CARVING OUT A WONDERFUL LIFE
In some ways, Chhem’s story is no different than the millions of other immigrants who migrated to the United States in search of a better life. Born in Cambodia, Chhem grew up in a country devastated by the brutal dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge, famine, poverty and war.
Yet, what makes Chhem’s story unique is that while living there, he studied art and discovered a passion for creating sculptures from clay. In his spare time, Chhem taught himself to sculpt eagles and cows to refine his skills.
In 1985, Chhem, his wife Pho, and their two small children, uprooted their family and migrated to Seattle through sponsorship from a Washington resident family member. Putting aside his love of carving, Chhem worked as a cabinetmaker from 1985 to 1992.
Chhem’s brother, who knew of his interest in carving, helped him get a job which taught him how to carve soapstone. This skill would prove to be life altering. Always a quiet, self-effacing man, Chhem’s outlet of expression once again found its voice through his carvings. It only took a few weeks before Chhem was carving intricate animals out of soapstone, returning to a lifelong love that continues to this day.
Chhem’s talents really began to surface when the Department of Economical Development in Alaska gave Ivory Jack's Trading Company and Chupak (another renowned Cambodian artist whose work is featured with Ivory Jack’s) a grant to go to Emmonak, Alaska. Their mission was to open a carving studio in the hopes of creating a new tradition of carving with some of the local Eskimo residents. The art/carving studio featured instruction in carving bone, antler and other animal materials.
In 1993, Chhem, along with his wife, joined the studio and moved to Emmonak (near the Bering Sea). Chhem lived there for a year and learned much more than how to refine his carving skills. He also learned to live in an environment where temperatures often dipped below -70F (wearing his trusty jacket that had no zipper!) and grew to appreciate eating fish as a constant staple!
During this self-imposed exile, Chhem’s carvings began to really reflect his appreciation of the spirit of the animals of the Arctic that he was carving.
Chhem and his wife eventually moved back to the state of Washington where they enjoy spending time with their four children and three grandchildren. Chhem continues to hone his natural sculpting talent and now primarily focuses on carving Arctic wildlife. He is a much sought-after artist and master sculptor who carves bears, otters and large animals by relying on his unique vision and skill. Through natural born talent, perseverance, and quiet determination, Chhem’s vision has become a reality that Ivory Jack’s is proud to be able to offer to those who appreciate beauty and art.