Captain of his own destiny

Azhar, better known as Captain Jack among his friends, is now making waves among the big names in the country’s art and craft world

by ZAINAL ALAM KADIR

NOW, who would have thought that in the middle of a small village called Kampung Bakap Baru in Batu Gajah, Perak, would be where you can find among the best-looking replicas of great ships from various eras around the world.

The small workshop, annexed to a rather traditional Perak house, is where a simple and unassuming man dreams and works as he creates his own history.

Azhar Kamaruddin, better known as Captain Jack among his friends, is now making waves among the big names in the country’s art and craft world.

“I am not about to slow down. This is my life,” Azhar said.

And what a life he’s been having so far. Lately, the attention on him and his work has been pretty good, as more people are taking notice of his creations.

Every other day, he would have visitors from various backgrounds. Among them are students from various universities and colleges; collectors and enthusiasts who are intrigued by his works; and tourists who would just walk in after catching a glimpse of his intricate creations on the net.

“A crew from a television programme came the other day,” Azhar said in a matter-of-fact way. “I am kind of happy as well that my work is getting attention from other parts of the world. I am blessed.”

The journey to where he is today was not that easy, though. Before he decided to set up his workshop in 1997, Azhar was already a successful visual merchandising artist with one of the leading departmental stores in Ipoh.

“I was promoted and was supposed to be transferred to Kuala Lumpur, but I knew it was not for me,” Azhar said.

One of the models at Captain Jack’s studio, the Baltimore Clipper 1812

Many might also be surprised that prior to his stint as a visual merchandising artist, Azhar was en route to a degree in fashion design from Institute Teknologi Mara before he decided to call it quits during his third year.

Even as a student, many who knew him would attest that Azhar’s design style and illustrative work were more architectural and structural, unlike most of his classmates and peers who were inspired by more organic lines.

Perhaps it was not meant to be, as Azhar found himself in a more “angular world” which was the total opposite of what he initially set out to do.

His love affair with crafting replicas of great ships started when he found a simple illustrated book on the history of world transport.

As he flipped through the pages, he was somehow transfixed on the pages that featured some of the greatest ships ever built throughout history.

“I’ve always had this fascination with ships since I was a kid. There were little mass-produced replicas when I was a kid that always kept my imagination going.”

The next thing he knew, he decided to just build a little ship based on the visuals in the book. Azhar said it was not really good, but “it did look like a ship”.

Azhar’s design style and illustrative work are more architectural and structural

That first ship was somehow sold to a relative for a meagre amount, a feat that Azhar never even expected.

The obsession to build the perfect replica began. Azhar started collecting all the books related to ships and ship-building.

As part of his quest to perfect his skills, he also took up various jobs at different factories around Perak.

“I learnt quite a bit, from wood carving and crafting, metal fabrication, printing, painting — every skill that I need to create that perfect ship.”

For each ship he builds, he will read as much as he can about the history of the ship and the period it was built in

Azhar got his first major break nine years after the quest started. By then, he already had buyers among friends and enthusiasts who heard about him through word of mouth.

One of Azhar’s regulars brought him an imported wooden model kit to be assembled.

“That guy was representing a French expatriate who was just crazy about old ships, but (did) not have the time to assemble the kits himself.

“I (had) never done it before, but agreed to do it anyway…and that was how I understood more about ship-building and assembling that perfect replica.”

Azhar assembled quite a number of models for the French customer for a couple of years.

“The funny part was, I’ve never got to meet him personally. I don’t even know his name! When he went back to France, he left me with several blueprints and technical details of some of the best ships ever built through our contact person, as a token of his appreciation. Now, that changed the game altogether…”

From then onwards, Azhar has never stopped building. The more he built, the better he got, with more enthusiasm and challenging projects. That was followed by various invitations to display his works at exhibitions, which solidified his reputation.

Azhar has never stopped building. The more he built, the better he got, with more enthusiasm and challenging projects

Come Aug 17, Azhar is expected to showcase his work at Art Ipoh 2019, curated by Phillip Wong from the National Art Gallery. Next on the list is the annual Art Expo at Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre in October.

Ship-building for Azhar is like escaping into his own world. For each ship he builds, he will read as much as he can about the history of the ship and the period it was built in.

If you quiz him on anything related to any of his ships, you’d be amazed at the details Azhar would share with you.

His love affair with crafting replicas of great ships started when he found a simple illustrated book on the history of world transport

When Azhar rattles off the names of the ships that he has built over the years, one needs to pay attention, as they’d come with the history, accompanying backstories and trivia.

This unassuming man from Batu Gajah has built quite a bit too. From the Santisma Trinidad, a Spanish Galleon that was built in 1805; the imposing Baochuan from the Ming Dynasty (mainly used by Admiral Cheng Ho in the 15th century); the HMS Neptune used by the British Royal Navy in 1797; to the ancient Corsair of Malta, the Mediterranean Galley that was widely used in the 16th century; to many other beautiful ships from the US, Europe and various parts of the world.

“Everything has a soul. You need to capture the essence of what you’re doing so that the experience (can) be transferred to others. Each time I build a ship, I’d be transported to that world. I would be a little boy wandering in a port or a dock where the ships are built.

“I’d explore the ship and imagine all that takes place in it. It’s my own little adventure.”

Since each of his ships will find a home, all Azhar has left would be pictures and the memories that came with it.

“No, this business is still not economically viable. Yes, the ships could fetch high prices, but each one takes a while to complete, and I am but one person…Still, I shall not stop.”

Well, nothing beats being the captain of your own destiny. Azhar is doing just that.