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Grafting roasted grains of rice together is a novel way to create a piece of art that can be sold to tourists as a unique and inexpensive souvenir of Viet Nam and it creates jobs.
Although Ta Thu Dong works with rice all day, he's not a cook, but an artist.
The owner of Thu Dong Rice Paintings, one of the leading companies producing rice paintings in HCM City, he has perfected the art of creating images from the fine grain. He doesn't know when rice paintings were invented, but in recent years, many artists have dedicated themselves to this craft. Rice paintings became must-buy souvenirs for tourists, perfect symbols for a country that relies on producing and exporting the product.
While rice paintings are also made in India, there the grains are dyed and dried, then glued to paper or canvas. In Viet Nam, artists roast the grains to create more natural colours, then graft each grain together to make a collage.
Dong quit his career in business when he visited a rice painting gallery and became enchanted by the art.
"Rice has been associated with a full and prosperous life in Viet Nam for a long time," he said. "Besides, Viet Nam is known as one of the world's leading countries in exporting rice; Vietnamese people consider rice their precious pearl. I decided to make rice into paintings as a way to express my gratitude for the rice of Viet Nam."
Four years ago, he said, rice paintings were still considered inferior to other art forms, so Dong could not find an experienced artist to teach him how to make them. But his passion for the art drove him to study on his own. After many failures, he finally found a foolproof method.
It takes a long time to make rice into a painting, and the process requires patience and precision. The rice quality is the decisive factor, so the rice must be carefully chosen and preserved.
Artists select slender, high-quality grains, which they roast in a hot pan. During the one-hour process, it's imperative that the rice not burn or crack. Skillful artists can create dozens of different colours by manipulating the flame. Dong said he can turn the white grain into 20 shades from pale ivory to yellow, brown and black.
After the colouring process, he meticulously arranges the grains on a wooden frame where he has already sketched the outline for the picture. Then he sprays an adhesive layer onto the surface of the painting to fix each grain in place.
Finished paintings are dried under the sun for two or three days to make the material adhere to the wood. Then artists apply a varnish treatment and chemical substances to the painting to prevent mold and termite infestation and preserve the colours.
It takes a week to a month to complete a painting, depending on the size and difficulty level of the work, Dong said.
His paintings feature diverse subjects from landscapes, animals and flowers to religious scenes and portraits.
"A beautiful rice painting requires harmony of colours, tight rice arrangements and a beautiful layout," Dong said.
Rice paintings are an inexpensive alternative to gemstone or hand-embroidered paintings. Each medium-sized rice painting costs US$50-150, he said.
Also based in HCM City, 24-year-old Nguyen Thuy Vy is the youngest owner of a rice painting company. Her firm, Quynh Vy Rice Painting Company, exports rice paintings to both Asian and European countries.
Her work has shown up at cultural events inside and outside Viet Nam. Viet Nam's representative in the Miss World 2012 pageant, Miss Vu Hoang My, brought a rice painting produced by the company to auction for charity.
Like Dong, Vy graduated from the HCM City University of Foreign Languages and Informatics but found her calling among the pioneers of rice painting.
"You can easily find paintings on paper, canvas and lacquer in any country. But these rice paintings can only be found in Viet Nam," she said. "We honour ‘Vietnamese people's pearl' and Vietnamese farmers by using a modest material that's easy to find in Viet Nam to create artwork to wow international audiences."
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