From sketching in the soil to painting on giant canvases, self-taught artist Din Borin is now sharing his talents after opening his own gallery. Editor Marissa Carruthers finds out more about the rising artist. Photography by Charles Fox.

From sketching in the soil to painting on giant canvases, self-taught artist Din Borin is now sharing his talents after opening his own galleryTeang Borin, commonly known as Din, pauses to lift his eyes from the sketchpad he is hunched over. He looks wistfully across the room to a plain white wall adorned with an array of colourful paintings. “I remember as a child drawing in the ground with sticks,” he says, recalling his seemingly innate love of art.

From recreating the surroundings of his Kampot home as a child to doodling on paper, the now 34-year-old knew he was destined to be creative from a young age.

“I spent hours drawing in the soil,” he says. “As I grew up, I became interested in anything to do with art, from painting and fashion to interior design.”

Following his creative streak, and wanting to create the comfortable, spacious homes he yearned for as a youngster, Borin moved to Phnom Penh in 2000 to study architecture at Norton University. “As I was growing up, I wanted to be an architect,” he says. “I wanted to be able to build nice houses for people to live in; somewhere they could feel comfortable and fresh.”

It was during his five years of study that Borin became captivated by the aethereal apsara dancers that enchanted audiences with their graceful gestures and movements. “This became my inspiration, and still is today,” he says, pulling a grainy copy of a photograph of three classical dancers dating back to around the 1940s. “I love the dancing and movements, and the make up looks so artistic with the white painted faces. The costume design is perfect too. I like the modern apsara dancers, but I much prefer the traditional.”

With his artistic streak rekindled, Borin started sketching in his spare time, honing his artistic skills and teaching himself new techniques using online tutorials in between his studies. And in his spare time, he would browse the galleries and studios that line Street 178, adjacent to the National Museum and Royal University of Fine Arts.

The realism genre and identikit replicas of Angkor Wat and the Cambodian countryside did not fit his abstract style. “I’m not going to do what everyone else does,” he says. “I have to do something different.”

Determined to hone a signature style, Borin started playing with colours and textures. He used bold brushstrokes to play with the hand gestures integral to the traditional dance form and the sinewy shapes of the limbs to make the figures more abstract, all in bold colours using acrylic on canvas. “I didn’t just want to copy a photo of the dancers, I wanted to make them my own,” he says.

After graduating in 2005, Borin went on to work for an architecture firm, specialising in creating private properties. However, he still harboured his childhood dream to one day run his own gallery. “At the same time, I liked designing houses too,” he says. “I was torn.”

Last year, he took the plunge and followed his heart, giving up his fulltime job to enjoy the best of both worlds – working as a freelance architect while running his own gallery and having more time to focus on developing his art. “I couldn’t wait any longer. It felt right and I knew if I didn’t do it then, I’d regret it.”

As a frequent visitor to Feel Good Café on Street 136, it was during a toilet break that Borin, who sites South African painter Jimmy Law as his inspiration, spotted an empty space upstairs. “It was perfect for my gallery,” he says, adding the owner was more than happy to hire it out. In September, Din Art Gallery opened its doors as a simple intimate space to showcase the artist’s range of works.

“It has been great so far,” says Borin, who joins a handful of Khmer artists pushing the contemporary movement in the country. “The Cambodian market prefers the traditional paintings of Angkor Wat or a lotus, but that is changing. The younger generation has access to the internet, and travel and are influenced by what is happening there. They come back with more experience and that is helping contemporary and abstract art grow here.

Returning to his pad, concentration etched on his face, Borin puts the finishing touches to a pencil sketch of a dancer with her arms stretched to the sky. “I am truly lucky,” he says with a smile. “I am living my dream.”

Din Art Gallery is open daily from 9am to 6pm, located aboveFeel Good Café, 79 Street 136, Phnom Penh.