|Selection process: Amateur artists Dang Ngoc Anh (right) and Bui Cong Hien show butterfly species which can be used to make collages.
|Fiddly work:Painter Ho Dac Hiep in HCMCity creates collages.
|On display: Painting with butterfly wings is a new type of art which appeals to locals and foreign visitors alike. — VNS Photos Thanh Vu
Using the colourful wings of butterflies to create works of art is a relatively new idea. And it appears to be taking hold. It has potential to create jobs and give tourists novel memento to hang over the mantlepiece. Do Minh Thu
The artist treats his dried butterflies with passion and respect.
"They are wonderful gifts of nature," says painter Ho Dac Hiep. "When they're alive they make nature beautiful, when they die, they give my artworks colour."
Hiep is one among many artists throughout Viet Nam making collages from dead butterfly wings. Each one of them has a different way to approach making butterfly paintings, but they share the same passion for fine arts. Together they have created a new school of Vietnamese fine arts. The butterfly paintings are not only interesting at home but also have been exported to foreign countries. The art helps bring jobs for many people, not just the artists, and the butterfly paintings become a special souvenir from Viet Nam.
Hiep started making butterfly paintings at the suggestion of his friend, who worked at a company collecting butterfly specimens. Regretting all the rejected specimens, he asked Hiep what he would do with them.
Being a painter, Hiep immediately considered them a new material for his artwork.
Hiep wanted to arrange the butterfly wings into a painting. He bought rejected specimens from the company and separated the butterfly wings into different boxes depending on their colour.
The selected wings were then dried under the heat from light bulbs for 24 hours then stuck to a paper Hiep sketched before by pencil.
"This process must be carried out carefully because the butterfly wings are very soft and fragile," Hiep says, "If I make a mistake, I can't correct it or remove the wings; the whole painting is rejected."
"I failed many times before the first painting was finished," he says.
Among the 250 species of butterfly which can be used to make paintings, the blue ones are the most rare and expensive, according to Hiep.
"The butterfly wings are most suitable for landscape paintings," he says.
To make butterfly paintings as souvenirs for foreign tourists, Hiep mixes a special glue to improve the paintings' endurance.
"My paintings are carried abroad but I haven't received any complaints about their quality from customers," he says proudly.
The more time he spends making butterfly paintings, the more passionate he feels. He can create 300 paintings every year, 90 per cent of them sold to foreigners. Hiep founded Tina Furniture Art Giftware in HCM City to train workers and export products made from butterflies including wing paintings to the US and Australia.
Two entomologist-turned-artists in Ha Noi share the same idea as Hiep. They desire to export unique Vietnamese hand-made collages and create more jobs. They plan to build up butterflies houses to serve tourists and researchers as well as provide materials to make butterfly paintings.
"We're always ready to share the secret of making butterfly paintings to others and instruct farmers how to build butterflies houses for free," says Bui Cong Hien.
Hien is a professor and entomologist, and now works as the director of the Entomology Centre at Ha Noi University of Science, but his keen intelligence and passion for fine arts turned him to an artist of butterfly paintings.
His small office on the third floor of the Centre of Termite Research and Prevention on Chua Boc Street is like a miniature insect museum which boasts hundreds of varieties of insects including butterflies, moths and beetles.
Together with insect's specimens, several Dong Ho folk paintings hang on his walls including Chan Trau (Herding Buffaloes), Dam Cuoi Chuot (Mice's Wedding) and Muc Dong Tha Dieu (Herdsmen Flying Kites).
At first glance, they seem out of place in a room of entomologists. But a closer look reveals that in fact, the exquisite art is actually crafted entirely out of brilliant, delicate butterfly and moth fragments.
Hien first saw a butterfly-wing painting during a trip to Thailand in 1992. It was sold at high price to tourists. The idea of creating such paintings in Viet Nam seemed natural to him as he considered the immense variety of butterflies and moth species the tropical country boasts.
"I had an idea to make pictures by grafting butterfly wings during my trip abroad. At that time I simply thought that our country should have tourist products which bear Viet Nam's natural characteristics," he says.
One year later, he talked with forest expert Dang Ngoc Anh, who was known as an expert in insects about his idea. Unexpectedly, Anh was very interested and they began to rear butterflies and collect samples, both for research and creating art.
Hien and Anh decided to choose Dong Ho folk paintings (originated from Dong Ho Village, Ha Noi, printed on poonah paper) as inspiration to make their butterfly paintings because "this is the common property of the Vietnamese people, we don't worry about the copyright", they say.
"Another reason is we want to use materials of Vietnamese nature to introduce things typical of traditional Vietnamese culture to tourists as subjects depicted in those folk paintings such as scenes of life, landscapes, seasons of the year and prosperity symbols," says Hien.
"Besides, the colours used in Dong Ho paintings and butterfly collages are very much alike," he adds.
This traditional Vietnamese art form taken from Thailand that highlights scenes from ordinary life, landscapes and symbols, now has new life breathed into it thanks to the professor-turned-artisans who uses butterfly wings to recreate traditional art pieces.
Talking about the painstaking effort needed to apply butterfly wings to Dong Ho folk paintings, engineer Anh says: "Apart from going to all corners of the country to collect butterflies, we must undertake different steps, processing and treating them with chemicals, dry them in the cupboards and preserve them at a suitable temperature."
The steps of cutting the butterfly wings and grafting them into the sketches of folk paintings are not simple.
The process includes tracing the outline of the chosen picture onto a thin sheet of paper which is then attached to a panel of cardboard.
They only use specimens that were formally used for research and whose bodies are not intact after being processed in ethyl solution or alcohol.
To keep from damaging the natural fragility and softness of the butterflies' wings, Hien and Anh use special glue made from sap which is very sticky, but neither too solid nor too viscous, thus making the picture durable and naturally beautiful. Even the pollen on the butterfly wings must be kept intact. The meticulous work of grafting the wings into a picture requires the great patience of the craftsmen.
The wings retain their natural form and original colours, giving the art a brilliant texture and sheen.
Their finished collages cost anywhere from VND160,000 (US$7) to several million dong depending on the rarity of butterfly species used and the complexity of the painting.
"The prices are just my estimate. I consider making butterfly wing collages a hobby, passion and a good way to make use of damaged butterfly specimens," says Hien.
"I haven't thought about doing business outside of this yet," the 67-year-old adds, saying that he gifted most of his craft work to his friends, many of whom are foreigners.
Hien says he's also more than willing to teach his butterfly-wing techniques to anyone interested and thinks it's a great way for people to learn about Viet Nam's time-honoured art of folk paintings.
"People, particularly foreigners, really love the paintings as they can learn more about Vietnamese traditional culture through them," Hien says.
The couple of amateur artisans have finished a collection of traditional Vietnamese costumes of 54 ethnic groups incorporating butterfly and moth wing fragments.
They are ready to bequeath the techniques of this art to those who are really interested in it. "It's time for young people to continue the work that we have established," they said.
Viet Nam owns more than 1,000 butterfly species which reproduce quickly and abundantly so the people should take full advantage of the situation, they said.
"A life cycle of a butterfly is short, about several days, some species can live within several months, so when a butterfly's dead, its wings are still preserved for a long time in paintings," Hien said.
People in the countryside can catch butterflies from their farms and gardens then process the wings to make paintings. For those living near forests, it's convenient to invest in building ecological sites where butterflies are raised.
"We are not professional artists but we still make many paintings," Hien says.
A new trade for the farmers will help them to rear butterflies and make pictures from to earn more income and popularise Vietnamese culture to the world. — VNS