Le Ngoc Thuan (Hoi An, Quang Nam) has turned discarded wooden slats into lively works of art.
Thu Bon river, originating from Ngoc Linh mountain (Kon Tum province), flows into the estuary in Cua Dai ward (Hoi An, Da Nang). Every year, from July to October, there are clumps of dried bamboo, water hyacinths, and rotten firewood drifting back in clusters. In the old days, locals saw them as flood waste and just picked up a few dry branches for firewood.
“Flood firewood” Thuận
Le Ngoc Thuan lives in An Bang, Hoi An. When he opened a restaurant, he set up and decorated his business space himself followed his unique tastes. This helps drives a huge number of Western customers to the restaurant. In this area, Thuan is well-known for his eye-catching decorative items, which were formerly trash.
After the historic floods in Hoi An at the end of 2020, a friend of Thuan from the Ghành village, in Cửa Đại ward, located close to the river mouth, jokingly phoned him in: “Thuan, tons of firewood followed the flood and drifted down here, if you’re interested, use your truck to load it home.”
Out of blue, Thuan felt like he found a goldmine. In the afternoon, he drove a pickup truck to Cua Dai beach. The rubbish was scattered on the shore mixed with plastic wool and wire. After putting all-out effort to classify the mess, he “harvested” 2 bundles of firewood in various shapes. He carefully swept the sand away and brought them home.
A week later, Thuan called his friend who used to tease him about getting firewood to his restaurant. He took his friend to a painting which is about 80cm high, 1.5m long, and said: “This mosaic made from the flood firewood that I picked them up at Cua Dai beach.” The wooden bars displayed in the mosaic were framed into unique multi-nuanced faces.
The first mosaic of “firewood” assembled by Thuan was placed at the main entrance of his restaurant. Many Western customers offered to buy it as soon as they saw the image.
Thuan soon discovered a business opportunity from this. Even did he like the teased nickname Thuan “flood firewood”. “I really like that name, transforming discarded stuff into sellable objects is similar to regenerate another life cycle of trash” – he said.
Turn firewood into … dollars
The tourism situation in Hoi An is not that bright. Thuan also tried his best to manage several of his restaurants to attract customers, including setting up a sea art event on the An Bang beach or inviting skillful chefs throughout Hoi An to hold a culinary festival.
From the end of 2020 until now, Thuan has opened a new restaurant with a natural design style. He less made use of concrete. Instead, he turned this place into a “showroom” displaying his works revived from discarded objects.
The sunset art market has been open to welcome guests since December 2020. Apart from enjoying music, cuisine, oil paintings, and handmade products of foreigners living in Hoi An, many visitors showed deep interest in the wooden works.
Thuan’s works of art still retain the color and the existing wood grain lines. They’re chiseled coarsely, with almost no paint or chemicals used to polish.
Thuan picked up a wooden board discarded by a carpenter in Kim Bong (near the Hoi An ancient town), then contemplated and imagined. After asking a painter to help him sketch his ideas, he paid a great effort to diligently chisel his works for a week. A strange face showed up on this wooden board made everyone burst out laughing.
However, after did he give it some additional tweaks, including pruning out some unnecessary details, painting on the eyes, etc. a beautiful picture appeared. In the sunset art market, a Westerner agreed to purchase it for 2 million VND. He even insisted Thuan inform him if there were nice stuff. He’d love to buy.
Such wooden paintings are becoming the main product line in the weekend sunset art market. Entering Le Ngoc Thuan’s stall, many people buy pictures of fish swimming in rows, strange flower pots, unique and skinny flowers, not knowing that they all used to have a different life, scattered in the river before he makes them soulful.
“Not just an ordinary item”
After initial trials, Le Ngoc Thuan now confidently chooses this as his potential business direction. At first, he carved stuff himself. But since the more goods he made, the quicker they were sold, he decided to open his workshop. Then, he went to Kim Bong carpentry village and grabbed discarded wood fibers for raw materials. He invited all the skillful craftsmen to the workshop. Thanks to this, unique objects were produced regularly …
Wall paintings for decoration in villas, restaurants, cafes, wooden cosmetic boxes, tissue boxes, chairs, flower pots … all kinds of items were born from this “one-of-a-kind” carpentry workshop. Some items were even sold for nearly 1,000 USD. There are more and more orders from hotels, cafes, and restaurants.
“This approach gets on well with the emerging trend of civilized, minimalistic, environmentally friendly lifestyle and recycling objects. These items are not simply ordinary consumer goods, they are storytelling works from the past, ”said Thuan.
In Hoi An, arranging and decorating accommodation facilities still centers on ” modernization with aluminum and glass,” which is quite expensive. Little do people follow the minimalist and nature-friendly trend. “So I think what Le Ngoc Thuan is pursuing is in the right direction towards this positive trend”, Mr. Khoa said.
Look forward to awakening Kim Bong carpentry village
Located in the old town of Hoi An, Kim Bong used to be a prosperous ancient handicraft village. However, about 30 years until now, hardly do we find artisans with enough passion and creativity to pursue the traditional profession of his father.
One of the main reasons is that the key products mainly serve worship and spiritual purposes, not innovating along with the rising trends of life.
Le Ngoc Thuan said that when he started to carry out the project of making wooden artworks, he returned to Kim Bong carpentry village to order samples. What’s more, he requested the craftsmen here to shape them, then launch them for sale. Luckily they were enthusiastically welcomed by the customers. “I will connect large product sources with Kim Bong carpenters to develop more modern wooden art product lines,” Thuan said.
Many international artists also unleash their creativity with firewood drifted into beaches or lakes, called the “driftwood sculpture” subject.
Although being well-trained in illustration art, British artist Lynn Muir has been into this art for the past 35 years. At his workplace in his hometown, overlooking the North Cornish beach in southwestern England, Muir looks for floating wood. Based on their shapes, he creates colorful, decorated doll statues.
Sometimes when Muir has an idea, he will dedicatedly find a piece of wood with a shape that fits the bill.
Once the ingredients are ready, Muir will saw, grind, chisel, and then use brushes and acrylic paint to form the final products – most of them are statues of different characters with funny expressions.
“The designs can be repeated but each work is unique because of the different wood texture and drawing style” – Muir wrote on his social account. This artist has had many private exhibitions. Along with that, his products are sold with prices ranging from a few tens to several hundred pounds.