Expat Q&A: Artist influenced by her life in Cambodia

In this series we talk to Cambodia expats about what they know now about Cambodia that they didn’t know before they moved, and about their life in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Three years ago American expat artist Karen Hartmann and her husband moved to Cambodia, after doing missionary work in the Cambodian community in Connecticut. Karen lives in Battambang where local life inspires her artwork, which is currently on display at The Kitchen and Lotus Gallery in Battambang.

Karen Hartmann Cambodia

After moving to Cambodia, Karen Hartmann’s work was increasingly influenced by Khmer culture and people.

MTC: What do you wish you had known before you moved to Cambodia?

KH: “We made five previous visits before moving to Battambang. Our preparation even included making the effort of learning the language to allow us to function well. So there really weren’t any unexpected or even unpleasant encounters, but we continue to enjoy discovering new facets of Cambodia, its people, and its lifestyle on a daily basis.

We were delighted to find how friendly Cambodians are; they are very warm and hospitable. One thing we weren’t sure about was how the local Cambodians view us as foreigners living here. We did have a little bit of uncertainty as to how welcome we would be settling in Battambang. After all, we clearly stand out as foreigners. But right from the beginning we were greeted and treated warmly, with respect, often gratitude and have had the impression ever since that our presence in Battambang is truly appreciated. Any concerns we might have had about perhaps being aliens, were completely unfounded and that has contributed to our feeling very comfortable in our new surroundings.

We came prepared to deal with lots and lots of challenges regarding maintaining a somewhat reasonable lifestyle, but some of my anxieties of having to drastically downscale were unfounded. With a bit of ingenuity, patience, and asking around, with the help of other expats I was able to source many more things than I first thought possible. For example, I was prepared to give up certain comforts of living, certain foods, etc. I realized I didn’t have to give up nearly as much as I anticipated. If I can’t source things locally here in Battambang, usually on a trip to Phnom Penh or Bangkok we find what we need. In short, even though life in Cambodia is much simpler than the United States, I never felt unduly limited. In fact, we value certain aspects of a much simpler life as compared to a Western lifestyle.”

Karen Hartmann artist

Karen’s work on display at Lotus Bar and Gallery.

What’s the art scene like in Battambang?

“Given the size of Battambang and the economic realities, I find the art scene to be surprisingly vibrant. I am happy to see not only the expats but the Cambodian artists supporting the activities. Having said that, I also think that the art scene would benefit tremendously from expanding into a wider range of subject matter, topics, and subjects.”

How has living in Cambodia influenced your artwork?

“The country, its culture and people have greatly influenced all of my paintings since coming to Cambodia in one way or another. Besides painting I am also an enthusiastic photographer. I have taken thousands of photographs over the year and often a photograph will inspire me to turn it into a painting. For a while I was enamoured by the krama which resulted in a series of studies in oil. Another series of paintings was inspired by studying Cambodian faces. Even my abstract expressionist paintings take their inspiration from daily Cambodian life.

My art has also expanded into making a very unique handmade soap and bath salts in several floral fragrances. It is called “Fleur du Cambodge” Even the packaging is hand painted with abstract expressionist motives. They are on sale at Eden Cafe and Lotus. I have no doubt this country will continue to provide inspiration for much more of my artwork.”

Considering moving to Battambang? Check out our expat guide to Battambang.

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