Story: Elka Ray
Photo: Lucia Baragli, Hitoshi Hayashi, Chris Love

In the run-up to the Lunar New Year, Heritage met with Saeko Ando, a Japanese artist who specializes in Vietnam’s natural lacquer painting, son mai

Heritage: Hello Ms. Saeko Ando. We know you have lived and worked in Vietnam for decades. Could you please share how you grew interested in son mai?

Saeko Ando: In 1996, a friend took me to the Hanoi studio of lacquer artist Mr. Trinh Tuan. I was fascinated by his skills and asked to study. He said, “Yes, start tomorrow!” This seemed amazing. In Japan you must ask a master week after week and eventually they might accept you.

Artist Saeko Ando in her Hoi An studio

Heritage: You have now been using son ta – natural lacquer harvested from trees native to Vietnam’s Phu Tho province – for 25 years! How has your art changed over this time?

Saeko Ando: At first my purpose was to learn skills I could only learn here in Vietnam. I loved animals and painted them with a focus on techniques. Now I get captured by texture. For example, when I see a peacock I am fascinated by its legs and beak – I want to reproduce the amazing shapes and colors of nature using lacquer and other materials. I look at things in nature and feel their energy. I’ve gained the confidence to always feel the next step, which has given me so much flexibility to experiment.

Heritage: What is unique about son mai?

Saeko Ando: With most materials, for example oil or watercolors, you start with the big picture, then move to details. Lacquer is the opposite. You must plan ahead and remember each step. It’s an intellectual game and a mix of science and art. Natural lacquer is a living medium that contains enzymes and responds to heat, humidity, other materials, and manipulation. I often feel more like a scientist inventing something.

While natural lacquer has been used in crafts for centuries, son mai is a modern art form – only dating back to the 1930s. Compared to historic mediums like oil, this is not a “traditional art” but an innovative contemporary art that is fast evolving.

Filtered lacquer is mixed with red pigments

Heritage: What are the challenges of working with natural lacquer?

Saeko Ando: As more artists and artisans switch to working with synthetic lacquer, which is easier to control, the demand for natural lacquer has gone down. Many farmers in Phu To have cut down their lacquer trees, or are forced to harvest lacquer from immature trees due to financial pressure. Few young people are learning this work as the apprenticeship is long, difficult and low-paying.

I hope more people will appreciate how special Vietnam’s natural lacquer is, and support natural lacquer artists and artisans. I have started a small project called “Lacquer Seeds”, offering apprenticeships to the young generation at my Hoi An studio.

Heritage: How are you inspired by the coming Lunar New Year?

Saeko Ando: The pandemic has impacted all of our lives. I am pretty optimistic and am trying to see this as an opportunity for everyone to rethink our lives and change for the better. However, we are getting worn out.

In Japanese,  sickness/disease is “byo ki”(ill qi). Good health/spirit is “gen ki” (original qi). “Qi” in Chinese character means “air” “breath” “spirit”. What we desperately need is fresh “Qi”. I see the Lunar New Year as the greatest opportunity for all of us to change our “Qi”.

For this series, the artist drew inspiration from her natural surroundings in Hoi An

Heritage: What do you wish for in 2021?

Saeko Ando: Painting son mai is my way to set myself free and link with the universe.That is the most calm, joyful, and energizing feeling. For this reason, the creative process has been more important to me than my finished works. However that has changed during the pandemic.

Recently, I received an email from a curator at one of the major art museums in London, thanking me for a piece she bought last year. She said that being surrounded by art at work she’d never needed art in her home. But she had the urge to possess my work “Galaxy Flakes”. She wrote that: “The expressiveness of natural lacquer is healing my soul”.

Reading her email was a revelation and helped me see how I can use lacquer to help others feel what I feel. I’m lucky to live in nature and feel the energy of nature. I think I can convey this to others because lacquer is a natural material. My hope for 2021 is to use natural lacquer as a conductor to connect with people, near or far, and share good energy to overcome our challenges.