My child, my soul

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Nguyen Trong Doan poses with one of his ceramic works at his house in Hanoi

Nguyen Trong Doan did what was unthinkable to most: in a country where ceramic art goes back thousands of years, he dared to make a clean break with tradition and created his own style of pottery.

The reward? His ceramics are named for him.

Doan ceramic is known for its completely natural colors like earthen brown, red, and white as well as unique and original motifs that distinguish it from traditional Vietnamese ceramic as well as variations found across the country.

Uniquely, Doan pieces feature contemporary graphic art.
The patterns are never repeated, meaning no ceramic piece has a copy.

In addition to decorative works, Doan, 71, who was this year invited to perform at the Dallas Baptist University in the US for four months, also makes unglazed ceramic.

After studying pottery at the University of Industrial Fine Arts in Hanoi several decades ago, Doan worked at the Institute of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Vietnam Fine Arts) before quitting to becoming a freelance pottery artist.

He was hoping this would give him more time to create artworks.
In the 1980s he borrowed a biggish sum of money - enough to buy a motorbike at that time - and built a small pottery kiln of his own.

Doan says: "A friend of mine at that time told me: "˜If you choose to make the old kind of ceramic, nobody will know who you are. An artist should express their own ideas and character through their works, or else they are just a worker.'"

These words saw him overcome any hesitation he may have had and work freely on clay to become a pioneer in ceramic sculpture in Vietnam.

While foreigners deeply appreciate Doan ceramics, most Vietnamese, especially at his first exhibition in 1989, find them peculiar since they are unlike they are used to.

His style cannot be pigeonholed as Vietnamese or foreign, though people from many countries claim his works resemble ceramics made in their own country. For instance, Latvians have said Doan ceramic looks Latvian while Indonesians argue that it is as "mysterious" as the ones made by their own artisans in the south.

My soul, children

No matter how many works he creates, Doan never sells anything. His house is full of them, and many are kept in a friend's gallery.
He sells only his sculptures and not pottery items though people are willing to pay a lot to own a Doan piece.

He says he still regrets once selling a ceramic vase due to financial difficulties.

"Each artwork is my child and my soul whom I never want to leave."

Doan considers himself luckier than other artists since he can keep "his children" so that he does not feel lonely in his old age.
He does not have much money, but still does not consider selling his pottery pieces.

While he often turns down people asking to buy, he has no qualms about destroying a work he considers imperfect.

"When my soul is ugly, I don't want it to be exposed to public."

Critic Thai Ba Van says: "Nguyen Trong Doan is the most vigorous renovator of Vietnamese ceramic in modern times.

"His works are unique and precious, and do not imitate anyone or repeat themselves."

Ann Protor, an art historian from the National Art School in Sydney, Australia, says: "Nguyen Trong Doan has shown that Vietnamese ceramics have not yet run out of ideas. "There are many secrets... that remain unexplored."

His age no longer allows Doan to work day and night like he did in the past. He sometimes feels downcast about this because "I still have many ideas and methods but not enough time."

"Pottery artists should love and have deep knowledge of different schools of arts in order to explore new ones, or else they will be unable to achieve their ambition of surpassing their seniors."

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