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Artist at home with local faces

Update: May, 07/2015 - 10:07
Face to face: Heather McClellan works in her studio in Tay Ho, painting laquer portraits of local women. — Photo courtesy of Heather McClellan

by Thuy Hang

HA NOI  (VNS)  — American artist Heather McClellan feels a special connection to the older Vietnamese women she met while travelling across in Viet Nam.

That connection is evident in the laquer paintings she included in her exhibition in Ha Noi. McClellan said creating them helped her alleviate the homesickness she felt living abroad.

"Since moving to Ha Noi last year, I miss my mother and my grandmother very badly," she said. "Although I'd never met those women before, I felt like they were my grandmother or my mother," McClellan said.

She made 26 lacquer works for the exhibition Flex. Ten of the pieces depict local women she met in Ha Noi, Ninh Binh and Hoi An. Most of them were street vendors or people she met while walking around.

To show her respect to those women, McClellan invited some of them to attend the exhibition's opening ceremony.

"I'll send a thank-you card featuring their lacquer portrait to each of them," she said. "I hope it will be a small surprise for them."

McClellan moved to Ha Noi with her four small children last June when her husband, a contractor, got a deal with Viet Nam's Ministry of Planning and Investment.

McClellan was almost immediately fascinated by the art of Vietnamese lacquer. She'd heard of it before but didn't know much about it.

"I'm familiar with oil painting, but I was really excited to try lacquer, because there are many new art techniques involved that I could learn," said McClellan, who received her formal training in graphics and illustration at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio.

To introduce herself to the art form, McClellan took a private class with lacquer artist Tran Anh Tuan, a lecturer of the Ha Noi University of Industrial Fine Arts.

"Although I knew about colour and composition, I still needed to learn more about the use of the materials and characters, how to mix the colours, how they blend together and how to sand the pieces," she said.

Whenever McClellan had any difficulty or questions, she asked her teacher.

"Tuan is a great teacher because he is so good at making people understand the whole sophisticated process of making lacquer," she said. "Thanks to him, I finally can approach lacquer."

To prepare for Flex, McClellan worked very hard for three months, from January to March. She turned part of her backyard into an art studio with a working table, sanding machine and colours, where she sometimes spent 15 hours a day painting.

"I was a little bit nervous that I couldn't be here any longer when my husband finished work in the summer, so I wanted to make sure I had enough paintings for the show," she said. "I spent so much time and energy to create my lacquer. My family was very patient with me."

Every day the painter just had a break for lunch, during which she often ate bun cha – her favourite Vietnamese dish.

"I could eat bun cha every day," she said.

So many things impress McClellan about Viet Nam, she said.

"Viet Nam has many things that conquer my heart: the architecture, the colour, the smell – both good and bad," she explained.

"I love the people here, as they are a great source of inspiration – old ladies, a man carrying a big load of bricks, a guy holding his baby behind him, or women selling food and flowers in the market. I always take photos of what I see so I can use them for my art."

Vietnamese people's smiles also gave her inspiration for her future oil painting collection, she said, which is about the beauty of women from different countries she visited: Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Africa, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

"In Viet Nam, a smile with rang khenh or ‘vampire' teeth is considered a beauty mark, like scars or piercing in some African countries," she said. "It is very interesting to depict this beautiful feature of Vietnamese women."

McClellan spent two years living in Saudi Arabia, which enforces strict rules for women. She saw a vast difference between that culture and Viet Nam's.

"When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was asked to dress modestly, often covering my hair and body, she said. "When I came here, it was the opposite. I'm free, happy and relaxed here."

Out of all the vast landscapes in Viet Nam, Ninh Binh is her favourite.

"I am a rock climber, so I love the mountain and really appreciate seeing them. They are so big, powerful and beautiful."

She said she will definitely include the beautiful mountains and cliffs of Ninh Binh in her paintings.

The painter also voiced her intention to paint local monuments and pagodas, which, she said, "have beautiful architecture". She hopes will have a chance to come back to Viet Nam soon, because then she can continue devoting time to her paintings. — VNS

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