Art brings back the glory for the pottery village

Created 14 March 2019
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Thirty-four-year-old ceramist Doan Manh Viet, wearing a casual T-shirt and shorts stained with colour, is working diligently on a large painting while his staff are busy preparing a new batch of clay for the kiln.

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Colouring is among the final steps of making a ceramic painting, now among the best-selling items in Phu Lang Village in Que Vo District, Bac Ninh Province.

Viet is among the younger generation in the village who are giving pottery, a craft that has been passed down for generations over the last 700 years, a modern twist.

“One of the key things in this industry is that you have to keep ahead of the ever-changing tastes of customers. People now are looking for quality products so we have no choice but to create new designs,” said Viet.

As a native of Phu Lang where most local households own a kiln, Viet has grown up with ceramics. Firing clay was part of his childhood as he worked part-time at his uncle’s ceramics workshop while still at high school. 

A typical day for him at the time was divided into two parts: school in the morning and the workshop in the afternoon. 

When he graduated from high school, unlike some of his peers who enrolled in finance or banking majors with the hope of getting well-paid jobs, Viet followed his hometown’s tradition and pursued a ceramic sculpture major at the University of Industrial Fine Arts (UIFA).

After graduating from university, Viet returned to his hometown and started a small ceramics business. “Going to college gave me a sound knowledge of ceramics and art. Things like the rules of perspective, composition and colour have helped me a lot in my work,” said Viet.

In his small workshop full of brushes, paint and clay, there are ceramic paintings ranging from 0.4-20 square metres.

Viet works on an average of 100sq.m. of paintings every month. The high season is from October to January before the Lunar New Year.

The costs range from VND150,000 to 50 million (US$6-2,100) depending on the size and complexity of the painting.

His business now provides stable jobs for four staff with monthly incomes of VND7-10 million each, which is quite a decent salary, given the GDP per capita in the district in 2018 was about $2,500.

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A ceramic painting at a restaurant in Bac Ninh City. VNS Photo Hong Van

His paintings mostly feature landscapes with images familiar to Vietnamese people like bamboo, pagodas and buffalo.

“I choose rural landscapes because they make me feel nostalgic. Many of my customers were born and spent their childhoods in rural areas but then moved to the cities, so they like my paintings a lot. Hanging them in their homes somehow connects them to the countryside,” said Viet.

Besides paintings, he also makes decorative ceramic items, which can be displayed in houses, offices, restaurants or hotels.

A pioneer

Viet is one of many young people who are following in the footsteps of Vu Huu Nhung, also a native of Phu Lang.

Nhung, a lecturer at UIFA, was the first in the village to turn local ceramic into works of art.

He started by making figurative pots and vases with complex patterns, abstract decor and vibrant colours. His products, ranging from 500 to thousands of dollars, are sold to high-end clients including collectors in Vietnam, the US, South Korea and Japan.

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An artwork by Vu Huu Nhung. Turning Phu Lang pottery into artworks is becoming a trend in the village. Photo courtesy of Vu Huu Nhung

Nhung is eager to put local ceramics on the world art map.

“I want to take Phu Lang ceramics to a new level. I want our trade to be known and remembered as something unique, skillful and high quality rather than mass produced,” Nhung told Việt Nam News.

Nhung started his own business after graduating with a sculpture major from UIFA in 1999.

While local households only produced everyday items like flower pots and jars, Nhung focused on decorative items such as vases and paintings.

When his business was at its peak, he had more than 100 workers. Yet in 2010, Nhung decided he had to do something more with local ceramics. He decided it was time to start creating limited edition products.

“If you choose mass manufacturing over limited edition goods, it relies a lot on the customers. The products are based on their tastes and preferences. But when it comes to artwork, there’s more room for creativity. It’s your own work of art so it has higher value,” he said.

Nhung wanted others to follow in his path but it was ‘difficult’ because mass production generates faster benefits.

“People keep saying that we need to preserve the tradition but they might not fully understand what tradition means. I think tradition is something that we create ourselves. Let’s say, if more people start turning ceramics into works of art, then making ceramic artworks will become a tradition of Phu Lang in the next ten or twenty years,” said Nhung.

In his opinion the younger generation today enjoys both advantages and disadvantages.

“Nowadays, infrastructure and technology help a lot. Improved quality of life also pushes demand for ceramic products. However, one of the biggest challenges still lies in funding. A young person might not have the money to pay staff or rent a workshop. But once they overcome these problems and don’t have to worry about financial issues, I believe Phu Lang ceramics will have a new face in the next few years,” Nhung said.

Ceramic history

Phu Lang, about 60km from Hanoi, is among the three ancient ceramic centres in the Red River area (along with Bat Trang in Hanoi and Tho Ha in Bac Giang Province).

It is believed locals started making ceramic products some 700 years ago, according to Nguyen Minh Ngoc, chief of Phu Lang Village.

Phu Lang has long been known for its everyday items like flower pots, jars and vases.

In the early 21st century, given the availability and low cost of items made of plastic, metal and glass, the demand for Phu Lang ceramics declined dramatically.

Many left the village to work in big cities or shifted to new jobs.

In the late 2000s, the younger generation like Nhung brought a breath of fresh air to the village by diversifying the products.

Following in Nhung’s footsteps, young students from the village have studied ceramics and sculpture and returned to their hometown to start their own businesses.

In 2018, there were more than 300 households in the village making ceramics, and total revenue hit VND130 billion ($5.5 million). Local ceramic products which include both everyday items and artworks have been exported to the US, Japan and South Korea, according to Ngoc. 

by Hong Van 

Source: VNS - Bridge

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