Quang Tri is extreme. During the intense summer months it’s whipped by hot, dry winds. By winter, when the rains come, the temperature can drop down to 7 degrees. Along the coastal plains of the east coast, rocky headlands and sand dunes dissolve into the sea. Peering down on them, atop steep slopes is evergreen forest, and vertiginous crests and valleys that continue to the border with Laos. Painter Tran Chi Thanh was born there but for something like the past ten years he’s been living in Danang.
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“Growing up in Quang Tri, I’m definitely a child of the countryside,” Tran Chi Thanh begins, “and for as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to paint. The stereotypes about painters being introspective and poetic, I think, are true…”
In fact, Tran Chi Thanh first studied interior design. But during those five years, painting, he remembers, became a way to nourish his spirit. And so, shortly after graduation, he showed his work internationally for the first time, in Beijing. “It all happened rather naturally, like a path I was predestined to take,” he smiles.
Now, Tran Chi Thanh is based in Danang, 160km south of Quang Tri. But, as he was in his hometown, he’s still close to the sea. And, inevitably, it figures in his works, whether in an abstract or figurative way – two styles he alternates between. “When I began considering myself a painter, around 2006, I liked to draw and paint in a realistic style. It helped me express what I wanted to say clearly. Then, as I simplified my life, and adopted a slower way of living, I pursued an abstract direction in my works. And I like it. It feels closer to who I really am.”
“And actually,” he tells us, “the sea is a big inspiration for many of my works. And every weekend, for the past several years, together with a group of local painters, we’ve headed out in the landscape to paint. We tend towards undeveloped areas, to capture this moment in time before further urbanization.”
Some of his artworks happen quickly, whereas he’ll deliberate and develop other pieces over a long period. “I feel like my artworks connect closely to my soul,” he explains. “Depending on my feeling and what’s happening at the time, I’ll finish an artwork intuitively and in a short space of time. But then there are other works that go through lots of changes, and revisions; that die, before I’ll bring them back to life.”
He’s spent the last ten years in Danang, observing the city evolve. “It changes every day,” he says, “and there are things added and things lost, but I guess that’s all inevitable for development.”
There’s something about the people here too, Tran Chi Thanh says. “I really like the people of Quang Nam and Danang because of their sincerity, and their dignity. They’re open-minded but they’re spiritual too,” he decides. “It’s a very comfortable place to be. Life is good. And it suits me just fine.”
Lots has changed in the world since 2006 too. “We got to watch social networks take a hold of people’s consciousness,” he muses, “unlike previous and even later generations had the chance to do.”
But he’s not anti-technology. “Look, the internet and social media help people access art much more quickly. And, from my side, they’ve opened up a world of artistic treasures and ideas right at my fingertips – the impact on our ability to learn and research has been phenomenal. Plus, it’s created instantaneous networks between artists and the public that didn’t exist before.”
So, we asked the forward-thinking, poetically-minded artist some questions about the city of Danang that he holds dear.
Can you describe Danang to someone who’s never been?
Well, Danang is a playground of lush green mountains, rivers and beautiful cloudy skies, and then there’s the great blue sea. It’s a place where harmony truly exists for the people here. People like me.
So, where would you go to see Danang from a different perspective?
I lived and worked in the area near Bana Hills for a year when I first arrived here. Danang looks so beautiful from up there. At dawn you get this pink sky, and the view of the mountains and the sea locked in an endless embrace is magical.
Maybe Danang is best enjoyed from afar. So I still go up into the mountains early in the morning, or hop on a fishing boat in the evening to see the city from the shimmering sea as it gets dark.
Recently, I’ve found another place to be inspired. That place is Son Tra Mountain, on the Son Tra Peninsula. It’s like the lungs of the city. And, as a painter, I feel Son Tra is the soul of Danang.
Son Tra Mountain provides one of the best, unobstructed views of Danang that’s enjoyable any time of the day. At the highest point, you get a wide panorama. It’s easily accessible – by car or motorbike, by bicycle or even jogging. I’m usually not alone at sunrise and sunset, when lots of people gravitate to there. But at noon, the sea and the sky blend in a kind of turquoise color.
What have you discovered on your trips into nature in Danang?
Son Tra has a diverse marine and forest ecosystem. Among the many rare and precious animals on the peninsula, I was awe-struck by the five-colored langur. It’s a rare and strangely beautiful primate, which is on the protection list and needs our help to survive.
Where do you usually buy painting supplies in Danang?
At Ms Be’s paint supplies store, at 36 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh. It’s right opposite Danang University of Architecture. I think a lot of artists order products delivered from outside of Danang too.
And where’s the best place to go to meet artists?
I recommend watching out for art events at the City Museum of Fine Arts. I usually go along to the exhibitions, or any seminars they’re hosting, and I’ll undoubtedly bump into some art loving colleagues and friends.
In this beautiful city, where do you usually go to find new inspiration?
One of the joys of growing up in Quang Tri was heading off into nature to explore. I still love anywhere natural, quiet and peaceful.
And where’s the best place for a coffee in Danang?
I often go to The Local Beans, at 72 Le Dinh Duong Street. It was founded in 2013 and serves delicious, high-quality coffee. There, I’ll drink a cup or two, catch up with friends, or arrange meetings.
Can you share a secret about this city that you’ve discovered since you’ve been here?
The best thing I can share with you, that may be a secret, is that I don’t even need to lock my door when I go out…