Viet Nam News
By Lê Hương
When they reach the age of 60, many people choose to leave the stresses of work behind and instead enjoy their gardens, books, friends and families. But French sculptor Olivier Oet has found his interest in supporting needy children at a social centre in the central city of Huế.
Since 2012, he has been spending two months of the year training them how to make Japanese Raku ceramics at the Hope Centre to make products for locals and tourists.
An artist and social worker, Oet has spent 30 years working with disabled people in France.
In 2010, he met a Vietnamese-French woman named Phương, who was collecting money for associations in Việt Nam to help people suffering from Agent Orange.
“We met at a Christmas market during a ceramic and pottery exhibition in Paris,” he told Việt Nam News through an email. “Miss Phương was so enthusiastic with what she saw that she asked me if I could train Vietnamese social workers.”
Oet agreed and two years later, he welcomed five Vietnamese social workers from different centres around the country for a five-week pottery course at his centre in Paris.
Two years later, he trained another five Vietnamese teachers.
“Pottery is such a great builder,” he said. “The mission was to help people to express themselves with something different than language and to value their work.”
Oet had never been in Việt Nam before Phương suddenly died in 2013.
“I decided to take over her responsibility and go to Việt Nam with my wife to see if I could help people at their own centres.”
Their first stop was Nha Trang where they organised a pottery class for disabled children in a specialised centre. They then worked with the Hope Centre in Huế where they invited a young trainee to visit them in Paris for a pottery course.
They then decided to develop pottery and Raku firing.
Raku is a technique of glazing which originated in Korea and was developed in Japan during the 16th century.
This technique is closely linked to the famous tea ceremony. The kiln is heated to 1,000°C and a special type of clay is used.
To make a Raku item is to experience the sensual feeling of modelling the clay, the glazing and then taking the red-hot pots out of the kiln, and finally discovering the pot after immersion in water.
“We play with earth, fire and water and the outcome is a very personal and unique piece of art - sometimes surprising but always wonderful,” he wrote on the website of the Ateliers Vincent Marie Oet (AVMO) organisation he is chairman of.
Võ Thành Long, 23, was one of the first to trained in Raku under Oet’s guidance. He lives in Kim Long Ward in Huế, and visits the centre every day.
“I feel happy taking part in pottery classes at the centre,” he said.
More than 30 children and teenagers produce ceramics at the centre. Fish, cups and animals are just a few of their creations.
“Since the pottery workshop opened here, children here could be able to find new jobs and new incomes," Long said.
"People, though not many, are looking for products to buy, which is a positive sign.”
The Hope Centre has helped just over 550 people since it’s inception in 1999.
Trainees can attend courses from 6 months to a year. The first student to attend the centre’s tailoring courses, all suffering from hearing disabilities, are now employed by top tailoring businesses in Huế.
Many of the admin staff have moved through the ranks starting off at vocational training and moving to various positions as permanent staff. They are encouraged for further study to enhance their skills. They are selected because they show their ability and initiative. Several people have been at the centre for many years.
“Tailoring classes at the centre are overcrowded now,” Nguyễn Thị Hồng, director of the centre said. “Making pottery, the children can move to be more creative as a way to reduce stress.”
“Olivier Oet transmits energy and drives us to stay consistent and reach our targets despite any difficulties,” she said.
“Pottery is an attractive art and provides so much to people in terms of being confident in themselves, and the idea quickly came to offer tours ourselves,” Oet said.
The tour offers hands-on advice about making objects from clay and how to decorate them with glazing, colours and patterns, before firing them in the kilns and discovering the final products.
AVMO has been running for three years during which time it has supported the Hope Centre in training staff, children, setting up workshops and providing materials.
The organisation supported a project started to raise goats in A Lưới District of Thừa Thiên Huế Province last year, another to raise chickens this year.
“These models are experimental for other farmer households to apply in the future,” Oet said.
AVMO has 100 members, who are active fundraisers and support other activities like exhibitions every year.
“Once a year, we have a solidarity day on our boat in Paris and in the evening we share a big bowl of phở,” he said.
Oet reveals he loves everything in Việt Nam: the people, the food and the atmosphere. He really likes phở, stir-fried rice and everything spicy.
“In the future, I would like to help the community in anyway,” he said.
Oet will be staying at the centre this September. — VNS