True colors

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A Hanoi leaf-painting artist finds his hues among tree branches and fields of grass


Mua hoa cai ven song
(A riverside field of cai flowers) (right) and Khoa than (Naked) are among Ta Hai's paintings

When Ta Hai walks the streets of Hanoi and its surrounding country roads collecting corn husks, sawdust, leaves and silkworm cocoons, he's not planning on brewing up an ancient eastern cold and flu remedy, nor is he about to concoct one of Vietnam's ubiquitous aphrodisiacal potions that supposedly "make your wife happy."

He is, however, getting ready to paint a naked woman.

For his nudes, he uses corn silks for women's black hair, sawdust and corn husks for their bare backs, dried pinnate leaves for the grey sky in the background, and silkworm cocoons for the bright yellow daisies and autumn forests surrounding his nudes.

In fact, he doesn't paint at all, but rather cuts and pastes together the natural ingredients he finds in and around the city to bring images to the canvas.

Hai, 68, has been making his leaf paintings for 20 years, ever since he retired as an editor at Voice of Vietnam Radio.

But what sets his work apart from many of Vietnam's "found-leaf" artists, is that the color of Hai's dry leaves are totally natural, he doesn't use chemicals, paint or other artificial enhancers to enrich the hues of his materials. But that means he has to select the right products from nature as their colors have to stand the test of time and not either fade or darken after being put to the canvas.

"I love nature and I want to preserve its beauty," says the artist. "I also love art and I have found it a good way to express my love for nature."

Hai says the life cycle of a leaf, his most oft-used material, is important and highly symbolic in his process.

"Each leaf has an important mission," he added. "Even when it dies and falls off the branch, it can still help the tree grow stronger and produce new leaves with the nutriment it then supplies to the soil."

These colors do run

Hai stumbled upon his hobby during the Vietnam War on a short leave from the front. It was 1965 and he was strolling along Hanoi's Trang Tien Street when he saw a painting of the Mot Cot Pagoda made from bamboo pieces.


Ta Hai stands beside a new painting at his home gallery on Hoang Hoa Tham Street, Hanoi

"I was inspired by that work. I returned home and tried my hand at some dried banana leaves."

Hai stuck the leaves onto a board and created his first picture: a scene of Ha Long Bay, which still hangs on his home gallery's wall.

After the war he went into media and wasn't able to dedicate much time to art until he retired in 1990.

He's since made a name for himself through two major exhibitions, and he accepts visitors into his home gallery any time for free. But he's still never studied painting or any kind of art.

For Hai, it's the searching for dry leaves and natural materials that is his most interesting work. Finding the truest color that best fits his newest painting is always the hardest, but also his most rewarding work.

He usually carries a bag while walking in Hanoi and collects whatever good materials he sees: bamboo leaves, onion and garlic skins, corn silk, wood chips and other grasses and leaves.

"Dry leaves and grass blades are abundant everywhere, but finding the right colors to make a picture is no easy work," he says. "Their colors should not fade out and their flesh should not blemish quickly. These searches have taken a lot of my time and energy."

Hai says the result is that each color in his paintings represents a happy experience.

"One time on a business trip I stopped at a roadside tea stall," he remembers. "I saw a woman shelling corn and suddenly found out that corn silk can be a good material. I was lucky that time and this material has been used quite often in my paintings."

However, not every color comes to him so easily. Many times he's thought he found a new color, only to have it be a failure on the canvas. He's tried several times to use red roses and flamboyants for their incredible colors, only to watch them turn black just a few days after picking them.

He had also hoped to use the yellow of maple and abele leaves he brought home from a business trip to Russia, but these leaves also soon turned black.

In fact, it actually took him 10 years to find a red color that he really likes.

"No material gave me a satisfying red until I discovered it in the bark of a tree which my mother chewed with betel nut," Hai smiles. He also says that he has just recently found a kind of vegetable that provides him the right green color after decades of searching.

But he's still searching for materials that give him the right blue.

Simply natural

With just a bottle of glue, a small pair of scissors and of course his skillful hands, Hai blows soul into the dead leaves and brings them to life in his pictures. It takes him from one to three days or even longer to complete a picture. Sometimes his wife and his daughter act as his assistants.

Though he considers himself an amateur artist, his paintings demonstrate immense skill with lines and colors. The subtle colors of the leaves and his skillful arrangement give the paintings a unique charm. He rarely names his pictures, preferring to let viewers form their own impressions.

Hai paints within three main categories: abstract, nude and landscapes. The landscapes dominate his collection, with most of his work depicting quiet countryside scenes.

"I love the rural beauty of the countryside, especially of northern villages," he shares.

Walking through Hai's gallery and home is to take a journey through 1,000 images, and thus, through Vietnam and the world: lush fields with ripening rice in the north-west, a village gate beside a giant banyan tree in the north, the yellow abele forests of Russia, and much more.

Ta Hai now devotes all his time to painting but he does not wish to earn money from the art, even though some of his paintings have sold for high prices. He says art is his passion, not his business.

Ta Hai welcomes visitors to his home gallery, located at No. 13, Alley 519, Hoang Hoa Tham Street, Hanoi.

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