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Vocational School of Arts Preserving traditional arts whilst empowering and educating disadvantaged young people

Laos has a rich cultural heritage, with Buddhist art and architecture forming the cornerstone of artistic tradition. Over the years, there has been a rapid decline in the number of artisans, and the few skills that have survived have been driven by commercial interests to feed the tourism industry. These losses are acute in Luang Prabang, an important centre for creative arts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is an urgent need to preserve traditional Buddhist artistry, which the Buddhist Heritage Project - with the support of Badur Foundation and others - is seeking to address.

The Buddhist community (Sangha) of Luang Prabang aimed to build a Vocational School of Arts, the first of its kind in Laos dedicated to training students in traditional arts and crafts skills and, in turn, preparing them for employment on graduation. The Arts School sits within the grounds of the Buddhist Academy, providing a continuum of education opportunities for students whilst enrolled at the Academy and on graduation. The Academy already plays a vital role in the educational life of the community, offering cost-effective Secondary School education to more than 500 students from some of the poorest and most isolated communities in northern Laos.

The Vocational School of Arts has three principal goals: To teach the disappearing traditional fine arts and artisanal skills of Laos; to reduce poverty by providing educational opportunities to disadvantaged young people, and to foster and encourage creativity. Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world, largely because a significant percentage of its population is engaged in subsistence farming, and the children of those families are denied an education for economic reasons or simply due to isolation. The Arts School will offer a unique education, providing skills that can lead to employment and fostering economic opportunities for current and future generations of Laos’ young people.

Disciplines taught at the School include bronze casting, high glaze ceramic production, stencil cutting and application, production and preservation of palm leaf manuscripts, production of traditional musical instruments, the creation of natural based dyes and paints, mural painting and gold leaf application, among many others.

Carefully designed and funded in distinct phases, with support from the Badur Foundation and others, construction of the Arts School has now been principally completed and classes have commenced. Some small areas of work are still ongoing and Buddhist Heritage Project’s next priority is to support the Arts School to obtain adequate materials and tools, as the teaching of disadvantaged young students remains at the core of this project. Some of the structures are also unfinished in architectural detail and will be completed by the students as they learn the traditional skills. The buildings will be a ‘living’ project, which will progress as the students learn and benefit from “hands on” training.

Importantly, the Arts School will be integrated with Celadon, a social enterprise shop in the historic centre of Luang Prabang. Celadon will provide one of the most important outlets for the art work produced by the students. Profits raised by the sales will in turn support the schools at the Buddhist Academy. The Vocational School of Arts aims to play an integral part in maintaining the cultural heritage of the Lao people for generations to come.