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Layered in lacquer love (March 22, 2005)

Like many traditional art forms in Vietnam, lacquer painting is under threat from modern methods and technology. The founders of Cay Son, a new museum and showroom in Hanoi, are hoping to spark a revival. Phuong Lien investigates.

hen it comes to lacquer painting, there are two types of admirers. There are those who, while on holiday in Vietnam, are content to duck into a few galleries in the Old Quarter for a quick peek. These people might even buy a few things to take home, like a set of lacquered bowls. These are the Casual Fans: they may not know much about the process of lacquer painting, but the finished product sure looks great.

Then there are the people who know exactly how lacquer paint is made, can spot the difference between Japanese and Vietnamese lacquer, and may dabble a bit in the art form themselves. These are the Enthusiasts.

If you find yourself in the latter category, or if you've ever wanted to know more than you currently do about lacquer painting, there's a new museum in Hanoi that is a must-see attraction.

Called Cay Son (Lacquer Tree), it is 200 square metres of lacquer bliss. It features a museum, a workshop and a gallery, all under one roof.

Founded by three people, Japanese painter Saeko Ando, lacquer artist Nguyen Huy Hoan and art counsellor Nguyen Thu Huong, Cay Son is geared toward lacquer enthusiasts - or those who don't yet know that they're lacquer enthusiasts.

Just don't call it a centre.

"The word `centre' sounds too formal, too serious," says Ando. "This is a place where people can come to relax and enjoy a beautiful garden with lots of lacquer paintings. People can also spend as long as they like watching how people create lacquer works."

Cay Son also features painting workshops, taught by Ando, Hoan and a rising young artist named Nguyen Quoc Cuong, which are designed for all ability levels, from experienced to beginner. The classes take place in a picturesque Vietnamese-style garden house and focus on traditional Vietnamese painting techniques that use 100 per cent natural lacquer.

"People who want to experience lacquer not only by understanding and reading can come here to learn how to actually do it. And, if people do not have time to learn the technique, they also can come to watch people work," Ando explains. An artist herself, Ando understands the importance of supporting other painters, both aesthetically and financially. With that in mind, Cay Son also features a showroom that displays lacquer art pieces and handicraft items by local artist that are for sale.

Adjacent to the showroom is a private museum that takes viewers through the history and development of lacquer painting in Vietnam, with texts accompanying each historical object. There are also various tools and ingredients on display.

"Cay Son is not only a place for learning about lacquer, it is also a demonstration space for people who come here to buy lacquer products. The concept is different from other lacquer shops or galleries in town. You actually can come here to buy lacquer, learn about lacquer and see how it is made," explains Ando.

Born in 1968 in Japan, Ando began her career as a lacquer painter in 1996 under the tutelage of artist Trinh Tuan.

"Lacquer painting is not merely painting, it is a form of creation that calls for many materials. With lacquer painting, I use not only brushes but also my hands, hammers and knives. It never bores me," she says.

Like her Vietnamese peers who work with lacquer, Ando is concerned about the state of the traditional art form, especially in light of the emergence of artificial lacquer.

"We are aware that traditional lacquer needs to be protected. This is why we set up Cay Son," says her partner at the centre, the 33-year-old Hoan.

For a neophyte, it is hard to distinguish traditional lacquer from the artificial variety. According to Ando, there are numerous craftsmen involved in artificial lacquer made from industrial paint in Japan.

"Japanese and Vietnamese lacquers are equally beautiful. Actually, Japanese lacquer is even more durable than the Vietnamese lacquer. However, with Vietnamese lacquer, the process involves doing something carefully by hand, which attracts me," says Ando.

She admits that it takes a trained eye to recognise the difference.

"After you sand down a Vietnamese lacquer, you can see through many pure layers of different materials underneath, which are covered with different colors of lacquer. This is something you won't see with Japanese lacquer," she says. Even though she is a staunch defender of traditional lacquer, Ando insists that she is not out to destroy new trends.

"Here, we do not think that artificial lacquer is bad. Some people prefer artificial lacquer because it is easy to produce and easy to use as a painting material. We just want to give people the chance to shop and learn about traditional Vietnamese lacquer," Ando says.

Huong, a founding partner of Cay Son with Ando and Hoan, explains that part of the centre's mission will be to rescue a dying art form.

"I have traveled to many countries where traditional handicrafts have had a hard time competing with their mass produced equivalents, like woolen and embroidered products in Ireland and ceramics in France," Huong says.

To that end, Huong is working to bring the work of six artists to Cay Son. She's also linking up with lacquer painters across the world through the internet. There are also plans to organise a show in London.

"With Cay Son, I hope to contribute to preserving a traditional Vietnamese art form," she says.

Cay Son offers both enthusiasts and casual fans of lacquer painting the chance to do the same.

Coy Son (The Lacquer Tree) 135 Nghi Tam street Tel: 719 4745
Tuition per class: $ I 0-$15 Fee for use o f facilities: $5

Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper


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