The former Thailand congressman collects history, and teaches it too.
His calm demeanor in the classroom only lasts for a couple of minutes until he can stand it no longer, bursting into a rant about the realities of American government. This is an everyday classroom occurrence that exhibits a passion rooted in Thailand; a passion that has fueled Kamol Somvichian’s many endeavors.
Artist, columnist, University of La Verne professor, collector and congressman—each a role played by Kamol. Whenever his passion changes, so does his career. Fueled by loves for art, history and political science, he has amassed a plethora of artifacts from Mongolia to Thailand. His house and office more resemble fine art museums than pedestrian living and work spaces. His Claremont home houses Sangkalok pottery, one of his larger collections , with some pieces dating back to 1290 C.E., and originating from Thailand’s Gulf of Siam. He holds Sangkalok pottery of two conditions, some eroded while submerged in a sunken ship and others in pristine condition. He has many small pots and dishes that have a broken surface characteristic, which looks as if the sculptor dropped the pottery and glued it back together. This, according to Kamol, is ideal. However, he also owns larger vessels that show the broken surface’s disappearance and decorative oyster shell remnants. Although not as extensive as the Sangkalok pottery, Kamol also owns rare Ban Chiang pottery, a collection he exported before it became illegal to do so. Some of the pottery, excavated in 1966 and dating back to 300 B.C.E., were brought by refugees from Cambodia, where they had been purchased in a Thai marketplace.
These clay-baked vessels are painted with elegant swirling lines and circular shapes along their surface. Kamol notes that the artifacts’ structure and design are sophisticated for their prehistoric era. His description is poetic in itself: “They have whirls and spirals, following the contours of the greatly rounded vessels, filling the surfaces in a wide range of linear variations, characterized by evenly spaced brushwork forming stripes curving firm across the clay.”
His office could be on loan from the Smithsonian. Right across from the doorway, hangs textile art — a sample of his wife’s work. A wall displays a small collection of African masks. A short bookcase houses a small idol of Ganesha, the elephant-god, standing on two legs and raising his four arms. Across from a large bookcase filled with political research, hangs an abstract painting Kamol completed years ago.
Back in his home, every room contains artifacts from exotic lands: Africa, Thailand and China. Kamol lives with history. He exercises on an elephant chair every morning and serves fruit on antique serving plates. A Ban Chiang vase, one of Kamol’s oldest pieces at 4,000 years old, sits to the left of the front door, encased in glass, displaying its detailed characteristic geometric shapes. Time has dimmed its circles and swirling lines.
A Thai gum chewing set connects him to royalty. This elaborate artifact, customarily given by the king, is separated into a series of cascading bowls, each decorated with vines and leaves. “Their chewing gum is made of leaves and fruits that create a reddish hue so that the women who chew it don’t have to wear lipstick,” Kamol says. Each section holds an ingredient used to make the gum. The set indicates a person’s social status. Those from the upper class have a gold set, the middle class have a silver set and the lower class have a bronze set. “For example, if you were an assistant professor, you would get a bronze set from the king, but if you are a full professor with tenure, you would get a gold set,” he says with a laugh.
An African statue from Ghana sits next to the light brown leather sofa in the living room. This statue is one of a pair that Kamol and Marielena, his wife, bought while visiting Washington two years ago. The abstract statues represent the first man and woman according to African legend, similar to that of Abrahamic religions’ Adam and Eve. The second statue was given to Marielena’s brother.
Being an artist herself, Marielena is happy to have a house filled with interesting works of art, and accompanies Kamol when he travels in search of artifacts. “It’s been a part of our life,” she says. “We’ve been collecting since we got married in 1962. It is something to pass on to our grandchildren. They have not broken anything yet.”
Most of their collection is Asian. “We look for something that reminds us of our heritage,” Marilena says. “There is a place in Bangkok, like a flea market. We used to go every Sunday and come back with hands and trunks full.” While traveling to Thailand and other countries, Kamol searches for things that are interesting, both historically and artistically. Marilena helps Kamol in finding the artistically pleasing artifacts. “For this kind of thing, you have to consult the spouse,” Kamol says. “Normally we see things the same way.” Sometimes, however, their different backgrounds lead them in different directions. Kamol does not always readily see the artistic value in the pieces that his wife recommends.
When the artifacts are purchased for academic purposes, the historical significance wins over the artistic. The textile found in Kamol’s office from Togoland in West Africa is an exception. This woven cloth, a rare find, is a little worn on the edges but in overall good condition. Straight lines, diamonds and crisscrossing lines across the width of the cloth are done in dark brown on a tan background.
But Kamol’s artifacts have not been limited to display in his home and office, he has used artifacts to spark interest during his classes. He once brought to class a tool used to carve designs onto vases. The tool, which corresponded with the lecture, was passed among the students during class. Sadly, the tool went missing after the lecture, ending such interactive classroom experiences, although he still believes that using artifacts in the classroom helps students gain a deeper understanding of the subject. “When you touch a vase, you are touching the history of our evolution—of our existence. Sometimes I try to imagine the sculptor working with the clay,” Kamol says.
Kamol has not shied away from creating some artwork himself. His passion and inspiration for abstract art was fueled by his political beliefs. It was his views of the mid 20th century Thai military dictatorship that inspired his earlier pieces. His abstract art was not well received in Thailand; other Thai artists stayed away from the abstract craze favoring traditional methods.
Once the dictatorship fell, Kamol was active in the Thai Democratic Party, being appointed the party’s secretary general and was elected central Bangkok’s second district congressman from 1972 to 1977. During his first term, he sat on the constituent assembly, which drafted a new constitution.
But Kamol preferred teaching to politics. “I love campaigning for office, love listening to problems and working very hard to gain confidence,” he says. “I didn’t like to hear the comments in Parliament.” He inspires his students with his political experience. “I try to encourage my students to enter politics not only to the win, but to learn to be a part of the democratic process and to change society,” Kamol says. His words of encouragement have been heeded. John Kera, a junior political science major is in the November 2006 race for mayor of Rancho Cucamonga.
Leaving the Thai Congress did not deter him from helping the underprivileged. He founded the Foundation for Making a Difference in 1985, with the main objective to provide assistance to children in third world countries, particularly Thailand, the Philippines and Mexico. “We try to get resources to places that need it most,” Kamol says. The foundation receives donations through collection boxes located in restaurants and businesses. “In one place, we got a $100 note, but that is rare,” he says. “We were jumping for joy.”
Kamol was the president of the foundation for seven years. His long-time friend Dwain Houser, a Los Angeles bishop for the Celtic Catholic Church, took over as president. However, Kamol is still active with the foundation, serving on its board of trustees. Four years ago, the foundation took a group of college students to Mexico, where they built housing for the homeless. The foundation also sends school supplies to the impoverished students of Thailand and the Philippines.
Before being a professor at the University of La Verne, Kamol was a visiting professor at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., where he taught political science until 1981. He has also been a columnist for 27 years, working at Thai newspapers like the “Siam Post” and the Los Angeles based “Sereechai,” where he commented on U.S. foreign policy. “I can brag that I have written 1,000 articles,” he says. “Every Sunday morning I would think of something to write about for the week. It became a part of my life; I miss it now.” His extreme criticism toward foreign policy, especially in recent years, is one of the reasons why he stopped writing columns. In the end, Kamol lost interest in writing. “I was very critical of this government; I had to stop,” Kamol says. “You have to have passion about the story; I don’t have the passion anymore.”
As his art collection grows, Kamol is thinking about a permanent public display. Instead of donating the artifacts to the Asian Pacific Museum in Pasadena or auctioning the pieces, he is thinking about donating some of his collection to ULV. He believes that the University would benefit from having a large display of Asian artifacts. “Students in New York can step outside and go to the Museum of Modern Art. That is the benefit from going to colleges in big cities. We should be exposed to something along these lines too, at least in a lower level, so that the students will be educated in a comprehensive manner.”