Artist welcomes New Year with 2,023 feline statuettes

January, 15/2023 - 10:42
Sculptor Nguyễn Tấn Phát's collection includes 2,023 feline statuettes, meticulously crafted from jackfruit wood and covered with lacquer, or from laterite, the indigenous materials of the artist’s hometown.
FELINE FINE: Sculptor Nguyễn Tấn Phát's latest collection was inspired by images of the witty and playful cats. VNS Photo Minh Phương

By Lương Hương & Minh Phương

The witty and playful cat, the Oriental zodiac animal of the upcoming Lunar New Year, the Year of the Cat, festival in Vietnamese culture, has become the inspiration for a new collection of lacquer works by sculptor Nguyễn Tấn Phát from Đường Lâm Ancient Village on the outskirts of Hà Nội.

The collection includes 2,023 feline statuettes, meticulously crafted from jackfruit wood and covered with lacquer, or from laterite, the indigenous materials of the artist’s hometown.

This is Phát's third unique collection of artworks inspired by symbolic animals of the lunar calendar. Before the cat collection, he made 1,010 buffalo statues on the occasion of the 1,010th anniversary of Hà Nội in 2021, and 2,022 small tigers to welcome 2022, the Year of the Tiger.

The special feature of the collections is uniqueness – no item looks alike. In his latest collection, the cats are depicted in various positions that showcase their cuteness and playfulness, chasing each other, teasing a mouse, sunbathing on house roofs or climbing trees.

CAT LOVER: Sculptor Nguyễn Tấn Phát wishes to promote the values of Vietnamese traditional lacquer craft and culture. — VNS Photo Minh Phương

“Through this lacquer statue collection, I wish to promote the values of Vietnamese traditional lacquer craft and culture by welcoming 2023 or the Year of the Cat,” Phát told Việt Nam News.

“The feline statues are inspired by the image of cats in Vietnamese folk art, and the number of the artworks corresponds to the year 2023, which is expected to leave a lasting impression on the viewers.”

Interestingly, the cat artworks could have different functions. Besides being decorative items, they can be used as a box, a flower vase, or a tea tray, making images of the animal dearer to art lovers.

To complete a one-of-a-kind artwork, the 40-year-old artist has to work on various steps, from visualising the ideas, chiselling and shaping the wood block, and then covering it with layers of paint.

After it is dried, the item will be polished, inlaid with eggshells or mother-of-pearl and added hand-drawn features like eyes or whiskers. Each artwork takes many days to finish. To save time, he works alternately on several items a day and has one or two people to assist with simple work steps such as painting, sanding and lacquering.

He revealed that the phases of shaping and painting the statues are the most important.

Sculptor Nguyễn Tấn Phát revealed that the phases of shaping and painting the statues play the most important role. — VNS Photo Minh Phương

"As an old Vietnamese saying goes: nhất dáng nhì da (first shape, second skin), and the statues first and foremost must have a beautiful shape. Then comes its skin or the paint. The more elaborately and meticulously they are painted, the more complete and beautiful they become," Phát said.

Not only different in shapes, the statues are also diverse in styles of sculpture. While some are crafted in realism style, others are depicted in abstraction or expressionism.

ONE OF A KIND: The special feature of the feline statue collection is uniqueness – no item looks alike. — Photo courtesy of the artisan

"To differentiate them from tiger statues, I have carefully studied the cat figures. The cat's face is always triangular, with big ears, pointed chin, and its tail is long and straight-up," he added.

According to Phát, the image of a cat has inspired him as it is a domesticated animal closely associated with Vietnamese life and loved by everyone, from children to the elderly.

"I have come up with many unique cat figures and positions, but I have been most impressed with the image of cats playing in the sun. That explains why I have created many decorative items depicting cats playing around."

The most impressive and sophisticated work in Phát's feline collection is a set of chairs with different colours and a fish-shaped table, which he has named Bữa Tiệc Ngày Xuân (A Spring Feast). Patterns inspired by Vietnamese folk art and tales like Đám Cưới Chuột (Mice's Wedding) or Chú Bé Ôm Mèo (Boy Hugs Cat) are used to decorate the chairs.

SEAT SET: The most impressive and sophisticated work in Phát's feline statue collection is the set of chairs with different colours and a fish-shaped table, which he has named 'Bữa Tiệc Ngày Xuân' (A Spring Feast).

"The set showcases the meal of a cat family celebrating a new year. It aims to deliver my wish of a joyful party for every Vietnamese family in 2023, just like these witty and lively cats," he said.

Unlike the previous collections that were mainly exhibited in Hà Nội, the artist has taken his feline artworks further, having them displayed in HCM City last December. Through the eight-day solo exhibition, he introduced the traditional craft to more people in the southern city.

Dedication to ancient craft

Sculptor Nguyễn Tấn Phát is pictured with the feline statue that won third prize in the Việt Nam Handicraft Design contest 2022. — Photo courtesy of the artist

Phát was born in Hà Nội suburb's Sơn Tây Town. As the only lacquer artisan in the town, he has contributed to passing down the craft to the next generation and inspiring young artists in his homeland, as well as creating jobs for dozens of locals.

His greatest desire is not only to preserve and promote traditional lacquer fine art but also to bring this traditional beauty of Việt Nam to the world. His original artisanal artworks have made a great impression on Vietnamese and international art lovers in recent years.

Phát said his passion for art was inherited from his father and grandfather. During his childhood, he followed them to restore heritage buildings in his hometown, like communal houses, temples, and shrines, which exposed him to his first understanding of lacquer art.

His childhood passion inspired him to study lacquer painting at the Hà Nội University of Industrial Fine Arts. After graduating, Phát embarked on his own artistic path. He started a private business specialising in lacquer paintings, lacquerwares, and inlaid and lacquered jewellery in his hometown.

Since then, his artistic career began to flourish, and he has won many awards, such as first prizes in the Hà Nội handicraft design competitions in 2014 and 2019, and the top prize in the Việt Nam Handicraft Design Contest 2020 with the “1010 Lacquered Buffalo Statues” project.

Most recently, his feline statue named Mèo Xứ Đoài (Cat of Đoài Land) won third prize in the Việt Nam Handicraft Design contest 2022.

In 2017, he was among the youngest artists honoured as a typical “Hà Nội Artisan” by the municipal People's Committee.

HONOURED: Phát's original artworks have made a great impression on Vietnamese and international art lovers in recent years.— Photo courtesy of the artist

With great passion and capacity to grasp market trends, Phát has created unique products of his own mark with high value, different from other lacquer products on the market.

He has opened a free vocational workshop at home to spread his passion for lacquer art.

"My free vocational workshop aims to find 'heirs' who can join me in building and transforming Đường Lâm into a traditional lacquer village," he said.

His creativity space – Phát Studio – has become a must-visit for any tourists to Đường Lâm Village. There they can contemplate his feline statue collection and other unique lacquer artworks or observe the artist at each stage, from sculpting to lacquering.

They can also join in creating an artwork, thereby gaining a deeper understanding of Vietnamese traditional art. VNS