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How Young Artists Are Bringing Mural Arts to Schools in Rural Vietnam

On their fifth journey off the beaten paths, Tô Đậm is heading to the highland of Ma Bó, Lâm Đồng Province for a new season of lessons, stories, and adventures previously unfolded.

Tô Đậm is a non-profit initiative founded by like-minded creatives who share a common goal: providing children in underprivileged areas with access to art opportunities and education. The project accomplishes its goals through two means: repainting the deteriorating exteriors of school buildings in remote areas, and running creative workshops for local students, which they hope can help boost class attendance and foster the children’s artistic sensibility.

It happens to be Ma Bó

Má Bó, this year’s destination, is located in the secluded commune of Đa Quynh, Lâm Đồng. Nestled among the hills, the rural village is home to Chợ Ré Primary School — Tô Đậm’s partner in the painting for the project’s fifth iteration.

Nhã, a member of Tô Đậm, is no stranger to Ma Bó, as he has previously built up a homestead for travelers, set up a library, organized art classes for local children, along with other engagements with residents in the area to help facilitate trades in the area. With Nhã being already familiar with the area, the crew packed the bags and headed for the mountainous town for the first time in January 2021.

Upon their return to Saigon, the members began planning for a second outpost trip in preparation for the project in June 2021. However, due to the national Covid outbreak, all plans remain unwrapped and the timeline was pushed back. By February 2022, the project was revived and the delayed outpost trip finally took place. During the second outpost trip, the group met with the principal and gained instant approval from him.

It was also during this trip that Tô Đậm truly had the time to learn about the children, nature, and the residents of the town; but above all, they got to know more about their fellow members. And then as naturally as breathing, the spirit of Tô Đậm has taken root in the land of Ma Bó.

"Right person, right time!"

“We do not choose an artist based on their portfolio or their drawing ability. Rather, we talk to each person to determine if they are a good fit, not just by how well they can draw, but also by how they carry themselves, how they communicate with others, and we also consider the value proposition that we can bring to them,” says Lys, one of the mentors for this season, about the criteria for selecting such volunteers.

Phương and Huy are two of the volunteers that came out of this process, the former hails from a region whose living conditions are similar to Ma Bó, while Huy is very much an urban dweller. When asked if they would have joined the painting effort if they hadn't been artists, both loudly and unreluctantly exclaimed: "Yes!" New members Hà and Nguyên also joined Tô Đậm’s workshop team. Together, the five new recruits headed out for the third outpost trip.

“We didn’t just get to know the children, we climbed the rocks, rode the tractors, splashed waves in the lakes, got muddy in the fields, caught all the snails, etc. And we did some ‘soul healing stuff’ with Linh too,” Huy shares about the third outpost trip.

"We also learned from Nhã and Thương the culture and customs of Ma Bó. And we shared stories of our own observations about nature and people here. That’s our material [to draw]," adds Phương. As for Hà, the biggest inspiration comes from a library. “In Ma Bó, there is a little library called ‘Tổ Sách’ (Book Nest) built by Nhã that is popular and frequently visited by all the children in town.”

“There, in Ma Bó”

Just two months after finishing their outpost trips, Tô Đậm had completed their checklist to set everything in motion: fundraising, recruiting more volunteers, and brainstorming for the murals and the workshops.

“It’s inevitable that disagreements about the purpose, direction, opinion arise when we collaborate. What I have been learning from being a part of this project is to lower my ego when dealing with conflicts,” Linh shared.

The project’s name "Ở đó Ma Bó" (There, in Ma Bó) came from a pun in a message from a member. “I couldn’t come up with anything during my initial stay in Ma Bó. The idea only presented itself after we were exploring with the other Tô Đậm members. If we struggle to express our thoughts, we can go play with legos, we can mold colored clay, or we can just doodle together. If something doesn't feel right, I will sit down to catch my breath, immerse myself in the surrounding nature, and delve into my inner world," Phương shares about how some of her creative ideas for the works in Ma Bó came into existence.

For Huy, the eureka moment came as soon as he left the concrete jungle: "I love the sky at Ma Bó, simply because in the city where I live, I never have the opportunity to see a sky that is as stellar and immense as this. Coupled with the green hills spanning across the horizon, it creates this picturesque scenery of a blue sky and white clouds atop rolling hills and mountains. Therefore, I wanted to include both the heaven and earth in the two rows that I was in charge of."

Before the "real event" took place, Tô Đậm organized “pre-battle” meetups as well as the workshop rehearsal. For season 5, the group held a workshop where the students at Chợ Ré primary school learned to get to put a creative and personal spin on a bird's nest. The team also held a class where the children experimented with figurine-making from clay.

“In addition to essential craft tools, the workshop team also had to find ‘materials’ for the nests: grass, leaves, dry twigs, anything that we could find in a park in Saigon. These special supplies followed us to Ma Bó to join the materials already available in the schoolyard for the children to play,” says Hà.

Paint less, play more

For Tô Đậm, each season brings with its different shapes, colors, personalities, and stories. However, the core and primary vision of the project remains the same: to tell the story of the land they visit, and send important messages about children, the environment, and society.

This past season has been particularly challenging due to the amount of work and effort required. But as the group's ambition is greater than ever, they had to reduce “the fun stuff" — not having as much time to get to know each other as well, and instead putting in extra hard work by painting day and night to keep up with the progress. For Tô Đậm, this lesson on project management is one to be saved for the next seasons: “You gotta paint less, and play more!”

Have a tour of Chợ Ré primary school after "Ở đó Ma Bó" through this sped-up clip!

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