Disabled artists create beauty in sand

(No.4, Vol.8,Aug-Sep Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

At the Phi Long Sand Painting Gallery, Phan Thiet City, Binh Thuan Province
Photos Tran Dinh Thuong

Do Dang Phi Long was born in 1988 as a normal child. But at the age of 1, he contracted pneumonia, which led to loss of hearing and speech. ‘He is my first child, and that devastated me. Negative thoughts filled up my mind. It was so unbearable,’ Phi Long’s mother, Ms Dang Thi Thu Ha, recalls those most terrible days of her life.
When Phi Long was 7, Ms Ha, living at that time in Phan Thiet took him to a boarding school for disabled kids in Binh Duong Province.
In 2005, attending the ‘Green Convergence of Binh Thuan’ fair, Phi Long by chance saw the very unique sand paintings of artist Y Lan. The famous artist’s paintings impressed him so much he, implored his mother to come down to the artist’s residence in Ho Chi Minh City to ask her to admit him as an apprentice. Just a year later, the young man became a skillful sand painting artisan.
Back in Phan Thiet, Phi Long asked his mom’s permission to open a sand painting school for disabled youth. ‘I was so happy that my son wanted to help other underprivileged people. So our family spent all our savings to open a school of sand painting at home,’ Phi Long’s mother said.
The kind-hearted mother added, the first paintings Phi Long made in this 20m2 classroom touched many people’s hearts. Some generous Maecenas helped by announcing widely about the admission to the training sessions. The number of trainees increased from 5-7 persons to 20 at some times.
Seeing the constrains of the class at home in terms of space, in 2009 Phi Long and his mom developed a project of opening a more spacious and better-equipped school for the disabled to learn in better conditions. To support the young man’s kind-hearted determination, Binh Thuan’s Provincial government granted him 50 years’ right of use of 500m2 of land. ‘Even then we had a lot of financial problems. So I decided to mortgage my house to get some more funding,’ Ms Dang Thi Thu Ha recalled.
About a year later, a sizeable sand painting vocational school was opened in alley no. 444, Thu Khoa Huan Street, Thanh Hai Ward, Phan Thiet City of Binh Thuan Province. The 500m2 school has workshops, an exhibition space, and living quarters for a number of disabled attendees. While establishing the vocational school, Phi Long also opened Phi Long Sand Painting Company under the management of Director Dang Thi Thu Ha.
‘From the opening of the first sand painting class to now, Phi Long has trained 340 people from all over Vietnam. Having learned the trade, they may open their own business or they can stay and work for Phi Long,’ his mother proudly concluded.
Currently, Phi Long Sand Painting Company employs 30 disabled people, including skillful artisans and apprentices. The apprentices are provided with free boarding, food and receive an allowance of VND3-8 million a month, depending on their skill level.
Here is how sand paintings are made: sand taken from Phan Thiet beaches is sifted to get fine, equal-sized grains. The sand is dyed in different colors and stored separately according to color. Next, using sticky paint, the artisan makes a sketch of the intended painting on the bottle, glass, vase or glass panel to be painted, and then pours sand of specific colors onto suitable sections with a tiny spoon and brush.
‘Only having witnessed the whole sand painting process at Phi Long’s workshops can one fully appreciate the underprivileged artisans’ talent and dedication. With love, artistic sensitivity, patience and precision, they meticulously work with every grain of sand to blow spirit into works of art that move people’s hearts,’ a tourist named Thuy shared.
Phi Long sand paintings have taken part in many domestic and international handicraft fairs and won hearts and minds of viewers and customers far and wide.
Today, many tourists that come to Phan Thiet find their way to Phi Long Sand Painting Gallery. The sand paintings in the gallery never cease to amaze the visitors, just as the authors never cease to invoke in them admiration. Phi Long paintings are very diverse in themes and topics. They depict nature, animals, people, and famous landscapes. The sizes also varies greatly, making them easy to arrange in an exhibition. Some paintings are as small as to fit in a chest pocket of a T-shirt.

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