Ngo Duc Quy
There is an art material that’s deeply rooted in Vietnam’s identity and culture. There’s a village that still depends on this material. Join us on a visit to the 200-year-old lacquer village of Ha Thai in Duyen Thai commune, Thuong Tin District, Hanoi. Here, stories of this craft and those who practice it are still being told.
We reached Ha Thai village on a breezy and mildly sunny day. The smell of lacquer lingered in the air, and the sound of rustling sandpaper could be heard right from the village’s entrance. This gentle sound revealed the village’s overall silence, as the local artisans were hard at work.
The lacquer-wares produced in Ha Thai require many steps to complete. First, a wooden board is prepared and coated with a special mixture and repeatedly left to dry in suitable humidity before it is decorated and polished. The decoration and sanding process are arduous, requiring skill and patience. Sometimes, even luck, is needed to achieve a satisfactory result. For this reason, senior artisans will help newcomers to learn the craft and lend each other a helping hand.
The essence of lacquer-making lies in its many alternating steps of decorating and sanding the work. Decorative materials like eggshell, gold- and silver-leaf, and layers of various paints are applied to the board’s surface. The board is then left to dry and sanded with sandpaper and water to accentuate the colors and create a smooth surface. Different colors emerge each time the surface is sanded. This process reveals the artisan’s skill as they must ensure the colors are revealed according to plan. Over-sanding will ruin the result, leaving no choice but to start again. Even so, the most stunning patches of color may appear unexpectedly, leaving even the artisans astonished.
Vu Huy Men – a keeper of tradition
The first artisan we visited was Vu Huy Men, who has worked with lacquer for over 50 years, from the difficult subsidized period when materials were hard to find. His old house doubles as a workshop for his family. Lacquer-wares were spread from inside the house all the way out into the yard. Some pieces were unfinished while others had been set out to dry.
Mr. Men sees lacquer as part of his ancestors’ legacy, whose essence has been established through time. “Nowadays, many workshops use modern [chemical-based] lacquer paint instead of the kind made from the Rhus vernicifera tree like in the old days. For me though, natural tree sap-based lacquer is still the best because it has cemented its place in my heart and my aesthetic tastes.”
Paying homage to traditional colors, Mr. Men’s paintings evoke the passing of time but still make a strong impression. A devotee of working with natural tree resin, Mr. Men has dedicated his life to creating artworks that depict Vietnam’s countryside and to preserving this traditional craft.
While talking to us, he never stopped moving around to check how his artworks were drying, his hands stained with tree resin.
Dung Di – a radical artist
“Dung Di”, which means “odd Dung”, was Tran Cong Dung’s nickname back in his school days. He is part of the first generation of artists from Ha Thai, who now has dozens of years of experience in this field. Upon entering his studio, we immediately spotted an assortment of silly-looking ashtrays shaped like animals with playful lacquer contours that screamed “odd Dung”. On the wall were decorative paintings with brushstrokes that seemed random at first glance yet were somehow captivating when viewed as a whole.
“Back then, we dedicated everything we had to this craft; it was our livelihood as well. As I got used to it, I’d be depressed if I wasn’t working. I would feel frustrated if I wasn’t allowed into my studio for just one day,” recalled Mr. Dung.
Passionate but radical, Mr. Dung explores new materials along with traditional ones. Instead of focusing on eggshells, gold-, or silver-leaf, he opts for colored powder and incorporates negative spaces into his works. He also refrains from using an oil finish as the naturally rough surface gives the painting a novel appearance. He is proud of his innovations, such as his use of new colors like turquoise, as well as his paint-cracking technique.
Mr. Dung is known as the “hooligan experimenter” of Ha Thai village. As well as painting, Mr. Dung has ventured into new areas of artistic creation, such as making lacquered flowers. He managed to shrink the common ornamental lotuses, which are big and difficult to arrange, into miniature hand-made versions in multiple colors that suit many indoor spaces.
When asked how he feels about others “taking inspiration” from his work, he flashed a jovial smile, saying it was his contribution to the craft. “If a gimmick dies out, I’ll just invent a new one,” he joked.
Trang Troc – an amiable, funny and emotionally balanced artist
Formerly a navy officer, To Ngoc Trang (Trang Troc) studied lacquer at the University of Industrial Arts. As someone who feels at home with the freedom of the sea, his studio is an open space bathed in sunshine, with a decorative helm and paintings of fish hung at the highest spot to create a lively space.
“Art is a stream of echoing memories. The old masters often painted rural villages because they were part of their memories. For me, when I felt suffocated by the city, I painted … fish. Now that I’m back strolling around Ha Thai, I paint my own experiences and my daily life. What you paint is still the best for you; it is the very ‘you’,” he said, gleaming with pride.
Mr. Trang also collaborates with other artisans to create useful artworks that display his creativity. “My seniors are used to aligning eggshells in a perfect line, so I have to discuss and experiment to give our products a new form.”
In addition to being an artist, Mr. Trang teaches children of various ages. “I am more of a companion. My students are after all students, but I also learn from them. I learn to retain my innocence and optimism,” said Mr. Trang.
As noon approached, Mr. Trang invited us to stay for lunch, using his unfinished painting as the dining table. He said with a laugh: “The good thing about this painting is that this is its life. Until it is finished, it can do whatever this mundane life needs it to do. Come to think of it, my paintings are just background decorations for my wife’s plants anyway.”
The craft’s endurance
Lacquer products bear witness to the passing of time and to those who earn their living pursuing this craft. Every lacquer work tells of the artisan’s immense patience and dedication. The durability of each lacquer item reflects the virtues of its creator.
When asked about the future of lacquer, the artisans we met all commented on the fact that the new generation is losing interest in lacquer because there are many new forms of modern art. Nonetheless, those few who are dedicated to this craft remain cheerful, optimistic, and ready to help the next generation of artists and artisans to preserve and promote lacquer-making.