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Dinh Cong Dat at work. His unique feather paintings are now on display at 207 Cua Dai Street, Hoi An

Dinh Ngoc Dat was in 12th grade at the Tran Quy Cap High School when he had the idea of gifting something unique to a close friend who was leaving town.

It was the late 70s, the nation had just gotten out of decades of war, and everything was scarce. One had to make do with what little was available.

A resident of Hoi An Town, now famous as a UN Heritage site, Dat decided he would gift his friend a picture of Chua Cau (literally, the Pagoda Bridge). The bridge is a covered structure with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side built more than 400 years ago. Known as the "Japanese Bridge," it is the most famous Japanese architectural work in town.

To make his unique gift, Dat used glue made from cassava flour to stick feathers he had previously plucked from his family's chickens onto a sketch of Chua Cau.

His first art piece received great appreciation from people around, but Dat did not think much of it. He joined the army a few months later.

He worked in the army as a cartographer from 1979 for a few years. As he worked, he began to think of developing his original idea of using chicken feathers to make paintings.

"Paintings using materials like oil or lacquer had become popular, so I thought about using another material to make my work unique," he said.

After returning from military service, Dat did many jobs. He was a hotel receptionist, a book seller, and even an English tutor, but even as he did all these jobs, he saved money from his modest earnings to buy chicken feathers. 

He had found by then that only feathers taken from a living chicken, not from a dead one, worked properly. A dead fowl's feathers do not retain their original colors and change shape considerably, Dat found.

So to get feathers, every day, Dat went to the market with a pair of scissors and asked chicken sellers to cut feathers before the fowl were slaughtered.

"At first many felt surprised, and thought I was mad. Some even thought that I was a shaman who was collecting chicken feathers to work miracles," Dat recalled with a laugh.

After getting the feathers, he cleaned, dried and sterilized them before affixing them in the right places, giving his works a brilliant texture and sheen.

Chicken feathers range in color from white, light and dark yellow, brown, grey and turquoise-tinted black.

The natural colors of feathers are special because they cannot be recreated by oil or water colors, said Dat, who has never received professional training and relies on his natural flair. 

He said he starts by drawing on paper or canvas, then carefully chooses feathers of suitable shape, size and color to arrange and then stick them on to the background with glue.

"It's meticulous work. I take hours to sort out hundreds of feathers and match them with pictures."

The 54-year-old artist said he is grateful to his wife, Trinh Thi Cam, for her contribution to his work.

"My family has faced difficulties as I'm not a good earner, but my wife has never blamed me for that. She has always, silently, helped me, encouraged me to pursue and realize my dream."

It takes Dat at least two days to finish a 40x60 cm picture, but sometimes the process can take several months. If he feels unsatisfied with a work, he will not hesitate to do it all over again.

Dat has so far crafted hundreds of feathered paintings,  mostly capturing the landscape and culture of Hoi An.

Some of the more striking works include  the Chua Cau and Pho co mua lut (The ancient town in the flooding season), Choi ga (Cock fighting), Trau cay (Working buffalo), and Xom dua (Hamlet by the coconut trees), which vividly depicts the pastoral beauty of the Vietnamese countryside.

Feathered portraits

Dat also makes portraits with chicken plumage.

"Making portraits is always the most difficult work because it's not easy to capture the look and the twinkle in the eyes. It's very different from working on canvas or using water colors."

His most favorite work is a portrait of late composer Trinh Cong Son (1939-2001), who was dubbed the Vietnamese Bob Dylan.

"I have loved his music since I was very young. That's why I keep my portrait of Son as a memory and have not sold it though many have offered high prices for it."

It took Dat a lot of time to finish the picture, as he used feathers with flower-like dots, making images of rain drops around the face of the talented songwriter, who wears a large pair of short-sighted glasses.

"I captured Son's image in his 30s and made a background for the picture with spray-like rain, inspired by Diem xua (Diem of the past days), one of his most famous love songs," Dat said.

The artist said each of his paintings is unique as it is impossible to create two feather paintings exactly alike.

"Each work is unique and filled with passion, love and memories, so there is a feeling of regret when selling them even though they can improve my living conditions."

The prices of his pictures are now VND4-5 million on average.

Dat revealed he had recently received an order to make a chicken feather painting based on "Tam Quoc Chi" (The Records of the Three Kingdoms), also known by its Chinese title Sanguozhi, which is a Chinese historical text which covers the history of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (184220 CE) and the Three Kingdoms period (220280 CE).

"The picture was sold for VND20 million (nearly US$1,000), the highest of my paintings so far," he said.

His works are now on display at his home at 207 Cua Dai Street, some distance away from the town center. He moved there recently after living for many years in a small attic at his younger brother's house at 13 Tran Quy Cap Street.

Future hopes

Some of Dat's feather paintings have made it to the pages of famous foreign magazines and books.

His works have also attracted lots of foreign visitors, but while he is proud to be the creator of chicken feather paintings in Vietnam, Dat feels he has limited opportunity to promote his creations nationwide or abroad.

Over the past two years he has sought permission from local authorities to add his works to Hoi An's tourism promotion program and also requested them to support him in opening a gallery in the old town.

Unfortunately, he has received no response so far.

Vo Phung, director of the Hoi An Sports and Culture Center, said Dat's feather paintings are very creative and unique.

However, he told VnExpress that the artist's proposal for a venue to display his works should be approved by the Hoi An People's Committee.

While there is no sign of that happening any time soon, there are some signs of hope.

"We have included Dat's artwork in the city's biggest cultural events and exhibitions nationwide. The town is currently seeking additional funding to help promote the art across the country," Le Thi Son Ca, a staff member of Hoi An's culture center, said in a Vietnam News report.

Dat said he is planning to make a huge feather painting featuring major world heritage sites in Vietnam, including Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Hue's imperial buildings.

"I will register my picture for the World Guinness Records with the hope it will help promote the image of Vietnam abroad."

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