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The Unquenchable Spirit of Artist Lê Triều Điển

“Điển is like a flower; there is no question of growing or not growing.”

It’s the same with Lê Triều Điển and creating art, according to his fellow painter and friend of many years, Tri Ròm.

“My paintings are like scar tissue,” Điển says when pressed for the best feedback he’s ever received about his paintings. “You might look at them and see rubbish, but they heal pain,” he adds before likening them to the lotus flowers that emerge from the muck in his delta homeland.

A flower emerging from mud is an apt metaphor for Điển’s life and career as a whole. He was born in the Mekong Delta in 1944, and the past eight decades have involved the poverty, sacrifice, war and trauma that are sadly common to his generation, as detailed in his powerful autobiography The Journey of Alluvium. Yet, like a lotus refusing to wilt during a drought and blooming spectacularly when the rains return, Điển has triumphed to become an important, successful artist.

Luxury cars were filling with people who had just finished lavish breakfasts behind myself, Tri, Điển, and his daughter-in-law at the restaurant of the homestay in Can Tho we’d stayed at the night before. The street leading in along the Hau River was lined with imposing new mansions looming behind gaudy gates and I commented to Điển about how different the area must look from when he was stationed in Can Tho during the American War, when the river was “patrolled up and down by warships and patrol boats day and night” and the surrounding area was full of “coconut orchards with topless tree trunks, paddy fields devastated by clearing chemicals.”

Yes, he said, the area was very different from when locals here went out in the middle of the night to catch mice and snakes and frogs to sell at the “ghost markets;” but “go into one of those houses and look at their walls, they have no real art.” This is as damning a description as Điển can levy, because to him art, in addition to family and community, is the most important part of life.

Điển is refreshingly unimpressed with money, sometimes to the frustration of people attempting to sell his paintings. His friends casually mention the great numbers of paintings that were sent overseas for various sales or collections that he never saw again or received payment for, and there is even discussion of a zoo in Denmark that plagiarized his plans for a giant panda enclosure.

At one point during our weekend together, a gallery owner who was with us brought up plans for an exhibition in Hanoi to sell his paintings. Điển simply lit a cigarette, threw up his hands and walked away while telling the man to talk to the woman who manages those matters for him. Asked point-blank what he thinks of the business side of art, he says one needs to understand it but ultimately, “as an artist, you make art, you do your best. Everything else? Leave it to other people.”

“Emotions as Transparent as Water from its Source”

The one constant throughout Điển’s life has been creation. At the age of 12, he moved to Saigon for a formal art education. While he didn’t enjoy the rigid coursework and sterile approach to painting, living in the city introduced him to a variety of other artists, writers and creatives whose philosophies and lifestyles proved fundamental for how he would approach the world and his place in it.

Điển was able to avoid frontline conflict during the war by producing technical drawings and later studying aviation mechanics. During the war, he drifted between Da Nang, Can Tho, Vinh Long and Saigon, surrounding himself with a great variety of passionate individuals to discuss literature, poetry, music, and painting while producing literary journals and hosting small art exhibitions at cafes and bars. He lived, he says, as a bụi đời (dust of life), a vagabond. With little more than a chair that could unfold into a comfortable enough bed, he moved from here to there on a whim with frequent trips to visit his family.

During those years, painting was a sort of therapy for him. “I felt that I was painting for myself, for my own soul that was suffering the pain of my war-torn country. I painted my dreams and hopes of a peaceful future, and I painted children’s pleasure and laughter on a happy field. I painted temples in ruin but young buds rising from burnt tree stumps could be seen.”

Yet he did not paint according to the styles he had been taught in school, nor did he follow any specific trends. Rather, he followed his instinct and spontaneous inspiration, never arriving at a blank canvas with a plan or idea, simply letting the lines and colors flow as they must. “I gradually eliminated all the craftsmanship, got rid of technical performance and returned to the nature of my innocence like a child drawing as simply as those ancient people leaving their paintings on cave walls, with emotions as transparent as water from its source flowing over gravel and stones to reach the plains,” he says.

He continues with this approach today. His often very large paintings have a raw boldness typified by strong lines and arrows that seem to rush across the canvas like waters surging across a floodplain. Given his biography, one can imagine scenes of delta floodplains, rice fields and humble countryside homes. There are also elements of sign language, Khmer and Oc Eo cultures and Theravada Buddhism. Điển can be evasive regarding what an actual painting is of, preferring viewers to take from the scenes what they will. This tendency to not explain every element of his work does not suggest a lack of artistic clarity, however.

While many of his paintings tend to be abstract and expressionist and contain elements of cubism, there are moments of literal specificity. His home is filled with his paintings and drawings: something hangs on nearly every inch of open wall and stacks of papers and canvases sit on nearly every available surface. During a recent visit to his home, he flipped through several dozen drawings and occasionally paused to point something out: a buffalo, a horse, a boat, a xích lô, his wife when she is writing a poem, his wife when she is angry at him, a self-portrait. He doesn’t offer why he painted those things, nor do I think to ask. It would be like asking a cloud why it was dropping rain. Yet he is quick to note where he finds inspiration: everywhere. His natural surroundings, cave paintings, architecture, and most importantly, his family and friends.

You have to know the rules before you break them is a common adage in art, often used in reference to how Picasso learned to paint in the traditional style of his day before moving on to the ground-breaking works he became famous for. Thus I asked Điển if he thought his conventional art education was necessary to make way for his abstract style. He shakes his head no, and says he is self-taught, before offering up this story:

An ancient Chinese king recognized the technical mastery of Chinese and Korean painters but considered Vietnamese to be less talented. He nevertheless invited them to partake in a contest wherein the winner would be the one that could depict the best dragon. The other painters worked meticulously on extravagant dragons with fine details. A Vietnamese contestant, Trang Quynh, didn’t have any formal education in art and simply dipped all ten fingers in the ink and wiggled them down across the canvas. The king shook his head at the ten zig-zagging streaks of ink and said dragons do not look like that. Quynh countered that in his homeland, dragons do in fact look like that. And unless a dragon were to appear before them now, no one could tell him otherwise.

This confidence in his own artistic vision, playful wit and connection to depicting his homeland resonates through his hundreds of works.

“I don’t have a teaching method, I have a living method,” he says when asked what he says to younger artists that seek him. Truly, he may not offer specific theories on balancing colors or controlling white space, but one watching him surely receives a lesson in how to live as an artist. To that point, I should have known better to ask him how he prefers to work: in silence or with music? In the morning or at night? At home or a studio? After a few glasses of wine or sober? The answer was simply “Yes.”

This adaptive nature applies to the mediums he uses. In addition to the conventional canvas and inks, paper with watercolor or pen, and ceramics, Điển can create art out of just about anything. For example, when he once took great delight in flipping over one painting on his wall to reveal it was in fact the cardboard lid of a bánh trung thu box. Similarly, painted chair cushions dangle from his staircase railings and x-ray paper covered in images dangles from the ceiling.

Witnessing Điển work provides further insight into his philosophy. When Saigoneer visited to take photographs for this story, we were greeted with fresh fruit, snacks and beer. Before any discussion of photographs we hoped to take, he thanked us for visiting and said he wanted us each to go home with one of his paintings. When we asked if we could take a short video of him at work, he noted that because it was my birthday he would draw a portrait of me. With concentrated ease he filled the paper with divisive lines, pausing momentarily to ponder the space before grabbing a new color; the piece came together like the effortless blooming of a complex flower.

Work Before Play

Creating art can be a lonely, tireless task especially if one dabbles in genres that are not embraced by mainstream artists, but being an artist is not. I got a first-hand glimpse of the importance Điển places on community during the first lunch we shared. At the end of the meal, he lifted his beer glass and turned slowly to everyone at the table and one by one: “You: I want to see your next painting. You: I want to read your next poem. You: show me the next painting you make. And you: I cannot wait to have another meal together again.”

Điển’s genuine and motivating words that day came as no surprise based on the way he described his life and journey. Beginning with the many teachers he studied with and the peers he surrounded himself with, his book is filled with references to painters, sculptors, singers, and writers with whom he sat in cramped cafes and bars, sharing ideas and exchanging work. He details countless literary journals that rose and fell and exhibitions for soon-to-be-defunct groups and organizations. They are not attempts at name-dropping, but rather reflective of the way he sees community as an integral part of creativity and the galvanizing effect it can have on a person’s life.

Considering this past, I was unsurprised to learn that our main activity on the day we arrived in Vinh Long would be to meet with his group of friends at one of their terracotta kilns. We gathered in the spacious living room which was filled with paintings, sculptures and ceramics. The owner pointed at the paintings explaining who had painted each: a friend, a child, himself. New books were exchanged as we sat drinking coffee, eating snacks. I naively asked Điển if this was what it was like back in the day when he spent time with the same group of friends. He laughed and said, “No, all we did then was work, work, work.”

Indeed, while Điển may have achieved a level of financial comfort now, leaner decades were filled with a great variety of arduous tasks to make ends meet. While subsisting on little more than boiled potatoes and sorghum supplemented with boiled pig bones, Điển earned a paycheck painting vehicle license plates and state propaganda posters, weeding paddy fields, harvesting water spinach, selling simple cakes, and delivering newspapers. And of course, in the spacious factory beside the house we were sitting in, he crafted terra cotta statues.

The lifting of the embargo with America and the generally improved economy has reverberated across society as exemplified by the terracotta factory. Before its owner settled into semi-retirement and tapered down production, he employed upwards of 1,000 people. Điển, too, has enjoyed more financial comfort in recent years. After decades of group and solo exhibitions, since 2005 he has enjoyed an amount of commercial success. His work has been featured in the prestigious Galerie Dumonteil in Paris, attracted the attention of renowned international art collectors, and been in numerous shows and galleries here in Vietnam.

“Fifty Years in Prison”

There once was a struggling painter who began coming home to find his clothes and house cleaned and food prepared. This went on for quite some time and he never could figure out who was doing it. But one day he noticed a female figure in one of his paintings and became suspicious. He hid and waited after pretending to leave for the day. When he burst back into his house, he surprised the woman who had indeed emerged from the painting. He caught her and the two married. His life improved instantly and he was not only happy but also began to experience great fame and financial success. Unfortunately, this led to him drinking too much and losing his passion for art. Unable to rescue him from his alcoholism or re-ignite his love of painting his wife left him.

Điển originally offered this story, an altered version of a story by Đoàn Thị Điểm, to warn of the risks of fame and success. Adding, that while he is financially comfortable now, he is far too old to fall into any of the dangers that accompany them. Besides, is he famous? If you ask him, he doesn’t know nor care.

But then I pressed him if the characters in the story shared any similarities with him and his wife, Hồng Lĩnh. Sure, he agreed, her presence in his life has been instrumental. While it’s true that she manages many domestic tasks and shouldered a great deal of work during the poor years, working in a library as well as taking on odd jobs to help ensure he had resources needed to paint, that undersells her role in his life. He may jokingly say that they have been sentenced to each other for half a century, but he is utterly sincere when advising “When you get married, you must treat your wife like a goddess.”

Lĩnh is a gifted poet, sculpture, and painter herself and learned of Điển via his artwork more than 50 years ago. Seeing his work before she’d ever met, she explained to me, was what first won her over. At their wedding, a friend joked: “This couple might have their future in poverty. One artist usually leads his life in misery, they both are artists, so their misery maybe double.”

That prediction, thankfully never came to pass. Rather, the financial struggles they shared may have brought them closer together as people and as artists. When their eldest son was admitted to Saigon, they moved to the city and worked side-by-side to create paintings and sculptures with the hope they could sell them to restaurants and hotels. Their work continues to stand side by side, though now it is in galleries and exhibitions. And of course, lining the walls of their home.

One is not likely to get their work confused, however. While Điển prefers thick, angular lines, she opts for more curves and gentle restraint, though the most exemplifying difference is her frequent use of Vietnamese, English and French texts by herself and others, layered on top of the work. Lĩnh may be a quieter presence in rooms punctuated by Điển’s staccato chuckle, but her art and life is just as deserving of an article. Hopefully, that happens in the future, but in the meantime, no story about Điển could possibly be told without her inclusion.

Equally important as their work hung on the walls in their home is what is scribbled around it. Between paintings and photographs are the squiggled doodles of one of their grandchildren. By contrast, they help articulate how Điển’s seemingly simple strokes are the result of artistic rigor and practice combined with youthful exuberance. But more importantly, they serve as a metaphor for how his work is intrinsically tied to his family and the inspiration it provides, his belief that any surface can be a canvas, and that artistic impulses should never be ignored, but rather praised and promoted.

Works by Lê Triều Điển and Hồng Lĩnh are both featured in an exhibit titled "Impressions Unearth" at San Art in District 4 from now until May 29.

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