On a rainy Saturday afternoon in late July in Saigon, eight people began an art workshop by diligently drawing portraits of each other on white paper with color brush pens.
Hailing from various backgrounds, they had no drawing experience and had never seen each other before. When told by the instructor to sketch first with the right hand, then the left, then without looking at the paper, and finally with eyes closed, one of them joked: “That will offend our new friends!”
But later they agreed it was a very good and funny way to connect with each other.
They moved on by freely using any tool -- paintbrush, foam, straw, toothbrush, or even their hands -- to draw pictures of concepts they liked: rain, afternoon, park, fruit, flower, sea, love, and close friend.
Tran Thu Tham, a 25-year-old freelance journalist, said after three hours at the workshop: “The instructor asked us to just draw with joy and without caring about how the pictures looked or how people would judge them. So, I felt free to draw though I had been very scared.
“I had thought that drawing was beyond my ability and that only people who were gifted could draw and drawing had certain purposes like making pictures for selling or designing something.”
Tham said the workshop helped her realize that “Drawing can be just for fun” and see another side of herself, which is colorful and creative.
The workshop, titled “Art Therapy”, was organized by Toa Tau (Railroad Car) school. Located on Dien Bien Phu Street near Saigon Bridge in Ho Chi Minh City, Toa Tau was founded in June 2014 by three young people, who call it “a creative learning hub.”
Apart from regular workshops, this hub also offers short-term courses in the arts for both children and adults, including drawn out storytelling, presentation storytelling, ukulele (the popular Hawaiian musical instrument), visual exploration, and origami (Japanese paper-folding art).
The name “Toa Tau” is inspired by the popular book “Totto-chan – The Little Girl at the Window” by Japanese author Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.
Kuroyanagi tells about her unconventional elementary school in Tokyo during World War II that combined learning with fun, freedom, and love. This school had old railroad cars for classrooms, and it was run by its founder and headmaster Sosaku Kobayashi.
In real life, the Totto-chan of the book, Kuroyanagi, has become one of Japan's most popular television personalities. She attributes her success in life to her elementary school and its headmaster.
Do Huu Chi, the instructor at the workshop and a co-founder of Toa Tau, said there is not too much focus on technique when teaching any kind of art. Instead, it is used as a means to help learners express their feelings and ideas.
“We don’t expect learners to become excellent painters or ukulele players. We expect them to release their emotions to become balanced and happier,” Chi, who won a Fulbright scholarship in 2011 and got a MA degree in Sequential Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in the US two years later, said.
The two other founders are Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, who got a Ph.D in construction engineering and project management from the University of Texas at Austin also in the US, and Le Phuong Huyen, a translator of many famous foreign books.
“We believe that art is a good channel to release the energy of anger, tiredness, or other emotions you have repressed,” Chi said.
“But, unfortunately, not many people are using it as they consider art a thing that belongs to artists.
“So, we are creating an environment where people can connect with themselves and with others via art,” the 31-year-old, who was a former art director of Nha Nam Publisher, said.
He also believes that art and creativity can banish the fear. He expects the art courses at Toa Tau to help people build an attitude of “If I can do this, I can do others.”
“After finishing a drawing class here, a university student no longer feared drawing and saw this as a foundation for her not to fear writing. Thus she entered a writing contest organized by a popular news magazine for students. She won and was offered an internship.”
Chi also hopes that classes at Toa Tau, held in an informal and friendly atmosphere, would nurture creativity and a sense of wonder in adults, who usually lose these natural traits while growing up, while maintaining them in children.