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A painter finds inspiration and a unique medium to work with in the most persistent and fluid element


The water-surface painting Thôi ta về vá»›i biển (We might as well return to the Sea) is among the 36 pictures on display at Vo Trinh Bien's ongoing exhibition in Da Lat

When Lao Tzu said "be like water" because one needed to be soft and yielding to overcome life's hardest and most rigid obstacles like a stream flowing over the rocks he might as well have been talking about artist Vo Trinh Bien.

For Bien, 46, water is not only a central theme in his work, but in fact the medium on which he paints.

He got the idea while thinking about how oil slicks are collected off the surface by water after spills: Bien puts a sheet of jute under water and uses a syringe to create a painting on the water's surface. Then, he either lifts the jute or drains the container to watch his colors settle gently onto the sheet.

Bien's favorite painting, and perhaps the most emblematic of his work, is called Thôi ta về vá»›i biển (We might as well return to the sea).

"The sea is where the soul and body can become one"¦ An artist is just like a drop of water in the sea. And this painting is a reflection of what I once thought about myself," he said.

"It is a portrait of the artist from the moment he or she enters a career in the arts. It represents experiences over time, with lots of ups and downs."

From a waiter to artist

Bien came from a poor family in Quang Ngai Province and entered Da Lat University more than 20 years ago. He studied literature and worked part time to earn a living.

After graduating from university, he did a variety of odd jobs in his home province, including waiting tables and tutoring kids at home.


Vo Trinh Bien shows visiting foreigners to paint with his fingers at his café on truong Cong Dinh Street, Da Lat.
Photos: Gia Binh

Artist Vo Trinh Bien was born in 1966 in the central coastal province of Quang Ngai. He now lives in Da Lat Town, Lam Dong Province.

Bien is the only finger painter in Vietnam, and he has painted more than 1,000 pictures.

He has so far held 15 solo exhibitions, including titles Mặt nạ (The Mask), Phố tôi (My Street), Giai Ä‘iệu của trúc (Melody of the small bamboo), Mặt nạ (A Half), Dòng chảy (The stream), Những sắc màu ký ức (Colors of memories), Dấu ấn thời gian (Marks of time), Thân phận (Fate), 31 Ngày (31 Days), Thăng Long ngày ấy (Thang Long Then), and Nắng (Sunshine).

His latest exhibition, titled (He/She/It), is being held from May 6-15 at Da Lat's Hoa Binh Exhibition Center and displays 36 paintings.

He returned to Da Lat in 1995 having taught himself English, French, Chinese and Japanese.

One day while he was tutoring, the way his whiteboard looked after he erased it caught his eye. Most of the words weren't fully erased, they were just broken.

"I found them pretty extraordinary and beautiful, just like a painting."

He was inspired to start painting himself but because it was the smudges he liked, Bien painted with his fingers. He painted a lot and couldn't stop.

"At first, it was very hard because I was passionate about art but I knew nothing about it."

Earning a living was difficult, but Bien continued to paint. He collected discarded calendars and made paintings on the back. He collected used batteries and cut them open to use the lead as ink.

After about two years of painting on his own, a cafe called Art Coffee opened at 70 Truong Cong Dinh Street in Da Lat's backpacker area. There, he painted, and worked as a waiter again.

When Bien first began painting, he used a more conventional approach, utilizing palm paintbrushes. Then he had the idea to paint with his fingers instead. He said that finger painting is fascinating.

This form of art has hidden nuances different from more standard methods of painting. For example, the artist can change a color's shade by applying different amounts of pressure with his fingers.

Although the artist has to wash his hands with crude oil after every hour of painting to reduce the chemicals in the color, finger painting has many advantages. The painter can work whenever and wherever he wants to and does not need an easel. This flexibility saves time; some pictures can be finished in as little as few minutes.

Soon, his paintings began to get noticed and he's had dozens of exhibitions since then, including the successful Dòng chảy (The stream) exhibition of 40 paintings in Da Lat in 2009.

He said the work was about the stream of life.

"A stream," he said, "can remove bad things and leave good things or vice versa. More importantly, its core remains either way."

Bien insists on setting the prices of his paintings based on how much work he puts into them.

"For me, art is both a job and a serious game. The job is to seek and use beauty in life and seriously join the public in admiring all that is beautiful," he said.

"Art is a link to the soul, and people deceive one another when they make it a commercial product and sell it for high prices."

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