Where there is smoke, there is art

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Farmer inspired by kitchen soot to make bamboo paintings

   Vu Quoc Su carves on bamboo covered in soot at his house in Dong Nai Province. Information on his works can be found at www.tranhgacbep.net/shop. Photo: Duc Khanh

Vu Quoc Su still remembers clearly the day he completed his first picture, which he calls a "smoke painting", nearly five years ago.

"I ran around the hamlet, showing my first work to anybody I met on the road. The picture, Lang que ven song (Riverside village), depicts a peaceful fishing village on a river bank surrounded by bamboo plants," Su recalled.

The 53-year-old artist said it took him a month to finish the work, using a sharp knife to create images on a soot-blackened "canvas" that he made by attaching flat pieces of bamboo tightly together.

The idea of making "˜smoke pictures' came by chance. Born in 1960 in the northern province of Nam Dinh, Su moved to earn his living as a farmer in southern Dong Nai Province after he returned from military service.

"Once I helped a neighbor remove his bamboo kitchen, I saw soot-blackened bamboo pieces with different images caused by scratches on the surface.

"In my mind then appeared images on the body of a Ä‘iếu cày (bamboo pipe used to smoke thuốc lào Vietnamese traditional tobacco made from nicotiana rustica, popular in the northern and central regions), and I thought of creating images on bamboo.

"Then and there, while we were taking a break (from dismantling the kitchen), I used a nail to carve a portrait on a bamboo section just removed from the roof of the kitchen.

"Everybody praised me for the work."

Thus it was that Su began to have serious aspirations about making pictures with bamboo and cooking smoke.

He brought bamboo sections, to put on a frame above the stove to "smoke" them.

"At first I was so eager that I created images on the bamboo sections after having them smoked for a few days, but I failed."

He found that the soot layer on the surface of the bamboo sections had to be very thick for his idea to work.

Now, Su is an expert who says there are five major stages in making the "˜smoke pictures.'

 First, select hard bamboo plants with long pipes, split them into splints two-fingers in width, and dry them. After they dry, soak them in water for 100 days to protect them from termites.

Second, take the soaked bamboo pieces, dry them, then smooth them before joining the pieces into boards of different sizes and shapes.

The third, also the most important stage, is to smoke the boards. They are hung in a closed room with a stove. Firewood is heated first to make charcoal, then organic substances like sawdust or soaked coconut fiber are used to make smoke in the room.

The smoking stage takes at least 100 days. During this stage, Su has to change positions of the bamboo boards every three days to ensure that the smoke will cover all the surfaces.

After more than three months, the boards, which become soot-blackened, will be taken out of the room to prepare for the fourth stage creating images.

Unlike other artists who use brushes to make paintings, Su's tool set consists of a needle, a small knife and a grindstone used to sharpen the knife.

With the needle, Su etches small lines to make a sketch on the surface, then he uses the knife to scrape off the soot layer. The image will gradually appear in black (the remaining soot) and white (the color of the bamboo stalk after the black layer is removed).

"The most difficult thing in making smoke painting is how to create "˜depth' for the work. The painter needs to know which part has to be scraped deeply or lightly to create the right tones," he says.

"Unlike creating an oil or a lacquerware painting, work on a smoke painting must be done continuously as the soot layer will become crisp soon after the bamboo is taken out of the smoked room."

Previously, it took Su a month to make a painting, but now he can complete one in five to seven days.

The last stage in his creation is to use a mini brush to flick off the dust and cover the painting with a layer of resin containing polyurethane, which helps protect the product.

Su is not sure how long his works will last, but the smoke paintings he created over four years ago remain intact and still look very vivid.

Propagation dreams

On display at his house in Xuan An Ward, Long Khanh Municipality are around 50 paintings, many of which have been highly appreciated by art lovers at home and abroad.

Three months ago, he completed a reproduction of Mona Lisa (La Gioconda or La Joconde), a masterpiece of the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, which has been acclaimed as "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world."

 Su's Nu cuoi bi hiem  sold for almost US$4,000. Photo: www.tranhgacbep.net
His work, called "Nu cuoi bi hiem" (The inscrutable smile), has been sold to a collector from Ho Chi Minh City for VND80 million (nearly US$4,000).

He also revealed someone has offered VND20 million for a painting depicting American actress, model, and singer Marilyn Monroe. However, Su has yet to give a nod of assent.

The self-taught artist actually nurtures a much larger ambition than making money from his work.

He wants to make the new art more popular as a way of promoting Vietnamese culture abroad.

"This type of art is still unknown in the world. Moreover, it's a typical feature of Vietnamese art. Bamboo and cooking smoke are quintessentially Vietnamese and sometimes used to symbolize Vietnam's peaceful countryside.

"My biggest dream is to create more and share my experiences with art lovers and others to popularize the art of creating smoke pictures. I believe that one day, Vietnamese bamboo and cooking smoke will become renowned all over the world through this art."

Su has been invited to display his works at many exhibitions in Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. He is now seeking financial aid to organize a solo exhibition in the southern metro and open a gallery there, hoping it will help pave the way for introducing his smoke paintings to more local and foreign art lovers.

Last year Su was presented with a handicraft award by the Dong Nai Province as a recognition for developing his unique art. He has also registered a brand name for his paintings.

Apart from bamboo, the artist is currently trying out other materials like glass, mica, plastic, and in particular, dried gourd shells.

The gourd shells become very hard when they are dried, so it will be an ideal material for making smoke paintings, he said.

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