In the middle of the Saigon River is a tiny island. On this island is a residence where Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thi Mai eats, sleeps, and breathes lacquer. Lacquer painting in Vietnamese is called ‘Son Mai’, which directly translates to sanded paint. The technique involves applying layers of colored lacquer paint to a wooden board and sanding it off in between layers to achieve a smooth veneer. ‘It’s the only art medium that achieves that antique, worn out finish that I love’, Mai exclaimed.

Mai’s walls are marked with scenes of women and animals partying, dancing and falling in love. “I paint a lot of nudes, animals and tribal festivities because I love a simplistic and organic life”, she said. Mai adds elements of the female form into everything she paints. “You may see a seahorse, but I see a seahorse with the hips of a woman”, Mai looked up from her current lacquer project and points.

I watched as she added a layer of red paint to the wooden board and sand it off. Unhappy with the outcome, she added a different layer and sand it off again. She repeated this six more times until she’s finally happy. “All eight layers are necessary to create depth in my paintings”, explained Mai.

After sanding off the final layer of paint, Mai looked up and asked me if I could hear the guitar playing of Phillips Phillips in the background. “I always have music playing,” she said. “Upbeat songs always inspire a brighter color palette, while melancholic songs produce darker colors”. Mai is especially influenced by the keys of Freddie Mercury’s piano and the screams of Steven Tyler. “I aim to paint my most beloved songs”, said Mai.

Mai combines her desire for a simplistic traditional Vietnamese life with her love of contemporary music to create her own art signature. Mai’s lacquer style not only unveils the intricate layers of the artwork but also that of the artist.

Tam Hiong Lin
Melbourne, 20th November 2015