|Snail's pace:The artist worked for a long time to reproduce the Japanese Bridge, a symbol of Hoi An. — VNS Photos Cong Thanh
Snail is a popular snack in Hoi An, sold by many street vendors. After consumption, the shells are discarded. People consider them worthless.
Except for Lu Ngoc Nam.
Since 2004, the 60-year-old artist has used the shells to produce hundreds of intricate paintings.
Born and raised in the ancient city, he earns a living from practising oriental medicine. Painting is merely a hobby.
"When I noticed the beautiful colours of shells, I thought about using them to make a painting," he said.
Nam collected nearly one hundred kilograms of snail shells from food stalls and beaches.
He spent days soaking, cleaning and drying the shells in his front yard, ignoring the curious looks from neighbours.
"The Japanese Bridge, a symbol of the city, was my first subject. It took me 10 days to complete a 1m long and 0.8m wide picture of the bridge," he said. "I took time to select different colours of shells to match them to the areas of the picture. I had little choice because the colours of snail shells are limited to grey, white, pale green and faded pink."
Nam showed the finished painting to his wife, who was fascinated by its uniqueness.
"I spent hours looking at it from different angles and distances. If you come too close to the painting, you can only see shells. But you can recognise the beauty and soul of the painting at a medium distance," she said. "I felt so glad because I spent days cleaning and drying shells for him. Of course, the success of the painting was due in part to my efforts!"
The physician has created over 70 paintings since 2004. Hoi An is his most frequent subject.
"The painting of the Japanese bridge is still my favourite work of art. It displays how much I love painting. People offered to pay VND40 million (US$2,000), but it's not for sale," Nam said.
Not every subject can be depicted via snail shell.
"I cannot turn the original colour of shells into the green of rice fields or the red of roses," he said.
The most difficult step is the preparation. The artist sketches out his idea with a pencil on paper, silk or cloth. Then he uses glue to stick the shells onto the background.
"I must use glue for shoe repair because it leaves me time to remove the shells from the base," the painter explained.
A big concrete jar was covered with a shell painting of dragons flying with the moon, mimicking the traditional style of painting on ceramic.
Nam has also created paintings using chicken feathers, shells and oil. He tried to use oyster shells once, but was not too successful.
He has had two exhibitions in Vung Tau city and many tourists bring his paintings back to the US, Japan and Switzerland.
However, his paintings are rarely shown at exhibitions or festivals in Hoi An itself.
Nam said he creates shell paintings to show his love for both art and the city.
"Shell paintings are a good souvenir because they can be preserved for decades indoors, so the landscape and people of the ancient town remain on tourists' minds," he said. "They're also quite cheap. A small painting costs only VND400,000 ($20), even when it took me at least four or five days to finish."
In 2006, his shell painting was recognised by the Viet Nam Record Book as the first art of its kind in the country.
Nam said many people came to study with him, but they failed because they were too impatient. Only two or three students succeeded at completing paintings.
"I wish to show my artwork at the biggest cultural events and exhibitions nationwide, but I cannot find a sponsor. I want to promote the art across the country," said Nam. — VNS