Thanh Trí

Copyright by Thanh Trí  -  All rights reserved


Triển lãm Tranh và Thơ Thanh Trí, Westminster 2005





By Bùi Bích Hà


Writer Bùi Bích Hà

         I must admit an amazing fact, hard to believe both to myself and to others but quite true, that even though I lived in the city of Huế my entire childhood and adolescence, in those bygone days, like many Huế girls I was not familiar with all the well-known places in our city. There is Thiên An Hill where a Jesuit monastery is nestled in the pine forest. One can also think of Vọng Cảnh Hill stretched out under the blue sky, its image reflected in the broad mirror-like Perfume River. Meanwhile, abundant leafy trees shade Viễn Đệ pavilion, an old mansion on the north bank of the Bến Ngự River. It is said that within its brick-paved garden compound, a bust of Mrs. Viễn Đệ was placed by her husband to commemorate their heart-breaking separation when she left home and entered a Buddish temple to remove herself from the all too familiar mother-and daughter-in-law irreconcilable conflict. These three places, the images of which are enriched by folk imaginations, have remained mythic to me up to the present time. Fascinatingly, from that very poetic mythical environment emerged Thanh Trí, a well-known and talented woman. From her I learned that the college of Fine Arts was situated in the compound of the Viễn Đệ pavilion. It is a pleasure to reimaging Huế in the early 1960s, still heavily infused with old traditional values. At that time, while the majority of girls went to school with the sole purpose of obtaining a diploma which would help them build an ordinary life with the traditional value framework, some unique personalities stood apart from that well-worn path – like a sparkling raindrop persistently hanging on a high eave, or aneddy declining to flow with the stream, like a ray of brilliant sunlight sparking in the sky, or a wind gathering and disseminating pollen to generate unusually, abundant harvests. These young ladies would instead bring canvas, colors and brushes to the College of Fine Arts, where they attempted to live out the most sublime vision available to human existence: re-creation of the life of the universe and of humanity, either by painting artistic works, or by the processing of real or imagined images and by expressing these creative impulses in elegant individual language.

As one of those few uncommon girls in their twenties, Thanh Trí graduated with high honors from the class of 1957-1961 of the Huế College of Fine Arts. Born into a landscape of splendid plants and trees, of magnificent mountains and rivers, her coming of age in that heavenly environment not only imbued her with an ability to deeply appreciate the beauty of the immense universe and the subtle human world around her, but also endowed her with a love and an aspiration to immortalize them in art – an activity itself a fierce resistance against the transistorizes of time and an assertive statement that each flashing moment, each ksana, captured by a painting is equivalent to a thousand years.

An artist usually lives much more than merely his transient selfsame life, his inner being containing more than a single personality. This state of consciousness is an advantage while at the same time inculcating pain and disquietude – because of inner conflicts, because choices are usually not easily made when she has to reconcile the infinity of her thought and feelings with the finites of ordinary life. In spite of that, Thanh Trí has smoothly crossed such tremendous barriers throughout five decades. She is a wife, a mother, and now a grandmother, a painter and a poet all rolled into one, living her life in harmony, in happiness, and in tranquility.

Those who have lived in Huế can perhaps never forget the sound of evening rain falling on banana leaves. It always seems so close to you, that rain, that liquid fall now splashing noisily over those broad green instruments and rubbing against your sensitive nerves, now dripping slowly like a sad lullaby melody which evokes a loneliness of the heart. Similarly, one cannot forget vast ponds filled with the fragrance of lotus flowers, pink and white, along side those young of light green hue. Those flowers are gatha poems chanted into emptiness, chanted in the refined Buddhist praying melody. The sweet gently mother in the cover art of Thanh Trí’s Tập Tranh thơ (Volume of Art and Poetry), enveloped in mother-child affection, abandons herself in a deep sleep to the comforting impulse of waves from the East Sea, her conical hat lying by her side. Even if the mother’s body has experienced pain and suffering, like a banana leaf mercilessly torn to shreds by wind and rain, her heart remains pristine like a calm lotus bud, and her child still basks in her protection, while the birds continue their song and the small fishes yet rear their offspring.


Thanh Trí early works show loyal connectedness with, and unwavering faith in, the beauty of her birthplace. Later paintings reflect emotional responses to various life circumstances she either witnessed or experienced herself. I especially love her watercolors on silk. Though not at all capable of evaluating her artistry, I was delighted when coming across unexpected inspirational details which bring enchanted surprise to viewer s, the surprised reflecting the quiet subtle charm of her paintings.



In Thời gian và Không Gian, ‘Time and Space’, the work is marked with a shimmering rose morning light against the lingering darkness of night, the unexpected feature being a crescent moon above the top of the hammock where a young woman lies. Is it a waxing crescent or a waning crescent? With the passage of time, have inspirations waxed and waned, or are they waiting for full development before exploding into works of art?



Hong Nắng Mới, ‘Exposure to Spring Sunlight’, presents a young woman who abandons herself to a nap in a bamboo hammock, her camisole with its straps negligently unfastened hanging half open over her chest. But why is it that one bare foot plants on a basket of goods while the other stays snuggly in a wooden clog? In her unconscious, what is she tightly holding on to?



Meanwhile, the erotic appeal of Ngày Xuân Đánh Đu, ‘Swinging on the Spring Day’, is not a visual rendition of what the famous poetess Hồ Xuân Hương wrote in describing this recreational activity, where “four red trouser legs flutter in the wind, two pairs of beautiful limbs stretch side by side”. Rather, it is expressed in the image of two pairs of wooden clog scattered on the ground, having been kick off by a young man and a young woman in their rush to join each other on a swing. In the painting titled Suối Bataan Philippines, ‘Bataan Stream in the Philippines’, a clustered stand of tall grass is an expected element which highlights the vitality of a panoramic scene captured on silk.

Since the works are not dated, I cannot tell at what point in time Thanh Trí turned to painting in oils. I am told that in the creative career of an artist, oil painting is very appealing temptation, a great challenge because it demands an integrated combination of soaring inspiration, precision in lines executed by a skillful hand holding a brush, and the prefigurement of an elegant color scheme. Indeed there is no room in indecision and blunder. Mistakes cannot be allowed. Like an arrow shot from a bow either hitting its target or getting lost in emptiness. Like uttered words, either echoing the sounds of bell and gong that move one’s heart or falling flat like a rhythmic folk melody produced by rapping on a bamboo instrument, soon sucked into silence. Thanh Trí has produced a rather large number of oil paintings. Even without privy to how much pain and/or pleasure with which she conceived ideas and turned them into art works, viewers like myself can immediately recognize an expression of gentle femininity, a suggestion of careful contemplation and deliberation in front of the canvas, and a projection of feelings and emotions into colors uniquely of her own tenor. She often uses bluish gray, brown blended with yellow, a subtle red streak here and there like a playful smile; and a light unobtrusive shade of purple, reflecting her perpetual longing for Huế, the romantic homeland whose hallmark color is violet as is attributed by popular imagination. In particular I like the piece title Đôi Vợ Chồng Mù tại Suối Tiên, ‘a Blind Husband and Wife Singing at Suối Tiên’, for the reason that when rendered in Thanh Tri’s art, even human miseries emanate a sense of peace; and Nỗi Nhớ Quê Hương, ‘Nostalgia for Homeland’, which captures the image of an old man, an expression of sorrow on his face, and the passage of time suggested by a background awash in the color of autumn leaves, all merge into a harmonious whole. Perhaps , as one becomes mature with age and experience, life appears more and more rough and hard, and one needs to expose its multifarious forms, break them, control them, and depict them by all suitable means one has to hand, responding to the aspirations of one’s own times. Leaving silk canvas and turning to wood surface, I am enchanted to see that Thanh Trí’s lacquer paintings also exhibit a graceful, smooth and lovely refreshing style. Indeed, in the hands of this artist, whether the material is fragile silk, stubborn oil colors, or insensate wood, human beings and their lives are depicted with vibrant emotion and passionate spirit.



Though she is largely known for her paintings on silk. Thanh Trí was not satisfied working exclusively with the confines of this art form. To her, there is no resting pause on the path toward development of artistic creativity and self discovery. Reinforced by such a conviction, she stepped into the world of abstract painting with spontaneity and self-confidence, where she depicts feelings an emotions in images and colors which appeal to her vision, which enter her mind full of passion yet entirely sensible. In the light of this, perhaps the one exception is Linh Hồn Ngệ Thuật và Bóng Thời Gian, ‘The Artist’s Spirit and the Shadow of Time’, which gives the viewer the impression of witnessing Thanh Trí’s self-revelation: a rather agitated state of mind, a hint of fear, a cry of anguish conveyed in a confusion of colors surrounding a falling female figure, herself and her shadow then courageously rising up together. As for the rest of her works, I would venture to guess that her years of teaching experience more or less had an impact on her rational tendency, on the purity and absolute self-determination in her creative expression, so that composition and the lines themselves readily provide answers to questions which the viewer may have.

Thanh Trí thus fully rose to her own artistic challenge. Then came a time when not only did she continue of paints, but she also heard poetic melodies echoing in her inspiration. She recorded them on paper like gathering as a present for others flowers unexpectedly blooming multicolor in her studio, those flowers that have kept her company during hours of solitary hard work. In truth, an artist is also a warrior having to struggle for survival in all circumstance. The more intense the struggle grows, the greater are works inspired by it. That having been said, I seem to have suddenly come to grasp the significance of the lacquer painting title Chiếc Lá, ‘Leaf’, included in her volume of art and poetry: a female soldier in fatigues and combat boots, with oak leaves clinging to her cheek and resting on her arms – the leaves that are fated to live a glorious life before being swept away by a wind during a storm. I believe that under the elegant appearance and feminine gentleness, Thanh Tri possesses power of self-determination when making choices, courageously conducting her life truthfully in spite of external circumstances. On her path of searching for and serving the true, the good and the beautiful, she has gained a manner of behavior colored with religious values, which helps her, in symbolic fatigues and combat boots, to walk steady steps in her career and her personal life.

Now living thousand of miles away from her homeland, Thanh Trí cries out in alarm over the whirligig of events.

Where has gone my conical hat, its strap broken?
Where has it gone amidst the wind teasingly whirling around?
What shall I use for protection against rain and sunshines?
What will prevent the wind from entangling my hair?

(“Hỏi Gió Loạn”, “Asking the Wild Wind”

Her nostalgia for her land of birth is truly heartbreaking:

Once celebrates spring by writing literature on New Year
That custom my pen declines to honor this season
Paper and ink stubbornly remain inactive, indifferent
In numb silence I sit, contemplating the smoke from burning sandalwood
And incense sticks.

(Ngày Xuân Nhớ Quê, Nostalgia for Homeland on a Spring Day)

Separated from her nurturing motherland, the artist who lives by the spirit of the past and humanity suddenly finds herself dried up like a snail with a borrowed soul:

Sitting here wrapped in a numb sadness
I see paper and pen take on the form of snail and oyster shells
Where have gone the waves that evoke inspiration?
The sky under which I lived is rendered insensate.

(Gọi Sóng, Calling the Waves)

As she arranges then erases fragments of experience captured on the canvas, Thanh Trí wears a peaceful, tolerant smile in face of the transience of time and impermanence of human existence embedded in the cycle of birth and death:

The time hammock swing in mid-air
Precariously anchored to the sky and the moon
At night to the Moon Palace it sends a dreamy soul
In daylight forward religious enlightenment it propels in the mind.
….. Day and night I am conscious of the matter of birth and existence
Minute by minute decay and death relentlessly advance.

(Cánh Võng Thời Gian, The Time Hammock)

The city of Huế -- stepped with fragrance of burning sandalwood and incense sticks from a folkloristic era (legendary), where in early hours the sound trees, and where on summer evenings children sit around a pond waiting for shooting star and imagine flying with it a far away horizon – in many ways has left a profound imprint of a religious flavor in Thanh Trí soul, which makes her readily blend herself with the universe, seeing the image of the insignificant self reflected in the all-encompassing world:

A fleeting sense of loneliness touches the heart
Oh my endearing images, which drop of water enfolds you?

(“Tìm Bóng”, ‘Searching for One’s Own Reflection’)

Thanh Trí world of art, therefore, overflows with love, loyalty, and the beauty of flowers blooming in the morning sun and fading into evening – nothing strange or extraordinary, only life with all its vicissitudes, contemplated by a sincere heart, by an artistic talent who, because of her ardent love and respect for that life, never ceases to sing her praise of it and share it with everyone.

Bùi Bích Hà

English translation – Dr. C.H. Ton Nu Nha Trang