Struggling artisan carves out a bronze niche

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Artisan Nguyen Minh Nhan works on a bronze carving featuring two phoenixes

Thu Dau Mot town in the southern province of Binh Duong is  considered a regional hub for ceramic and lacquer works. But in an alley in Chanh Loc Commune, the town has another claim to fame that not many people are aware of.

The alley houses an artisan who practices a traditional handicraft bronze carvings that originated far away, in Dong Xam Silver Village, which is the northen province of Thai Binh.

Nguyen Minh Nhan, 40, a former goldsmith with the famous Phu Nhuan Jewelry Company in Ho Chi Minh City, seems to be plowing a lonely furrow. 

He said he learnt the art of bronze carving 25 years ago from a Dong Xam native who had settled down in Thu Dau Mot. But it was only after 2004, when he quit working as a goldsmith and returned to his hometown, that he returned to the old craft.

"Because gold prices increased, there was little work for me and other goldsmiths. Clients did not want to spend more money on jewelry, so I quit," said Nhan.

He returned to the craft that he had learnt a long time ago because during his tenure as a goldsmith, he learnt more about bronze carving and the market that exists for it.

The first bronze items were made by Dong Xam village artisans in the 17th century, but of late, instead of following the traditional way of making the artworks with their hand, they use molds to produce thousands of works that look exactly alike.

In addition, the villagers use chemical paint to color the products instead of using fire at different temperatures to produce different shades as was done earlier. 

While the new methods reduce the time taken to make an item, they give it a fake, cheap, gaudy look, and the carving details are not fine and delicate.

But even such products cost almost as much as a completely handmade item like Nhan's, giving him a market niche.

According to Oanh, owner of the Son Tinh store that sells bronze carvings, a Long Lân Quy Phụng (four creatures: dragon, kylin, tortoise, and phoenix) "painting" 1 meter long and 1.5 meters wide costs VND8-10 million, while Nhan's work of the same size is priced at around VND12 million.

Nhan said it takes him 20 days to a month to finish one "painting," which features diverse themes including flowers, landscapes, people and animals.

While the carving itself requires a keen aesthetic sense, it also needs good drawing skills that Nhan admits he does not have.
"I ask a local painter to draw the picture on paper according to my description," he said.

"But the painter once told me that he finds it difficult to draw the painting with thousands of details, and he can not imagine how I can apply it to metal."

 
Details in one of Nhan's bronze "paintings" of carps

First Nhan cuts a sheet of bronze into the required size and fixes it on a wooden table using a butane torch and sealing wax. Next, places the drawing on the sheet, and carves the outline as well as other basic details of the picture. It is then that he gets to work on the details using a hammer and a chisel to "emboss" them the surface of the bronze sheet from the back. Once this is done, the carving begins, and all the smaller details, like fish scales and eyes of dragons take shape.

The painting is only complete after he uses fire to color them and prevent it from getting oxidized and has it encased in a beautiful wooden frame with glass.

"It's difficult to control the heat of the fire, so no two paintings will have the same color,  so each item is unique, unlike those made using a mold."

The goldsmith said he prefers making bronze carvings to jewelry, because "it is easier and the complete work is quite big and noticeable, unlike a ring or pair of earings."

Nhan's first set of bronze carvings, Mai Lan Cuc Truc (apricot, orchid, daisy and bamboo), was purchased by a shop in Ho Chi Minh City for a "very high price" in 2009. Since then, he has steadily achieved greater recognition.

At the Binh Duong Ceramic Festival three years ago, Nhan was awarded a certificate by the local government for his contribution to the festival's success. In 2012, his Long Lan Quy Phung was listed among to top six handicraft works in the south region.

However, though he manages to make seven to ten sets of the bronze carvings every year, it's not easy for Nhan to find customers since his prices are higher than the ones sold in shops.

"There are few people who can afford to buy these paintings in province, though they really like it, so I have to promote my products in Ho Chi Minh City."

"However, I know nothing about promotion, so I am just doing my job as an artisan."

There are moments he thinks about quitting his work and finding other ways to make living, but he can't.

"It is now my life, I can not quit."

Nhan, who is working with the local government to open a class to teach his craft to disabled residents on the province soon, said, "I will work at a subsistence level to the day people go back to handmade products."

DONG XAM SILVER VILLAGE

In March 2003, Dong Xam Silver Village has recognized as a craft village with a wide range of handicrafts favored by customers, both in Vietnam and abroad, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Laos, Thailand, Netherlands, and Spain.

Villagers say that about 300 hundred years ago, an artist named Nguyen Kim Lau, traveled downstream on the Tra Ly River by boat and reached Dong Xam. He passed on his silver carving skills to the locals. The craft was been preserved and developed well since then. After Lau's death, the Dong Xam Temple was built in appreciation of his contributions to the village and an annual festival marks his death anniversary.

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