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Artist sees the world in a grain of rice

Update: October, 11/2010 - 17:14

Cereal thriller: Second-year student Nguyen Cao Tri poses beside some of his rice paintings in his dormitory room, where he does most of his art work after the day's lectures. — Photos Thanh Ha
Grain in train: The roasted rice turns deep brown or deep yellow depending on the heat of the cooker.
by Thanh An

Nguyen Cao Tri uses the bed in his dormitory room as an easel as he sticks grains of rice on to a portrait of a young lady holding a lotus.

Besides, there are several portraits of classmates and pictures of animals.

It's a small space, a 3m-wide room, and adding to the clutter are 10 rice paintings against the wall, awaiting delivery to a gallery in Bien Hoa City in southern Dong Nai Province.

Tri is a second-year student of Dong Nai College of Decorative Arts and one of a rare breed of artists who paint with grains of rice. In fact he spends much of his spare time actually roasting the grains to produce the different colours and shades he requires.

"Most of my colleagues look for oil, wood or even stones to produce a work of art, but I chose rice because of its uniqueness and low cost. I think it is a fascinating material," Tri says.

Also, Viet Nam is one of the world's top rice exporters so to produce something in rice is not only creative, it honours the nation's agriculture industry.

"This work requires patience and passion. My biggest challenge is how to bring spirit to the rice arrangements."

Before he begins painting, grains of the same size are selected and then roasted until the colour changes.

"The rice can not be dyed with artificial colours because the grains are so brittle and will break. They are also prone to becoming musty if they are dyed.

"The roasted rice will turn deep brown or deep yellow depending on the heat of the cooker," Tri says. "These are the two fundamental colours I use to create other hues.

"However, I can't get enough colours by roasting so I have to buy red rice at the market to form the lips of my characters."

For subjects, Tri often makes copies of his earlier drawings or of paintings he likes and then creates them again in rice.

He studies by day and makes paintings by night by an oil stove in the college kitchen, with his roommates.

"They are the most memorable moments of my school life."

He laughs when he relates a tale of being caught red-handed by the supervisor.

"We had to go to detention for a few days."

Tri recalls his first attempt at rice painting: "It was a portrait of my older sister, Hue. I worried that my experiment had failed, but she said it was extraordinary."

In fact Hue is one of her brother's greatest admirers.

"When Tri showed me the portrait," Hue says, "I was surprised to find it was made absolutely of rice, it was so amazing.

Hue says she used to run a hair salon near the college and ended up introducing her brother's rice paintings to her customers.

His former teacher Le Phat, is also impressed. "I have rarely met such a painstaking student. He never stops looking for something new."

Tri said he had made many rice paintings, but the one which satisfied him most was his painting of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"It was a gift for my best friend's birthday, so I devoted myself to it. It took me a month to complete."

Huynh Minh Khuong, owner of Khuong Dai Phat gallery, where Tri's paintings are on show, says, "Rice painting is a new kind of art which some foreign visitors find intriguing. We have sold a few."

Tri says most of the paintings are sold as gifts for friends and relatives.

"A Vietnamese living in the US offered me VND3 million (US$150) for one of my paintings. The price was beyond my wildest dreams. I never imagined someone might appreciate my work like that.

"If I can use the money from selling my rice paintings to assist my study and earn living, I can help lessen the burden on my parents," he said.

Tri also does sculpture and pottery at his teacher's studio. He hopes to open a personal gallery one day and to establish a club for rice artists.

"I spend most of my spare time making rice paintings. I want to introduce more people to the craft. Its such a beautiful part of the nation's culture." — VNS

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