Painting potential: disabled Vietnamese artist inspires his peers

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Do Minh Tam uses his mouth to paint

Though Do Minh Tam lost the use of his arms and legs in an accident back in 1991, he did not let long odds stop him from becoming one of Vietnam's most notable artists.

He uses his mouth to control his paintbrush.

But his contemporaries not only appreciate his triumph over such a severe disability, they say his sophisticated and creative paintings would be hard for anyone to create.

Tam, 44, said in a recent Saigon Tiep Thi report he used to passively accept his condition.

The 1991 accident happened in the Central Highlands, which he only learned about five days later, upon waking up at a friend's house unable to move his body.

The fact that he was poor, plus a defeatist attitude, prevented Tam from seeking for any medical support, and he describes the two years he spent at his friend's as existing rather than living.

He thought about death frequently, all too aware of his misery.

But then he made a life-changing decision. He did not want to burden his friend any longer and asked to be moved to the Ho Chi Minh City Orthopedic Hospital.

The hospital covered all his treatment, but there was little they could do, as his spine had been broken at the neck, the injury having calcified from immobility. The hospital treated his necrosis and provided therapies to strengthen his atrophied muscles.

After more than one year of treatment, he was taken in by Maison Chance, a shelter for unfortunate and disabled people established in Ho Chi Minh City in 1993 and which now has branches in the US, Australia and Europe.

Tam started painting at the shelter in 2007 after seeing several other disabled people do so.

It soon became his means of self-expression, which he has used to call for world peace and environmental protection.

At the beginning, he only painted to kill time. It took him months to master strokes that an able-bodied person can achieve in a day.

Tam said he could not eat during the first days as his teeth and mouth went numb from holding the brush, and he also suffered dizziness from constantly shaking his head to move the brush.

His first painting from pencil was finished after a year and it was a surprise to his teacher, who concluded Tam had a gift for art.

It was selected from 15 outstanding works in Vietnam to join an international exhibition of disabled artists in Japan in September 2008.

His teacher Nguyen Ngoc Tri told Saigon Tiep Thi, "Tam is admired not only as a disabled artist, but for his talents and creativity. He only learned from me the techniques, but his patience and his spirit are his own."

He does not have many chances to move around to learn from others, so he usually creates his own techniques, such as mixing lighter water colors with darker ones such as brown and grey to create a 3D effect.

Being confined in space has also given his paintings a depth that interests many artists, who said they can see his pain in the strokes, shapes and colors of the paintings.

He painted "Giot le" (Tear) after the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The focus is a boat struggling in rough waves. But when looked from a little farther, extra details such as small sails and clouds reveal a human face screaming for help.

Tam said that he's a veteran and he has been badly haunted by conflicts and losses.

"Now I want to raise a voice to draw attention from the international community, that those things should not happen anymore," he said in the report.

His most recent work, "Tieng goi tham tam" (Heart's call) depicts a forest and a burning heart which is a combination of half a guitar and a mandolin, two musical instruments familiar to Vietnamese soldiers during wartime.

He said he hopes every person has a burning heart to build the country and the world into a beautiful place.

"Our country has gone through a long time of wars and chaos, and the consequences have lasted until now with illiteracy, poverty and hunger, and environment destruction," Tam said.

Tam has completed more than 30 paintings in five years, most of them portraying his hometown in the northern province of Thanh Hoa.

He is painting more and seeking support to open a private exhibition to sell the paintings, the proceeds from which he intends to donate to charity.

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