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Artist Crafts Hand-Made Cages with Care


With a drill, a saw, a clip and skilful hands of an artisan, simple bamboo trees were given a soul and transformed into works of art.


People who attended the Craft Village Festival 2009 at Thuong Bac Park, in the former imperial city of Hue, could not hide their surprise at a sophisticated bird cage donned with the special name Thap Nhi Hoa Giap Quan Tien (Twelve Flowers with Fairies) which made people feel as if they were in a fairyland.


The work was by forty-five-year-old Doan Minh Can of Phu Duong Commune, Phu Vang District, central Thua Thien-Hue Province. It won first prize in the Craft Contest 2009.


A hook on top of the cage was a stylised phoenix with two pliant wings which could flap. Four hook-shades carved with images of fairies riding tigers and tortoises enclosed a gourd, carved with people and trees.


Another larger globe where a bird could perch was engraved with two dragons next to three dao tien (peaches grown in heaven, according to Vietnamese legend) used for containing food.


A set of exquisitely carved fairies and 12 animals guarded the globe and peaches. A smaller globe was also covered by three fairies in different poses and the three legs of the cage were carved with flowers and fairies.


To people’s surprise, a relievo at the base of the piece was the most skilful and special feature of the cage. The relievo was carved with lively images of 12 animals together with fairies on a background of mountains, houses, trees and flowers. It was so detailed, people could even see the fairies’ beards.


It was also deliberately divided into four parts and each part held a mortar. In Viet Nam and China a "mortar" is a group of three animals that are compatible together such as Than-Ty-Thin (monkey-rat-dragon) and Hoi-Mao-Mui (pig-cat-goat). The animals which are incompatible with each other (tu khac) are not put together like Dan-Than-Tî-Hoi (tiger-monkey-snake-pig).


It was the sophisticated uniqueness that won the piece top prize at the contest.


"The examining board of nine leading specialists and famous artisans in the field – both inside and outside the country, all agreed to give first prize to the special cage," said the head of the contest’s organiser board, An Van Khanh.


Conquering bamboo


Twenty-seven years ago, after graduating from high school, Can decided to study at the sculpture workshop "Golden hands" run by artisan Le Dang Duan and went on to work for a wooden sculpture company.


Three years later, the company was dissolved. Can went back to his Duong No Village and set up his own wood workshop that made furniture. Two years later, with the purpose of developing his career, Can returned to his study at an art sculpture workshop began by famous artisan Phan The Hue who carved works of art for the imperial palaces of the Nguyen dynasty.


In 1989, Can returned home and started producing on his own work while training other people.

Choosing bamboo as the medium for his work came from a desire to find his own style.


"Wood could no longer be exploited and increasing work made me find a new material," Can said.

Then he discovered bamboo, a popular material which can be found in all of Viet Nam’s villages, to be ideal for his work.


However, it was not easy to carve the material. It was quite "fastidious" and different from wood. Wood can be carved both horizontally and vertically while bamboo can only be worked vertically. It also required very gentle and careful carving or it would crack.


Can had to make his own set of tools comprising hundreds of items specialised for bamboo carving. Day by day, he discovered different "characteristics" of bamboo and learned to use them, making them into sophisticated works of art.


"The most interesting part of using bamboo lies in the fact that it is a special and difficult job so it is not easy to find similar products made out of the material," Can said, adding that his workshop was always busy with orders.


In the early days, he made small artistic products including ashtrays, teapots, dishes and carved pictures. Located on a busy commuter road many tourists on their way to Hue’s villages, his workshop attracted a lot of customers. His products often sold at a high price due to their special nature and his foreign language skills. Visitors were interested in the meticulous, sophisticated and skilful pieces. In order to keep up with growing demand, Can researched more designs to advance his products.


His workshop, with over 10 workers, was divided into different sections for choosing bamboo, splitting, drying, curving and carving. Over the past 10 years, he has brought about a bamboo carving ‘revolution’ in Duong No, an agricultural village by the Pho Loi River. Together with bricklayers, carpenters and wood carving, bamboo carving has become a unique career path in the peaceful village.


Special bird cages


Can stumbled across bird cages by chance but went on to make them his primary product.


"One day I saw a rare bird in a luxurious house but a simple cage. It occurred to me to make beautiful cages suitable for such houses," Can said.


He went home and decided to make the cages without a second thought. People who are keen on raising birds as a hobby liked the cages very much and rushed to buy them. People living far from his village also tried to buy the products.


"It is hard for me to remember how many cages I have made and sold. They are now in Hue, Da Nang, Quy Nhon, Nha Trang and HCM City. Some have made it as far as mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea," he said.


Can also gave special names to his bird cages including Thap Bat La Han (Eighteen Arhats) and Bat Tien Quan Thu (Eight Fairies with Animals). Each cage could ranges from VND25-30 million (US$1,400-1,580) depending on their sophistication and the customers’ requirements.


This was not the first time Can has won a prize. He won gold at a souvenir making contest in Hue in 2006. One year later, he took third price at the fifth Craft Products Contest and silver at the contest in 2008.


"I always win prizes at contests I attend," he said, unable to hide his pride in his work.

(Source: Viet Nam News)


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