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Making art rooted in nature

Update: April, 21/2013 - 03:09

Artist Dang Tu

An HCM City sculptor carves tree stumps into mystical statues of holy figures, from Buddha to the gods of fortune, prosperity and longevity. Cao Phuong and An Vu report.

Thousands of gods and legends fill a building to the brim in HCM City's Tan Binh District, overflowing onto the street and catching the eye of mortals passing by.

In this 100sq.m workshop near Tan Son Nhat Airport, Dang Tu is pursuing an unusual kind of art. Using dried tree roots. Tu makes splendid wooden statues of different colours, shapes and patterns; a unique art that has not only allowed him to develop his own style, but has also made him one of the richest men in town.

"I have been fascinated by the idea and medium of tree stumps for more than 20 years and right at the beginning, I was inspired to create something unusual from it," says Dang Tu, 43, who still draws from the same inspiration.

As a young boy, Tu left his hometown in My Xuyen District for HCM City, in search of an opportunity to build something substantial with just his bare hands and fervent heart, and amid the chaos and intrigue of the city, his belief is what has kept him alive and more inspired than ever.

His workshop, that shares the same district as Tan Son Nhat Airport, resembles a museum with its masses of standing, lying, raw and complete wooden statues. His studio can easily be identified from the outside too, as the statues, seemingly running out of space, burst out onto the street to form queues, as if waiting to be allowed back in to this exclusive work place.

Walking through the maze of sculpted figures, statues to suit anyone's taste can be found, such as the Buddha, the Arhats, and even the three gods of Good Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity.

When Tu sculpts a statue, he finds himself completely absorbed in his work, not noticing anything that happens around him. Only when someone taps him on the shoulder does he raise his head. On one of these occasions, he shared part of the sculpting process that he goes through.

"I look at dried tree root and project onto it what I believe it looks like, using my imagination to picture its stature. For example, if the root seems to contain a young girl, it can be turned into a statue of a girl. What's most important is that each statue must have a separate spirit of a human being. If not, it is nothing more than a lifeless thing," Tu says about his lifetime job.

He says that for those who have used tree roots for a long time, digging up the stump of the tree while it is still deep in the ground is not a good method. Instead, they make a mark on the tree and wait patiently until the rain makes the soil softer, so they can easily lift the whole stump out of the ground.

"You must know how to dig as well. If you mistakenly cut parts of the root, you have failed to use that stump for ornamental purposes. Although the stump is precious to the sculptor, it is the root that can decide the uniqueness of the artwork," he says.

He reveals that he has his workers, who have usually been trained for three years and possess enough artistic nous to recognise the quality of the roots, to carry out this process.

He has to wait patiently for the stump to dry up, until which he must tap into his imagination to find inspiration for how to sculpt the mass of wood.

Tu insists that the price does not depend on the size or the value of the statue, but the art value hiding inside it. The spirit of the wood and the soul of the artist become one, which makes the statue more "human".

One of his statues, the Phat Di Lac (Mitreya Buddha), which depicts the plump richness of the Buddha's face, also symbolises wealth. Together with it, the Dat Ma Su To (Bodhidharma) shows his pensiveness and mystery. The two are the top of the list of orders in Tu's fine art wood companies, at the websites tuonggo1A.com and tuongnudangtu.com.

"Only a few successful craftsmen can create a spiritual wooden statue that can portray mercy and inner peace from the outside. Tu is one of those rarities," says Trinh Thanh Huong, a regular customer.

There are currently thousands of wooden statues made from dried tree roots in this workshop. Some worth more than VND200 million (US$9,560), while some are not for sale.

"It's not like only the rich can afford my works. The most important thing is customers must have love and true compassion for the art. A customer who shares the same inclination with me can pay for a statue that costs VND10 million ($478) in instalments. As long as he shares the same feelings for a statue with me, I see him as a friend. Money does not matter," he says.

"Customers nowadays would never spend a single dong for a bad statue. They are, on the other hand, more than willing to empty their pockets for unique and extraordinary ones. That is the trend of today," he adds.

For this man, each day is a new journey and a new discovery, which he never wishes to stop or look back. As an artist and a businessman, he is truly himself, but he will never feel confused between them. — VNS

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