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Born Into Traditional Craft, a Young Sculptor Finds Joy in Carving Pop Culture

“Even though they know deeply that it’s beautiful, they cannot feel it because it’s not familiar to them,” Duy Trần says of younger generations that gaze upon the traditional wood sculptures in his family’s factory.

Making wood carvings that connect with younger people is a simple explanation for how the 22-year-old son of a master wood sculptor went viral. His extravagantly detailed carvings of superheroes like Iron Man and manga characters like Goku and Doraemon became hits online. The full story is even more inspiring than it sounds.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to learn wood sculptures because growing up I saw wooden sculptures every day, they became a normal part of my everyday life; you could say I got sick of seeing people work. I didn’t feel interested,” Duy told Saigoneer over a video call last month.

It makes sense that traditional wood sculptures would have become blasé for Duy, considering his father, Thu Tran, is renowned in their small village outside Hoi An for the craft. He was the only person to ever leave their village to study the craft. After 25 years and 100 students, he established a successful business called Woodart Vietnam that made complicated panels to hang in people’s living rooms, as well as large statues.

While Duy may not have inherited an interest in wood sculpting, he did receive his father’s passion for art and, after high school, enrolled in an art university in Hue. After a month, he realized he didn’t enjoy drawing all day long, dropped out, and returned home. Without anything else to do, but realizing he had to learn something, he decided to join his father at the factory. “Let’s do it!” his father exclaimed at the development, excited that his son wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Duy wasn’t as enthusiastic. “When I started to learn wood sculpture, honestly I learned without my mind, I didn’t put my mind into, I just had to learn, I had nothing else to learn. I just made normal things, what other students make,” he says.

The employees that Duy’s father taught — whom he calls his “brothers” — passed on their knowledge about making panels. Duy learned how to take large slabs of imported wood and then, using drills, form rough outlines that get painstakingly refined with hand tools. Chainsaws are required for the statues they make, and Duy admits he wasn’t interested in them because the massive pieces of wood are too heavy to carry. It’s tough, arduous work, and large statues can take two to three months to complete.

Video via YouTube channel Woodart Vietnam.

Duy’s time wasn’t completely consumed by the panels he was learning to make, however: “At that time I took care of the marketing because no one in my company knew how to make content, to do promotion. My father hired some staff to do promotion, but I realized they don’t understand the core value of the factory, so it wasn’t effective. So I decided to take care of the marketing job. So I learned.”

It is astounding how many times in one conversation Duy will say “so I learned,” often referring to self-study of a subject that may come in handy in his career one day. Using the internet, Duy taught himself about marketing, video creation, internet SEO, how to harness social media trends, and content creation. He eventually would upload videos of the factory to show others how pieces were made. Meanwhile, he studied English. In the pre-pandemic times, to improve his language skills he even turned his family home into free couchsurfing accommodations for foreigners visiting Hoi An so he could talk more with native speakers.

One day, Duy simply decided he wanted to learn how to make statues. Teaching himself, he started simple: a deer, a fish, a tree. And then he realized: “I don’t want to do it anymore, I want to do something new. So I started making Goku, manga, Dragon Ball.”

Duy was originally hesitant to upload his own creations to the company’s YouTube page because he feared that people would judge them harshly, which would negatively impact his father’s brand. But never one to shy away from trying something new, he uploaded his Iron Man carving and was amazed to get over 100,000 views and people all over the world asking if he sold them. This attention gave him confidence, while making him more interested in wood sculpture. “If you get good at something, you will fall in love with it,” he notes.

Such interest in his work compelled Duy to create more sculptures based on what he enjoyed growing up: anime, manga and comic book movies. People all over the world who saw them wanted to buy them, which meant he had to teach himself about international shipping, payment processing and interacting with customers online because, up until that point, the factory dealt only with Vietnamese clients.

Video via YouTube channel Woodart Vietnam.

As more orders came in, Duy realized he could no longer make all the intricate pieces himself without becoming exhausted. So he turned to his brothers. In their 40s or older, they were not familiar with the characters Duy was asking them to create. They knew dragons, Buddha, fish and trees, but Vegeta? No. But once they saw how popular the modern creations were, they agreed to help. “Now they know all the names, but at first, they called every character Goku,” he laughs.

Duy now only designs the pieces and his brothers handle the actual creation. He speaks of his brothers with great admiration: “They are in their 40s, but they really have an open mind to embrace new things. Other people copy my business model and go to other wood sculpture villages in Hanoi and Saigon and they ask some old artists [to do similar statues] and the old artists say, ‘I don’t want to do it; it’s childish.'”

And while the factory continues to make and sell traditional pieces, Duy’s father has similarly embraced the new direction as well. He notes: “My dad is really happy because...I brought the factory to a new audience.”

Considering how he never seems to be content with the knowledge he has, I asked Duy what he planned to do next. “I want to make my own design…not manga, superhero, but my own pieces,” he says without revealing exactly the original designs he already has in mind.

There are no plans to leave his home village, however. Far too content with the easy pace of life, the chance to swim in the nearby river every afternoon, or take the occasional stroll into the mountains, he has no dream to move to a big city. Rather, he hopes to make his village into a destination for people to visit. “I just want to introduce wood sculptures to the world,” Duy says.

Duy’s work is certainly inspiring, but hearing him share his journey, and witnessing his tenacity and insatiable desire to learn, is even more so. To that effect, I ended our conversation by asking if he had any advice for young artists starting their careers. Instead of offering up a platitude about following one’s dreams or a poetic statement about the importance of craftsmanship, he gave practical advice in line with the work ethic that has garnered him millions of views on YouTube and ensured his father’s legacy will live on: “Just try, find a way and try anything you can do to develop your art and focus on your marketing skills. And try any way to go viral, but with meaningful content.”

This statement provides an important look into the confluence of business acumen, traditional art, and youthful pop culture. Perhaps to survive, one needs at least two of them. And if all three can be combined, there is a chance for the type of success that Duy and Woodart Vietnam has experienced.

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