americans are really cool in Thailand," says Erica, "but nobody knows anything about them. As Sunti was learning about them he realized that many of them respect the same kind of things as the Buddhist culture in Thailand."
Currently he has a bronze sculpture of Tatanka Yotanka and one of Chief Sitting Bull. His Chief Joseph sculpture will be done in mid-July in time for his Aug. 9 show at the Ravenwood Benefit Auction in Bigfork and the River City Roots Festival in Missoula Aug. 29 and 30.
The couple plans to stay in Bigfork as long as they can, and Pichetchaiyakul says he'd like to continue sculpting images of the West and learning about the history.
"He says that it might be silly to say that in a past life he lived in the West or that he's now coming home," Erica says. "But he does feel like he was meant to be here."
Sunti Pichetchaiyakul shows his sculptures at the Whitefish Arts Festival Friday, July 3, through Sunday, July 5. Call 862-5875 for more information or visit Pichetchaiyakul's web site at suntiworldart.com.