It is hours of creativity and meticulousness spilling in each brush stroke and shaping movements that form the Pig Sculpture’s joyful facial expression, realistic posture and artful patterns on its body.
Remember an old story about Leonardo da Vinci, a great Renaissance artist who, at the age of 14, was introduced to his first art lesson by drawing the same egg a thousand times? He was taught that in-depth, multi-faceted knowledge of a subject would help with creating a masterpiece, even when the subject is just an egg. This comprehensive understanding led the Italian genius to different scholar achievements despite him being an anatomist, doctor, architect, engineer, philosopher or sculptor.
Ly Ngoc Minh, a porcelain artisan and owner of Minh Long I Co., Ltd, recognizes himself as a believer of this philosophy and asserts that a true artist should understand the nature of things he would want to finely depict.
“An artist should make himself knowledgeable about his subject’s anatomy as well as mien shiang (the art of face reading) because it is important to express his soul through the artwork by combining his understanding in these studies,” said Mr Minh.
The philosophy has been well represented and embedded in Minh Long products for decades. Take the development of the lotus pattern on their sculpture and tableware, which can be told by the length of trips around the globe. No matter where he traveled to, this man, with his burning passion for porcelain, constantly looked out for unique patterns of lotus and books about them so that he could create an honest, vivid draft of the holy flower. He is never pleased if his work is rated nothing but perfect. His attention to details and intense focus on abstract artistic and aesthetic values in every item, whether for daily use or high-profile events like APEC Gala Dinner, reward him with praise and creditability. The story of a national flower being artfully presented on dining tableware of country leaders is only part of the legend that amazes those who once heard of.
In the year of Pig (Jihai), the leading porcelain brand with its long standing history in porcelain industry has introduced a colorful set of pig sculptures as a wish for bliss, fortune, longevity, peace and luck. It is the craftsmanship behind exquisite works of art made by the hand of true artists.
Mr Minh gently traces patterns on a pig sculpture which is 24.5cm in length then holds another of 9cm. He beams as looking at the porcelain miniature in the palm of his hand as if it is a newborn baby. Every time a new product is launched, his face is lighted up with joy and satisfaction for the work done. And this kind of joy has never changed for the past decades.
For this year’s festive product, Mr Minh gave his designer team a two-word task: “strong” yet “cute”. In specific, he hopes this year’s zodiac sculpture to look “strong” to bear a hidden image of a healthy young man, while its smaller versions can express a child’s cuteness. A curvy body, big round eyes, joyful smileys and wavy ears form a sculpture of feng shui blissful omen. Mr Minh’s request is not an easy assignment for the design team.
After an good amount of time spent on researching and remodeling, the Pig Sculpture is officially introduced to the market in two versions – Blooming Luck and Prosperity in lustrous 24K gold-inlaid details.
“I regard them as my children. When they were born and accepted by the public, I am just thrilled to bits”, said Mr Minh, while hardly taking his eyes off his dearly creations.
The Blooming Luck sculpture, which implies a message of “good health”, comes in three colors: cobalt, red and orange and in three sizes: 24.5cm, 15cm and 15.5cm. Their chubby face with an ear-to-ear grin and gleaming eyes slightly tilts upward, which exposes a playful posture and seemingly anticipates a hug. Its plump shoulders and shapely back are covered with Minh Long’s signature patterns of lotus flowers that are restyled into elaborate motifs seen in the modern world of trends. Besides, the designer team decides to put a six-pointed star on the sculpture’s forehead as in the local language, “six” rhymes with “fortune” and “good luck”.
Sizes, on the other hand, is the answer to the “cute” side of this design, which is made into miniatures of 15cm and 9cm in length. The Prosperity sculpture is decorated in one single color (red, orange, blue, white) and without patterns for the entirety of its body to represent a child’s nature – purity and naivety. Notably, one special edition of the sculpture is wholly covered with 24K gold, while the other yohen glaze to give the customers more options to choose from.
This year’s zodiac sign is a lovely and healthy animal that can represent the wish of every person for their own and businesses om the year to come”, explained Mr Minh about the idea initiated a few years ago.
However, realizing an abstract, superstitious idea into shapes and works of arts is an adventurous journey with time. Thousands of documents have been studied, sketches done and a great deal of technology and craftsmanship involved in order for a real-life animal to turn into a masterpiece with sophisticated patterns.
To some, arts cannot be seen with one’s own eyes or just from the surface. Does the admirer wonder what techniques the artisan have made that a underlying joyful and warm message of the work can be immediately felt as a true living entity?
That is the soul of a sculpture created by the skillful hands and effort of the artisan.
In his autobiography "Stories from the Heart", Professor Tran Van Khe once wrote: "I am fortunate to be a smart man who has good memory. Such things seems natural but contributes only thirty percent to my success. I still have to work, learn and practice to enrich my knowledge.”
That thirty percent, in the context of Minh Long's story, is a trait that a person was born with. Mr. Minh said that the technique used to create a perfect product must come from the hands of people with talent and skills. But that is only the initial condition, the remaining seventy percent is the resonance of many factors that can be summed up in two words: ultimate craftsmanship.
"Giving souls to the sculptures is extremely difficult," Mr. Minh concluded from his experience in porcelain industry. This requires artisans to be knowledgeable about the objects they want to depict. For example, if you want to create a pig sculpture, there is no other way but to have a deep understanding of the animal’s anatomy or how their shape will change according to each milestone of growth, from which the artists can draw vivid lines without going against natural laws. Everyone would know what the sculpture is. Next, the artist should know face reading to define the sculpture’s bright, cute facial expression. All of the most abstract ideas are now clearly displayed in shapes, through practical knowledge, thereby magnified through the eyes and movements on the face, the body and through which the sculpture becomes an actor incarnating to finish his role.
The subject is thought to be easy to portray but has left the painter speechless when he picks up his pencil. Arts inherently derived from real life. Only when artists have sufficient knowledge do they understand thoroughly, remodel and rebuild the subject in their own way and intent. According to Mr. Minh, the knowledge an artist knows should cover every aspect of life.
But the story is only part of how to enliven a porcelain sculpture. After drawing and 3D-shaping processes come modification and computer drawing. The key thing here is these computer drawings have to achieve a flawless look with error-free printability, which are followed by dozens of other steps until the finished work is completed. The requirement is that through these processes, the sculpture would be thickened with colored enamel, but we try not to destroy the soul of the prototype.
"Certainly, at this point, the subtlety and sophistication have decreased somewhat. If you look at the finished product you think is good, then the prototype must be extremely good," Mr Minh explained. To become that skillful, there is no other way for the artists to work hard, learn and practice as mentioned by Professor Tran Van Khe.
The owner of Southeast Asia's largest porcelain house thinks that this ingenuity cannot be replaced by any machine. More than 10 years ago, at Minh Long's hundreds of thousands-square-foot plant, robot arms was launch in production when the concept of Industry 4.0 was not yet to define in Vietnam. Mr. Minh has an exceptional love for the art of giving shapes to soil, he absolutely appreciates traditional values but is very open to advanced and useful technology to elevate his brand name, bring national products closer to international markets. At the dawn of technology breakthrough, he decided to equip his plant with modern machines and systems to support the production process.
However, up to now, the veteran artist still believes that craftsmanship cannot be diluted at least for the next few decades especially in the industry that he has been dedicated his whole life for. Even if the machine is involved, it is still dependent on the operator for complicated manoeuvre. This is what only human hands can do.
"Therefore, people are still the most important factor in the beauty of a ceramic work in particular and artworks in general", he said proudly.
Perfect products not only constitute from techniques and ingenuity of skilled artists, but also composition of premium materials. In Mr Minh’s opinion, a five star dish could not make from spoiled ingredients. In production technology there are tens or even hundreds of strict conditions before the making of so-called masterpieces.
For Mr. Minh, there is nothing as the only “destination” because art only succeeds when artists can display what they want, to make audiences, viewers and viewers understand, like and feel.
For him, art is going deep into people's hearts.
Mr. Minh enjoyed reading books written by Nguyen Hien Le. It is the simple, understandable and profound writing style of the translator of How to win friends and Influence People makes most of his working ethics. He was extremely proud when his signature products, the APEC tableware set, was well received by both elder and younger customers, cherishing each item’s beauty in every pattern.
So is this year’s Pig Sculpture. The statuette at first glance seems ordinary but in the eyes of the elderly can still contain a philosophical perspective. In East Asian conception, pigs symbolize luck and wealth. From time immemorial, piggy bank appeared as a means of savings. The fat, chubby pig figure makes people associate it with prosperity. Making a porcelain pig does not stem from Mr Minh's personal feelings or stories, but originated from the Sexagenary Cycle when this year is Ky Hoi (“Jihai” or “the year of Pig”). The universal essence converges in the artisan’s mind and gyrates in his skillful hands to finally turn into a beautiful product.
“In the year of Pig, I would like to make a sculpture that symbolizes goodness, cuteness and strength, all of which are our well wishes to everyone that owns it”, he continued, “art is not something too far to reach, it stays right beside us”.
There are different paths to pursue art. Once you choose a direction that anyone can read and feel, it goes straight into people's hearts. Perfection of art is a realm that can be reached by everyone and understood despite its expressions. Therefore, Minh Long stays true to its "four negatives (no time, no boundaries, no gender, no age) and four positives (cultural, artistic, style, soulful)".
There are few ways for art lovers to enjoy art at its absolute level. But making art immerse totally in people's hearts is the artist’s success. For decades, Mr. Minh has always kept in touch with the public trends and listened to his consumers’ needs, simply because his art is closely knit with Vietnamese daily life and culture.
Written by Truong Sanh
Translated by Phuong Tram
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