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Hélène Kling's paintings are inspired by her life in Vietnam

Claude Monet once said, "I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers."

To some Western artists who have chosen to stay in Vietnam, the country itself has been their flowers.

The artists have found their instinct for artistic expression enhanced by Vietnam, and some of them have discovered a promising market of foreign audiences that Vietnam has yet to exploit.

During a trip to Thailand in 1994, Hélène Kling decided to take a step further and visit Ho Chi Minh City to see the galleries of Dong Khoi Street.

It was a life-changing step for the French painter, who has opened several professional exhibitions in Vietnam since 2000.

"Vietnam was so different from Thailand.

"I could feel the French past with the old cars that you could meet time to time in the street, by the bread in the street, the coffees at every corner and also by some old Vietnamese speaking French. Then I fell in love with this country and I decided that I would come back," Kling said.

She did return in 1996, working for a cosmetics company. But after two and a half years, she decided to quit and try to develop her art, building upon some training she had received in Paris during her studies.

By 1999, Kling had become a self-taught professional artist.

She said Vietnam has changed and her feelings for the country have evolved with such changes. She said those feelings are now so deep that she feels the need to express them through painting every day.

"I still like Vietnam, but differently and not for the same things."

Her works, the prices for which range between US$300-2,000 apiece, include landscapes, stills and portraits.

But the focus of the Swedish Consul's wife is Vietnamese women and their iconic leaf hats.

In many photos, the women are dressed in traditional ao dai, or busy in the fields, markets and the streets as vendors. In others, they are depicted in a more modern light.

In 2007, Kling compiled a collection of her work for a book, "Dragon Tears," which shares her ten years in Vietnam through paintings. The book is still available for purchase.

"Since I lived in Vietnam, every tear that fell in happiness, joy or sadness has instantly found its expression through my paintings and has been translated in color and material," she said.

Kling has passed on her inspiration to many students at the workshops she runs five days a week at her studio and gallery HK at 189/C1 Nguyen Van Huong Street, District 2 for about 20 adults and children at a time.

"No matter what else is going on, I know that there are five hours out of every week when I can forget about everything else and focus on my own creativity instead," Gillian Duncan, a student of Kling's for two years, wrote in the workshop's guest book.

"The whole painting experience is something which I feel has really made my time here in Vietnam worthwhile," he said.

Kling organizes an exhibition once a year to display the work of her students.

She says many Vietnamese like her work, but it's still hard for her to really find ways into the Vietnamese art market.

"I know some [Vietnamese artists], but they are between them. It's difficult. They are nice to me but we do not know how to do," Kling says.

Just like Kling, Jaime Zúñiga, an economics graduate from Nicaragua, is struggling to find sponsors for Vietnam's first English-speaking plays but that has not stopped him from following his dream.

Zúñiga found his love for theater reawakened after he arrived in Vietnam, where his logistics company opened a branch.

He had been involved in acting and directing plays when he was a high school student, but had been caught up in his studies and career.

Last year, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" was put to stage with Zúñiga as the artistic director.

Set at the end of the Victorian era, the play focuses on a number of protagonists who maintain fictitious personas in order to escape social obligations.

It somehow reflects Vietnamese society of today, "with the emergence of a middle class and more social diversity," said Belinda Shorland, who performed in the play.

The play has received a positive response from audiences.

Several Vietnamese artists and expats participated in the project side by side with the hopes that it would be one of many English language plays in Vietnam.

"We asked ourselves, "˜Wouldn't it be even better if these productions would not only attract the relatively small expatriate community but also that massive potential audience the English-speaking Vietnamese community represents?'" Zúñiga told Vietnam's English magazine The Word.

From the first success, Zúñiga is preparing to release another play by the end of this year, "The Little Prince," a classic of children's literature.

Zúñiga said English-speaking plays represent a new market for Vietnamese theaters and therefore, he has yet to find a sponsor.

He and his team are covering all costs of production, but are unsure what the outcome will be, as a significantly sized group of actors needs to be established.

The work is hard, but not impossible, he said.

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