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A Visit to Vụn Art, Where Disabled Artisans Turn Fabric Scraps Into Artworks

Fabric scraps, often considered industrial waste, are “revived” by members of Vụn Art cooperative by turning them into intricate silk artworks.

Rain or shine, every few days per week, Lê Việt Cường, who was born in 1976, braves the turbulent traffic of Hanoi streets on his makeshift pedicab to get to Vụn Art’s workshop, 15 kilometers from his home. This is not a breezy commute for a person living with a motor disability like Cường, but it’s nothing compared to the challenges he and the operators of Vụn Art have faced in the seven years of running the co-op — a journey that can’t be measured in kilometers, but in experiences, hurdles, tears, and even laughter.

Throughout their time at the workshop, millions of fabric scraps have gotten another chance at a new life as parts of artworks, tote bags, shirts, and more. These products were created by Vụn Art’s nearly 40 artisans, all living with different forms of disabilities. The workers come from all walks of life, but, under the roof of Vụn Art, have come together to make a living from their own labor and creativity, like pieces of a tapestry existing to make life more enjoyable.

Vụn Art's showroom in Vạn Phúc Village

Seven years of transforming discarded scraps

Vụn Art’s studio is hidden inside a narrow alley in Vạn Phúc Village, 8 kilometers from central Hanoi. Vạn Phúc is best known throughout history for its quality silk textiles and silkworm farms. The workshop is a 20-square-meter room filled to the brim with paper, fabric, stationery, and just enough space for one person to walk around. The shelves on the walls, in between works-in-progress are the finished silk artworks, such as one depicting the Vạn Phúc Village Gate in shades of ochre and taupe, and another piece showcasing a glorious sunset by the Long Biên Bridge.

Inside the workshop.

Mỹ sits in a corner of the studio, her eyes sharply focused on detailing a portrait. At one point, she takes a segment of brown fabric to a coworker sitting behind her to make some adjustments. “For this area of the face, I think you should change to this shade of brown to make it more precise,” Mỹ says while she signs the sentence with her hands for her hard-of-hearing friend. At Vụn Art, Mỹ is the oldest and also has been around for the longest. “Working with everyone has helped hone my skills in being patient and calm, and their growth and improvements are what touch me the most,” Mỹ shares.

Vụn Art currently has over 30 workers.

Each employee has different conditions, and is assigned tasks suitable for their impairment.

Employees are trained on the basics of creating art by experts.

In the studio, each member is assigned one step of the process to create intricate art pieces. Vụn Art’s founder, Lê Việt Cường is often on the phone with customers to get their feedback: “This is the finished product, do you think it’s good to go? Any changes needed?” In this instance, the artwork is already in great shape and the call ends in cordial acknowledgment from both sides. Such is a typical work day at Vụn Art.

Lê Việt Cường (1976) is the founder of Vụn Art.

When he has some time to spare, Cường continues our chat about the early days of Vụn Art, which began in 2017, when he was busy with another project alongside three other collaborators. They were running another social enterprise helping hearing-impaired workers make stuffed animals. On March 6 that year, artist Nguyễn Văn Trường — now an official at the Hà Đông District People’s Committee — visited Cường at the studio to deliver some gifts for Women’s Day. Trường played with some scrap fabrics, and eventually created a simple art piece. Trường paused, looked at Cường quizzically and then said: “I have an idea, what if we form a studio making art from silk scraps? We can recycle discarded textiles, reduce our environmental footprint, and create job opportunities for people living with disabilities. I don’t think anyone is doing the same thing at the moment?”

The artist’s suggestion seemed to have awakened a distant dream inside Cường, one that involves a proper workplace dedicated to workers who have disabilities. Cường tells me: “My dream is for all disabled people to be gainfully employed. They too have a desire, like everybody else, to feel useful. Hospitals can minimize bodily pain, but it’s working and creating value from one’s efforts that’s the best medicine to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities.”

Cường always contemplates ways to improve the livelihood of disabled people.

This long-buried reverie came alive after the encounter with Trường, compelling Cường to do whatever he could to actualize what would later become Vụn Art. Nonetheless, the gap between an idea in his mind and the reality was empty and scary. Without a background in art, everything Cường possessed at the time was just a burning passion. What to do and how to begin were still giant question marks blocking his way.

Still, even when Cường was the most unsure, he had a loyal coterie of friends ready to lend a hand to help him kickstart this dream. Artist Đặng Thị Khuê consulted Vụn on aspects like culture and artistic techniques. Trường himself volunteered as an art teacher: “Cường, just do it, start asking around for future members. I can teach them color theory, composition, and graphics to help with the technical side.” Hoàng, another friend, took care of the training on making textile artworks. Lê Quốc Vinh advised Cường on product and service development, and marketing. Bình, a good friend of Cường, used her own money to purchase furniture items for the studio. These are just a few amongst numerous other contributions from his social circle.

Vụn Art was formed in 2017 with 10 students.

Ever since he was a young boy, Lê Việt Cường has gotten used to living life with many challenges. When he was just nine months old, a polio epidemic swept over northern Vietnam, striking the young Cường and resulting in muscle weakness in half his body. Within eight years, Cường underwent 10 surgeries to equal out his legs, countless bouts of pain, and just as many falls on his journey to learn to walk again. He knows more than most the physical and mental struggles that disabled people have to endure. A dream of an ideal world — where every person living with disabilities is employed, lives a confident, content life — gradually took root within him. And he doesn’t believe that it’s a pipe dream.

The only way to realize it was to begin. In the summer of 2017, his makeshift tricycle took him across the sizzling asphalt of 17 wards in Hà Đông District to find local families with disabled members. The old vehicle, covered in rust and peeled strips of paint, creaked non-stop whenever they drove past a pothole. He knocked on every door to convince the parents to let their children apprentice at Vụn Art. “When I mentioned training, many people with disabilities hesitated because, for years, they had believed that they couldn’t do any work and were a burden to our society. Changing those entrenched beliefs wasn’t simply a week-long task. Nine out of ten households refused when I visited them. Hậu’s family said yes after two visits, but in Dung’s case for example, it took me five times to get that nod,” Cường reminisces.

Every time he wanted to throw in the towel, Cường was reminded of a saying from his friend Lê Quốc Vinh: “Good people can’t die.” Fortunately, Cường has always taken that to heart, trusting that when one has good intentions, things will eventually work out. This faith has centered him on his journey, and his efforts started bearing fruit. In October 2017, the Vụn Art vocational workshop was founded with 10 students. In its first two years, Vụn didn’t produce anything, but concentrated on vocational training. The artists and technical experts like Trường and Hoàng had to balance between their day job and teaching the students at Vụn. Cường drove around Vạn Phúc to ask local garment mills for their fabric scraps for the students to practice on.

The full production line to create a silk artwork has over 10 steps, including design, picking fabrics, ironing, pressing, gluing, thermal pressing, etc. These are complex tasks that even able-bodied workers struggle with, so they require a lot of training time from Vụn Art’s special-needs artisans. At Vụn, the workers live with a range of impairments, which can be auditory, mental, motor or autism. Each is assigned a task that suits their condition; some are only in charge of gluing and pasting or stretching the fabric onto the frame.

The materials used to make artworks here are discarded fabrics collected from local textile mills.

The scrap fabrics are carefully processed before being turned into art.

Creating a silk artwork requires great attention to detail.

At the start, there were few orders, so Vụn Art spent the first two years without any revenue. The workshop’s operation was financed by Cường’s own money and the Finnish foundation Abilis. Each staff member receives a few hundred thousand VND per month in stipend, but they were determined to stick with him until today. During those days of lackluster sales, Cường was out for seven days a week to knock on doors, but rejections have never slowed him down. Finally, an order from the US Embassy opened some doors for Vụn Art. It took them two more years to have a steady income to make ends meet.

A home for building confidence

Every month, Vụn Art produces hundreds of products, allowing 30 staff with disabilities to have a dependable wage. “I can’t deny that, as an enterprise, selling our products gives me great joy. But to me, there’s a better feeling in seeing how they grow every day, from even the smallest changes,” Cường shares with me. “For a hyperactive autism case who couldn’t sit still for five minutes, sitting calmly in one place for a day takes incredible effort, it makes me unbelievably happy.”

Apart from artworks, Vụn Art also creates other accessories like tote bags, handbags, and facemasks.

At Vụn, staff members with autism often need a bit more time to learn and train. Usually, their productivity can fluctuate in accordance with their mood and the weather. When they’re tired or have headaches due to the weather, they can go through emotional outbursts, Cường explains.

Dung has changed a lot since she first joined Vụn Art seven years ago.

Dung has autism and her left arm is also paralyzed. The condition takes a toll on her energy levels and emotional control. After many home visits to convince them, her parents allowed Dung to apprentice at Vụn Art. Seven years ago, Dung didn’t talk to anybody for days. She was afraid of strangers and only peeked at them with a cautious gaze from a corner of the room. Only Cường could talk to Dung at first. Still, Dung trusted Cường and the staff at Vụn, so she was very hard-working and came to the workshop every day. Now, she can hold a conversation. In the product showcase room, after finishing her tasks for the day, Dung shows me an artwork of the Khuê Văn Pavilion that she is currently assembling, and says: “I’ve been working here for seven years, the work here has changed me a lot. I feel good and like coming here because I can meet everybody.”

Nguyễn Thị Khanh and her daughter are both workers at Vụn Art.

Nguyễn Thị Khanh is very visibly moved when she notices that her daughter Mai Trang, who was born in 1991, has experienced fewer epileptic attacks. Khanh shares that Trang has had epilepsy and developmental issues since she was nine. She has challenges controlling her mood and often lashes out for no reason. She dropped out of school after graduating from primary school. “She used to only do housework like cleaning and cooking. From January 2023, she started working at Vụn. Due to her condition, she only works from home and is in charge of the cutting fabric phase. Even though the task is simple, Trang is very happy to be able to make money. Maybe her improved mental state led to fewer seizures, and she could manage her emotions better, so I’m less worried than before,” Khanh tells me.

Another member who’s been with Vụn Art since the beginning is Hoàng Thị Hậu. She can remember with vivid details how she first joined. Despite some initial reservations, Hậu took vocational training here and has been with Vụn through many months of struggles. Even though at the time she only received a small amount of stipend, Hậu was happy to work for a living.

Hoàng Thị Hậu is amongst Vụn Art's earliest members.

The textile artworks with their own merits

Instead of asking for charity donations or public support, Vụn Art aims to help people with disabilities create products that can stand on their own in the market. According to Vụn, it is only through fair competition that disadvantaged workers can feel confident about their own abilities.

Vụn Art believes that those living with disabilities will shine if given enough support and opportunities.

“When I make sales pitches, I never inform prospective clients that my products were created by disabled artisans. I want them to choose what I provide because of the products’ own values and craftsmanship, and not just because they were made by people with disabilities,” Cường tells me. “Vụn Art has never asked for external funding. If anyone comes to us with any amount of money, we will request to turn it into a loan and gradually repay it with merchandise made from our own labor.”

“Our staff might have disabilities, but our products must have high quality,” Cường often reminds everybody at the workshop. The very first products often peel very easily due to the use of white glue, but today, thanks to thermal press techniques, Vụn’s artworks are more durable. At the beginning, the artworks were mainly silk versions of folk paintings, but their repertoire of subjects have expanded over the years to include personalized designs, historical and pop culture figures like Trịnh Công Sơn, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Besides, the range of products now includes many items from tote bags to facemasks.

Vụn Art often makes pieces inspired by other cultures.

An artwork depicting composer Trịnh Công Sơn.

Vụn Art’s accomplishments have dispelled any sliver of doubts from detractors, but even then, Cường is still constantly toiling over ways to improve the studio’s operation, like a more spacious working environment that can better accommodate the staff’s limitations, and a better showroom to display their creations. He’s also contemplating ways to apply Vụn Art’s model to other disadvantaged groups elsewhere. “It will require a holistic approach and collaboration from many parties,” he explains.

“A scrap of fabric can play an important role in an artwork if placed in the right place. A person living with disabilities will be able to make use of their talents to add values to our society if they can find their rightful place.”

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