Portrait artists line the rim of Hoan Kiem Lake on a chilly Sunday morning in early January, with one or two busily sketching passers-by while most have canvases and drawing utensils out, waiting for customers. “Em oi, wanna sit for a portrait? they call out, beckoning us over, their fingers smeared with silver lead. Chào nervously approaches Mr. Ham, a quiet man with a kind face, wearing a charcoal-colored cap, with hands shoved firmly in his pockets to keep warm. He introduces himself as an artist, who has been in the profession for more than 20 years.
“I’ve always been considered the weird kid in the family,” Ham starts out. “It’s my thinking that is weird. It’s like my mind’s always somewhere else and not grounded in reality. Maybe that’s the difference between me and people who are not artists.”
Ham sharpens his pencil with a knife and lays out his tools. He then sketches some rough lines, his eyes darting back and forth between me and the canvas. He goes on, musing on the life of an artist. “I went to art school to pursue art, but art has always been in me. I think anyone can do art – you can as long as you have an imagination – but it is extremely hard to be an artist,” he says. “I was glad when my son chose to do computer science in college, because in my opinion it is much easier to be a scientist than an artist.”
He sketches some more and a set of eyes soon appear on the blank canvas. His right hand moves swiftly and without hesitation, as if his skills have been sharpened by so much practice that the action of drawing becomes more like a casual doodle.
“What’s the point of being showy? An artist who brags about his artistic talent is never a true artist.”
I wonder if somebody who considers himself an artist, as Ham obviously does, might think this job beneath them, earning a little here from locals and tourists for a few dollars a pop. Sure enough, without being prompted Ham tells us about his true calling as an abstract artist.
“I’m just doing these portraits to make some living for myself. I tend to completely forget about all these portraits when I’m home and the real work begins,” he says. “My abstract artworks are a way for me to enter another world – my own little world, which is completely different from the natural world we are living in.”
On being asked if he has exhibited his personal artwork, he replies with scorn, “I mean, I have exhibited a few of my works alongside fellow artists, but I keep most of my art to myself. There is nothing good about crafting up art and throwing it outside for people to see. What’s the point of being showy? An artist who brags about his artistic talent is never a true artist.”
The chill in the air is making my toes go numb but the portrait is starting to take shape, and I can see a faint reflection of myself on the canvas.
I ask Ham if it’s alright for me to take a look at his abstract art one day, pointing out that I might not be able to understand what it means. “As long as you like it, then sure,” he laughs “And it’s enough that you are able to like it, regardless of how much you understand. Some may understand it or some might never, and that’s ok. Sometimes in the world of abstract art, liking something and understanding it are the same thing.”
After a little chatting, Ham gradually gets quieter and more absorbed in the portrait, seemingly having entered his own world. My reflection in front of him is becoming sharper every minute. Just as I am wondering how long it will take, another artist appears who calls himself Hiep, and gets out his drawing too, and also starts sketching me, though from a different angle. Hiep appears to work in a more casual and playful way, sometimes looking up to smile flirtatiously at passers-by, other times peeking at Ham’s portrait and giving admiring nods.
Suddenly we are done. I get ready to give Ham his fee, 150,000 VND (about 6. U.S. dollars), while he inspects the portrait and begins wrapping it in craft paper, but before he can secure a rubber band around the roll, Hiep jumps in with his portrait of me. “Wrap this in too. I’m giving it to her for free,” Hiep says, looking at me with a flashy smile. I blush slightly, now having two for the price of one.
It is a cold day well-spent by Hoan Kiem Lake, and as I make my may way home, I can’t help put ponder Ham’s advice from earlier. “Always choose a profession that you love doing and not just for success. For there really is no definition of success, and no definition of failure. Any human being can be an artist in painting up a life they love.”
All photos by Kieu Anh