Playing a lone hand

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Pottery artisan Dang Van Trinh (L) and his wife prepare a batch of ceramic items in My Thien Village, Binh Son District, Quang Ngai Province. Trinh, 54, has been a potter for 35 years, and his kiln is the last one standing in the 200-year-old My Thien Village.

Dang Van Trinh gets no pleasure in being called an artisan or "the last potter" (in his village).

He is sad, actually. The question he asks himself often these days is: "After me, will be there anyone to continue the craft?"

Trinh, 54, has been a potter for 35 years, and his kiln is the last one standing in the 200-year-old My Thien Village.

My Thien Village is part of Chau O Town, in Quang Ngai Province's Binh Son District.

Every month, with the help of his son and wife, the artisan manages to produce just a batch of handmade ceramic items for customers from several central highlands provinces, Hue and Hoi An, many of them owners of hotel and resorts. A monthly batch earns the family around VND15-20 million (US$700-950).

"I feel incomplete if the kiln is not fired at least once a month," says the last potter, whose modest house and kiln are located on the highest piece of land in the village.

Golden times

Pottery was introduced to My Thien two centuries ago by artisans from Thanh Hoa Province in the north, whose skills and technique were influenced by their seniors at the Bat Trang pottery village. As a result, among several pottery villages in Quang Ngai, My Thien was the most famous name.

The village's proximity to the Ben Cui channel made it very convenient to transport goods via the Sa Can seaport to other provinces, even to Binh Dinh and Nha Trang in Khanh Hoa.

However, a big flood in 1964, which silted up part of the channel, plus the increasing cost for clay, fuel and transportation, affected the business. Thing got worse after 1975, because times were difficult after the end of the war. Earnings dipped, and unable to make ends meet, many young people left their villages for the cities, seeking other jobs. The remaining artisans gathered to work together for Chau O cooperative and looked for ways to improve their craft.

In the early years of the economic reform, the local artisans, unfortunately, failed to learn and adapt the glazing technique from their colleagues in Bat Trang, and their products could not compete those from north and south of the country, and the introduction of plastic items spelt doom.

Loath to give up

Trinh said that like his grandfather and father, Dang Thanh, he can make any kind of pottery.

"A potter must not only work hard but master different steps, including kneading the clay, heating the kiln, to designing and decorating," he said.

"But the hardest part is glazing, specifically underglaze. My Thien is famous for its glaze, but even during golden time, there were few artisans who could perform the glazing techniques well."

Trinh and father Dang Thanh (who still works despite his age) are well known for their traditional glazing technique that creates a yellow glaze; and apart from the main glaze colors of black and brown, the two artisans also could make pottery with cracked glaze.

My Thien's typical pottery products are vases, jars and big-bellied jars and pots for wine and fish sauce, and Trinh still makes them.
Pottery items with images of dragons, flowers, and squirrels used for decoration in botanic gardens and resorts are also products that the village has acquired a reputation for.

Trinh said he learnt the art from his grandfather while he was in secondary school. He developed a passion for it and at 17, stopped his education to focus on pottery. His love for the craft has been challenged during difficult times, especially on seeing other artisans in the village do well after quitting the profession. But he has never been able to leave it.

"Everytime I feel regretful or worry about my future, I encourage myself to keep my ancestor's craft alive."

American experts

His passion for pottery received much encouragement from an American couple Louis Cost and Leedom Lefferts who traveled from Washington to visit his house in 2007 to show him a picture of a vase displayed in a museum in the US.


Culture in a bowl

"They wanted to find out the origin of the vase, so after visiting many villages, they stopped at my house, and after comparing it with my work, concluded that it was indeed produced at My Thien in the past."

The couple, experts from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M.Sackler Gallery, told the Vietnamese potter that the vase was very precious and represented My Thien pottery with bright color, durability and delicate decoration.

The American couple also helped Trinh financially to rebuild his kiln after it was struck by a hurricane in 2009, leaving him empty handed.
"In such a situation, they helped me not just with money but also their understanding and sentiments, because they know that I have no other desire than to keep the craft going."

But it is a struggle. Trinh and his father are trying hard. The father, despite his age, makes pottery to sell at the local market on his
own, whereas the son pursues senior leaders for support and attempts to teach the younger generation.

Since their work also generates complaints from the neighbors because of the heavy smoke from the kiln, especially during the rainy season, Trinh wishes to move to another place where there is a sustainable supply of clay and he can completely devote himself to the craft and gather other artisans to work together with freedom, as in the past. 

Early this year, My Thien was listed among 10 handicraft villages in the province that are expected to receive appropriate policy and material support to promote their crafts.

Phan Dinh Do, director of the provincial museum, said: "We have petitioned the local government for policies to restore the village and its traditional business, especially since only artisan Trinh is left now."

A few months ago, the museum held an exhibition on My Thien pottery. At the museum, Trinh had a chance to talk with Cao Khoa, chairman of the provincial People's Committee, who promised that he would ask the district to allocate land for potters to pursue their craft. 

"What I long for more is support from the province to restore the art, and I am more than willing to teach the young generations the art of glazing and making terra-cotta products," Trinh said.

However, he said it was not easy to provide training or retraining because most of the artisans are either too old or have passed away.

In 2011, he taught the shaping technique on traditional wheels to female villagers, but the class only lasted one and a half months because the district lacked funds to keep it going. Also, Trinh said, even if his students were to master the skill, they have no opportunity to use them.

For now, Trinh takes solace from the fact that people do not call his products Dang Van Trinh ceramics, but My Thien ceramics.

"Though it is tough to work alone, I am so glad that my village's name still has its own place in the handicraft market."

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