Hue woman turns grass into art

It was a rainy day when Trinh Kim Chi, a 51-year-old Hue woman, was meticulously working on a half-finished painting in her small souvenir shop on Nguyen Chi Thanh street.

A grass painting by Trinh Kim Chi Photo: PL
A grass painting by Trinh Kim Chi Photo: PL

Under her skillful hands, the art piece depicting a typical scene from the Vietnamese countryside with bamboo trees, old tile house roofs and peaceful rice fields gradually took shape.

The painting, like hundreds of others hung on the four walls of the small shop, was made of grass.

Before she became an artist, Chi was an accountant, a job that did not earn her much money. To make ends meet she opened and ran a small grocery store in the central city and supported her family.

In her free time she did not forget her long-time hobby of making cards to give to friends and relatives on special occasions.

Back in 1998, when she was designing her hand-made cards with some lifeless paper flowers, it suddenly dawned on Chi to use more lively material.

Picking up wild grass growing right outside the shop, Chi tried trimming, arranging and putting the blades onto a blank card frame on a sketch she did previously.

“Giang Sinh que” (The countryside Christmas), her first grass card, was the product of her experiement.. “I myself was amazed at how lively it became when I just added some random plants. I have never stopped working with grass since,” Chi said.

She moved on to produce more works on a bigger scale, like paintings, and put the grass on canvas, instead of hard papers.

Chi quit her job and pursued the less travelled path of the art world: making grass paintings and selling them right at her grocery store.

In 2009, her work “Que toi” (My homeland), which debuted at the National Applied Art Exhibition held in Hanoi, received a warm reception.

The grass work which depicted a Hue woman wearing purple ao dai standing by the Huong river with a flock of white birds flying overhead was made with dry grasses, seaweed, and sea shells arranged in a pleasant color combination.

“Making grass paintings isn’t difficult at all, but it takes months to prepare the right materials for your work. The weather in Hue is very unpredictable, so I go out to find wild grasses in the summer, and dry them then to use in the winter.” she said.

According to the artist, there are many kinds of grass in Hue; though types which do not contain much water inside are very rare.

Chi has learned from her experience that she always has to use naturally dry grass, since “juicy ones” easily rot and damage the paintings.

In order to find or buy the right materials, Chi often has to make trips to distant suburbs like Phu Vang or Phong Dien.

“I then classify and trim them before drying, dying and putting them into nylon bags to preserve their colors,”

“Now I have developed a habit of just picking up random grass I see on my way. And I always bring along bags or anything that can hold grass whenever I travel somewhere.” Chi added with a smile on her face.

Vietnam’s traditional culture and rural lifestyle is a recurrent theme in Chi’s works, thus many foreign tourists are especially drawn to her paintings.

Carey, an American woman we met at her shop couldn’t hide her excitement when she said: “This is wonderful! It is the first time I have seen any paintings like this.”

Having loved art from a young age, Chi said she received inspiration from her tireless travel across the country, and from music and poems, a habit she has had since her high school time.

“I used to have an art teacher in high school that made us paint what we felt after hearing a certain song or poem she gave us.”

In her now-souvenir store, Chi busily works on more paintings every day, while running a free art class for both young and old people who have a passion for her grass art.

“Someday I hope to open a large studio to bring grass paintings to more people,” Chi smiled gently.

In 2009, all 30 paintings Chi sent to the Hue Festival were sold.
Grass painting is still very rare in Vietnam, although paintings made with dried flowers or leaves are more common.
Chi sells her paintings at VND 100,000- 500,000.


Grasses that are used for Chi’s paintings


The artist Trinh Kim Chi

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