Disabled artist turns áo dài into unique paintings

April 02, 2023 - 09:20
A disabled man based in the southern city of Cần Thơ, works hard every day to "breathe new life" into fabric with his miraculous paintings. It is hard to believe that the creator of thousands of paintings on shirts and áo dài (traditional dress) is a man who had to have one leg and both hands amputated.
Artist Trần Hùng Bảo draws on a dress of a customer. VNA/VNS Photos Ánh Tuyết

All the doors seemed to close forever on Trần Hùng Bảo after a severe road accident took away both his arms. Such a cruel fate might have destroyed lesser men, but Bảo was determined not only to live a useful life, but also to become an artist.

Bảo, 63, based in the southern city of Cần Thơ, works hard every day to "breathe new life" into fabric with his miraculous paintings. It is hard to believe that the creator of thousands of paintings on shirts and áo dài (traditional dress) is a man who had to have one leg and both hands amputated.

Drawing on traditional long dresses is one of the artist's strength.

The painter says he had a peaceful childhood like his peers until he had the accident at the age of 12. Waking up in hospital, he was shocked to find that he had lost both hands, and it got worse more than two months later when his right leg could not be saved due to gangrene.

"It was the darkest period in my life. From being a carefree boy, I suddenly felt useless and helpless, seeing only the dimmest of futures. Then there were four long years of physiotherapy, with prosthetic arms and leg, and days of excruciating physical and emotional pain," says Bảo.

The scars slowly healed, and the prosthetic leg helped him limp around the house. With metal prosthetic hands, he tried to practise writing first, but the pen attached to the two prosthetic fingers kept falling off. He still remembers the first scribbled handwriting interspersed with sweat, and smeared on the paper.

Many times, he wanted to give up and surrender because he could not stand the torment of pain and was unable to control his prosthetic arm as he wanted. However, when he calmed down, he encouraged himself to get up and carry on.

Trần Hùng Bảo consults a customer before she decides to order a drawing on her long dress.

The painter was determined to complete high school after a four years hiatus. He eventually graduated from high school when his friends had finished their bachelor's. Applying to university, he was once again shocked to find people around had no pity for him, and he was rejected.

The doors to universities were closed to him, but a new fortune opened on another horizon.

Since no university accepted his applications, Bảo decided to find a teacher to pursue his passion for painting. He went to a teacher named Phận in Ninh Kiều District, to learn portrait painting.

Bảo regarded the teacher as his lifeline, as he patiently helped him little by little, and at the same time encouraged his progress even though it was slow.

Portrait painting was his first job, until the 90s when it started to decline with fewer customers wanting to order. But a new trend of painting on shirts was developing.

"After many days and nights of wondering about how to find a new way to earn a living, I decided to change to this new trend. Initially, I bought tools and paint and made some creation as a test and asked people around for comments so that I could improve my work," he says.

His job developed gradually after he received some good orders from a few tailors near his house. The orders continued to increase and haven't stopped since.

Over the past few decades, people passing through Đề Thám Alley in Ninh Kiều District can always see him, diligently painting on clothes to make shirts and robes. The artist's prosthetic arm is attached to an iron bar like pincers to be used as two fingers to keep and control a brush.

Continuous creativity

Bảo says when he first drew, he only chose simple designs such as leaves and flowers. Slowly, he learned and became more professional to work on more complicated decorative patterns. His drawings became more and more colourful and beautiful.

"I get inspiration and creativity from the constant changes of nature to make my own unique features for each product. Now that technology is more advanced, I process on a computer instead of using a magnifying glass to do my drawing works. I am also able to search and discover more patterns and painting techniques on various types of fabrics online," Bảo says.

Not only customers in Cần Thơ, but many from other provinces also come to him to beautify their shirts and particularly traditional long robes.

A customer admires some drawing patterns by Trần Hùng Bảo.

Nguyễn Minh Thư, a customer from Sóc Trăng, says she was introduced to Bảo by her own dress maker and was always very impressed at his decorative painting on her long robes.

"I am very pleased with all the dresses on which I have asked him to draw. The one that I will wear at my son's coming wedding makes me truly satisfied. Each brushstroke is elegant and soaring. The pattern is a series of small flowers winding throughout the shirt, and it makes me feel younger and slimmer," Thư says.

Continuous efforts in creativity have helped Bảo gain more success in recent years. Every day, he receives between five and eight orders and always tries to finish on time or earlier than scheduled.

However, sometimes his health is not good enough. The wounds often hurt him if he works too much, but thinking of customers smiling when receiving their painted dresses inspires him to work through the pain.

Bảo is now more interested in drawing on traditional costumes, which require more elaborate textures.

"It is a challenge and also an adventure for me in a new creative area," he said.

Bảo's painting shop has also become a place to train others, many of whom are also disabled. He not only inspires people with a disability to be more passionate in life, but also helps them earn a living.

The artist says that despite all the challenges he has had to face, he thanks fate because the accident gave him more energy and determination to survive as well as make the best of every single day. VNS