Article written January 25th, 2020 by Kyle Tortora
My first trip to Vietnam was in 1998. I was a 22 year old backpacker just out of college, exploring the country without a care or worry in my mind. Vietnam had the distinct smell of salt water and the aroma of food. It’s as if their unmistakable flavor of fish sauce had permeated the air and surrounded you at every turn. Twenty three years later it still has that same smell I remember which immediately took me back with nostalgia to my backpacking days.
I came to Da Nang to visit my white marble statue maker, Lan, and her family. Da Nang is situated at the base of what is known as the marble mountains, a place famous for its abundance of quality, pure white marbles. Lan and I have worked together for 15 years. She was the first artisan I worked with in Vietnam. Her entire family is involved in the business. Her brother operates the workshop, where all the statues are produced and her cousin, who is the master carver, is responsible for the faces and all the intricate details of the statues.
All these years later I was still impressed with the quality of the Lan’s sculptures compared to that of other workshops in the area. Seeing her 22 foot Kwan Yin statue with my own eyes for the first time, I was completely blown away! She has this gossamer, realistic quality where it looks as if her robes are made of pure silk gently swaying in the breeze. The statue is so lifelike I found myself forgetting it was a 10,000 pound solid block of white marble. Later that day I visited another workshop where I saw a large Kwan Yin statue carved by a different artist. It completely lacked the life and beauty inherent in Lan’s Kwan Yin sculpture. The Kwan Yin at Lan’s workshop is stunning and has that special untouchable something that makes a masterpiece a true masterpiece.
“She has this gossamer, realistic quality where it looks as if her robes are made of pure silk gently swaying in the breeze. The statue is so lifelike I found myself forgetting it was a 10,000 pound solid block of white marble.”
Sadly, I arrived the week before Tet or Chinese New Year and all the artists were on break. In planning my trip I knew about Tet and figured being there a week before would give me time to see the artists before the shops would close. I was very wrong, no one was working. I found the workers take off 2 weeks prior to Tet and then a month following. Instead of hearing the incessant clinking sound of chisel on stone all I heard were birds chirping and wind blowing through the palm trees. All the carvers had gone home to their villages to visit with family and friends. It is the equivalent of going to Europe in August when everyone flocks to Mediterranean beaches.
One thing that I am always impressed, when I visit any stone worker, is seeing the raw block of stone they have yet to begin carving. Climbing over them you can appreciate their pure size and mass. The raw white marble blocks are massive, larger than any I have seen in India or Indonesia. It is an amazing talent a stone artist has to visualize the god or goddess that is sleeping within the stone, waiting to be rendered by the hammer and chisel. But that is exactly what these artists do and I am amazed by it every time I see it.
Later in the day Lan and her brother took me to a beautiful seafood lunch on the beach and a leisurely stroll through the historic town of Hoi An for Vietnamese coffee. For anyone visiting Vietnam, Hoi An is a must see. Even though you are navigating your way through a maze of tourists it still has an old world charm visible through its tiny avenues and beautiful colonial architecture. Walking around the old streets I appreciate knowing that I will be returning to this part of the world for the rest of my life. I often think of how fortunate I am to be doing the work that I am doing…..today was one of those days.
Article written January 20th, 2020 by Kyle Tortora
It has been a very long time since I have been put through the ringer like I have been in the past 48 hours. My buying trip to Hanoi has sent me through the gamut of emotions from pure elation, to utter and complete disappointment, to acceptance and now, to hope for the future… here’s why.
Hanoi! It is a fantastic city full of life and energy. It has a true beating heart and a vibrancy you just feel when you walk around. I came here in search of wooden Buddhist statues carved in rich exotic woods that I have only seen in pictures through the years. The first morning after my arrival I was picked up by my friend’s cousin, Lan, who lives just outside Hanoi. The plan was for him to take me to Du Du village known for its long history of wood carvings. The village had all these little workshops on the side of the road, I counted about 10 on the first pass. We stopped at the shop of Lan’s friend, Hang, who is an artist in the village. Hang is a 5th generation wood carver in his family. Looking at the detail in his carvings it was evident that this skill was part of his DNA, it was in his blood. I was not familiar with who Bodhidharma was but when I took one look in his eyes I was hooked! Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who is credited with bringing Chan Buddhism to China and who also began the training of the monks of the Shaolin Monastery that lead to Shailin Kungfu. The detail of the carving, in the old, bearded and haggard face of the Chinese Buddhist sage, I felt the smooth surface of wood and looked into the depth of the colors in the veins of the wood… it was love at first sight!
“The detail of the carving, in the old, bearded and haggard face of the Chinese Buddhist sage, I felt the smooth surface of wood and looked into the depth of the colors in the veins of the wood…it was love at first sight!”
After 2 hours of selecting statues and falling in love with every one I held in my hands, I started the typical back and forth banter of how to organize payment, shipping and export. Hang’s face, although very happy to have me in his shop, turned a little sad and started to tell my friend Lan “You cannot export these statues out of Vietnam”. Those were the sad words Lan translated for me. Apparently the wood these statues are carved from is prohibited for exported out of Vietnam to the United States. I have been exporting from countries all over Asia for over 20 years now, and if I stopped every time I heard this I would not be in business. There is always a way to get it done!
I called my shipping agent in Da Nang and she told me that it is indeed illegal to export the statues because of the wood they are carved from. The statues are carved from slow growing hardwoods which are illegal to export from Vietnam along with every country in Asia. The reason these statues are still sold in the Vietnamese market, I’ve found, is because there is still a market within Vietnam and an illegal underground business of smuggling to the Chinese market. My heart imploded in my chest! To have a whole village with groups of artists like Hang, full of stunning statues and to not be able to show them to the world, show them to you… just awful! I traveled days to get here, 23 hours on a plane, all to be told it is not possible. I went back to the hotel, to sleep, feeling dejected and utterly disappointed.
I spoke with my shipping agent in Vietnam, Le, who I have worked with for years exporting white marble. She told me about how numerous shops in Hoi An in the south of Vietnam had to close down because they were unable to export to tourists. The export ban destroyed the livelihood of a whole village.
I knew there must be a way around this… I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, thank you jet lag, with a light bulb idea. I sent off a flurry of emails to my shipping agents in China and Cambodia, and Vietnam. I thought, I can ship the statues overland to either China or Cambodia and then ship them to the States from there! Genius! I sat at my computer and waited for the world to wake up…
After a predawn run around the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi (I love Hanoi!) I returned to my room to check for responses to my emails. Summed up in one word the responses were, NO. The statues are illegal. They would be confiscated at the border. If you did get them across the border you would not be able to export them from either Cambodia or China as the woods are illegal there as well.
On a larger scale my mind started to think about this issue as well. Why are these woods illegal? In thinking about it, the answer was obvious: deforestation. With a deep love for animals I understand the need for wildlife in their own environment. If I was in some way a part of taking away a tree branch for the endangered Black Crested Gibbon to sit on, or the shade for an Indochina Tiger to sleep under, then I would rather not be a part of this in any way. In understanding why these slow growing trees are illegal I was OK with not being a part of the problem. After digesting this in the morning I knew that I would be Ok leaving Vietnam without these statues.
I still had plans to meet with another artist from another village for the day. A young man by the name of Bang. Before setting out I knew I could not export his wood statues but my love and curiosity for them and the people who make them fueled my soul. Bang is a young artist whose family has been carving wood for 2 generations. His father started the business and he and his brother now run it.
Upon entering his small shop my heart immediately swelled again, taking in all his beautiful carvings. I always find it amazing how styles and composition change from village to village. His statues had an entirely different feel. More refined than the rustic and natural carvings of Hang.
After going through the entire process of falling in love and my heart breaking at not being able to export these beautiful statues, another light bulb went off in my head! What if, instead of using illegal, slow growing wood, we could use legal faster growing wood? This was righteous on so many levels! I could give the artists in Vietnam an alternative, something legal and sustainable. I could then do my part to prevent deforestation of old growth trees by providing a profitable alternative in using legal, faster growing trees. I could help reinvigorate life into the carving industry, making it Ok to export once again!
It is a plan that is in the works now… I am not sure it will come to fruition as there are many new licenses that I must obtain. If you have ever dealt with Asian bureaucracy then you will appreciate how difficult this can be! But I have hope that with the help of my shipping agent, Le and the artist, Bang and Hang, my plan will work.
We want to do this the right way – to keep this beautiful art alive.
You, our loyal customers will be the first to know if it does!
UPDATED MARCH 20, 2020
We have exciting news! We have found hard, fast growing woods which are legal to export from Vietnam. I have placed an order with Bang and look to have these statues for sale in late 2020!
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I love meeting people with true passion. Passion for anything; painting, traveling, their children. Six years ago I was very fortunate to meet someone passionate about making Thai Buddha statues and his name is Jew.
In my first 4 years of traveling through Thailand I spent every waking hour of every day I was there looking for good honest people who make great Buddha statues for my budding business, Lotus Sculpture. Every year I was disappointed and had to settle for doing business with a factory who made quality, yet uninspired Buddha statues.
6 years ago while meandering through an amulet market in Bangkok I stumbled upon a great little shop full of beautiful Buddha statues that had both a sense of peace and radiated energy. They were not typical of the Buddhas sold anywhere else in the market. I was giddy from the start. Did I just find the people that I have been looking for the past 4 years? I stayed and enjoyed the day with the mother and wife of the owner who was away at the workshop. I made plans to come back the next day to meet the owner, Jew, and to go to see where he makes his Buddhas. When I met Jew I was outright ecstatic! He was young and passionate. In the hour and half drive to the outskirts of Bangkok to see his workshop I could feel that he was just as excited as I was. He was telling me about himself in his broken English and I was doing the same in my broken Thai. One thing I remember from our first meeting was that he was not trying to sell me anything. He was continually pointing out the Buddha statues that he loved and that he was proud of making. “No one else has this style. I am the only one making this Buddha.” he kept saying. And he was right. No one else has his quality and style in making Buddhas. Jew’s father started the workshop 25 years ago and Jew just took over the day to day operations of the workshop. He was very happy to have their first and only foreign customer!
“I just love making Buddhas. I’d make Buddhas even if I made no money.”
Besides the beautiful proportions and style of the Buddha statues Jeuw is a master of patina. He can make any statue have the most beautiful antique patina. I noticed this immediately that the color of his Buddhas was so authentic and stunning to look at. Even in his smaller Buddhas there is care given to the color of the piece. For this reason many known “Antique” shops in Bangkok purchase his Buddha statues. They sell his newly made sculpture as antiques to foreign tourists. I have seen many shops selling antiques in Bangkok that are not antique at all.
Six years later our relationship has grown immensely. Each year he shows me other styles he is making and Buddhas he had in mind for the future. Each night after our business is done we go out to a dinner on the Khoa Praya river in Bangkok and just talk Buddhas and life. One thing he reinforced to me was the passion he carries with him about Buddhas. “I just love making Buddhas.” He told me to start on my personal collection of Thai Buddha statues which I have done. He told me that there is no one else in Thailand who makes Buddhas like him. The younger generation has no interest in making Buddha statues and he feels that when he gets older there will not be anyone else who will carry on with his passion for the sculptures. I do hope he is wrong.
Lotus Sculpture has been blessed to have such a good person with Love for his Art and Lord Buddha supplying us with all our Thai Buddha statues.
Bali….I was amazed that I got through India without getting sick. In my 10 years of 15 trips to India I have managed to get a wide range of illnesses ranging from ordinary bugs to full-on, 105 degree temperatures. I dodged the bullet this trip! I was amazed! I jumped on the plane to Bali and patted myself on the back. Well done Kyle!
My favorite days in Bali are spent on my motor scooter visiting the markets and being invited into homes in village workshops
After arriving in Bali I sat down to a nice dinner at a respectable restaurant then quietly went to sleep that night. I awoke at 5am with an acrobat in my stomach. Yup, sick off the first meal I ate in Bali! That is what I get for counting my blessings to early! I spent the next day going through the lava stone workshops of my friend Christian, looking for quality Buddha statues that his family has been producing in Bali for the past 20 years. He consistently has the best quality Buddha carvings as well the best coloring for the statues. His artists can produce any color or texture in the stone. Each year I have seen a consistent improvement in the statues.
On previous trips I have always shied away from Bali style Ganesha statues. I was so used to the refined lifelike appearance of Ganesh in my travels through India, that the more crude Ganeshas of Bali did not seem attractive to me. However, this year I opened my eyes and really saw the Bali style Ganesh for the first time and I liked what I saw. There is a quote that I love about Ganesh; “If you take home a stone and worship it in full faith, over a course of time you are bound to see the image of Ganesh.” I truly saw Ganesh in the stone! His fat almost tribal qualities are a perfect variation to the Indian style Ganesh. As usual I bought too many of them! I can never say no to a good statue! In roaming thru his workshop I was consistently fighting back the desire to sit down and go to sleep or just fall over. But I made it through the day…then on to Ubud, the cultural center of Bali to visit my Buddha wood carvers!
My favorite days in Bali are spent on my rented motor scooter cruising through the markets, stores and back village workshops in Ubud. I must go into 30-40 shops a day. It is not easy to find quality wood Buddhas in Bali. There are hundreds of shops selling wood Buddhas however, over the years I have only found a small handful of artists who actually carve with true feeling for the work they are doing. Two artist that consistently make beautiful Buddhas are Mr Sayub and Mr Wayan. Wayan and his son carve my large standing Buddha statues on a blooming lotus base. This year he has carved two of them for me. One 8 feet tall and the other 6 feet tall. The detail and time taken on the flowing robes of the Buddha set his Buddha apart from other standing Buddhas!
My other artist who I always look forward to seeing is Sayub. He makes small Buddha statues each usually with a very unique hand position. The thin fingers of each statue and minute detailing in the robes in my opinion crown him the current king of Balinese wood work…at least for Buddha statues! I also managed to pick up some very large wood statues including a 7 foot Kwan yin, 8 foot meditating Buddha and two other 7 foot standing Buddhas. After a couple of days of searching for Buddhas and cruising through rice fields on my scooter it was time to return to the coast.
I noticed in the shops in Ubud that there was some new metal work in Bali and I was determined to find out where they were being made. The statues were of Hindu gods and goddesses in various forms. The style was more similar in style to Cambodian Hindu and Buddhist statues with many arms and small weapons. I thus headed into Denpasar, the capital to check the markets. I knew I would not find the source here but I did find many shops that were selling the statues I was looking for. After many questions to many dealers I finally nailed down the source of the metal Hindu statues which I went to the following day. My search was rewarded and I choose some beautiful images. My favorite being a dancing Vishnu statue like no other I have seen before. The statue reminded me more of a Nataraja figure. I find it so fulfilling to start on a search for new sculpture mediums and designs and then achieve my goal. There is nothing like finding new artists!!!
By this time in my trip I really needed a reward. I spent the past 23 days working, flying, scooting, exploring every day and deserved a day off. I went to the quite surf beach of Padang Padang and got a bungalow on the ocean and spent the next day surfing and enjoying the ocean and stillness. My body and mind appreciated the day of mental tranquility and relaxation! Here is a video I shot from my bungalow. Yes, it was paradise!
Then I was off to Bangkok, Thailand and the last leg of my trip!
I met Balan on my 2nd trip to India in 2001. Balan was somewhat of a celebrity among the Indian stone artists of the small fishing village of Mamallipuram, India because he had a golden tongue that could seal the deal with any of the visiting tourists for exporting any of the furniture or statues they purchased locally. His celebrity brought me knocking to his door one evening looking for someone to help me export my statues that I purchased for my budding company Lotus Sculpture.
He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss.
My first thought as I saw Balan was; “Thug”. He is a broad boned, heavy set man with balding hair, gaps in his teeth and skin the blackest color of night. He is a character taken right out of a Bollywood movie cast as the criminal or crime boss. I’m not going to say I trusted him immediately because I didn’t. That took time. His bachelor pad as he referred to it was a rented three room space that was formerly the town jail complete with bars in the windows and that feeling that some unsavory things took place there. This only assisted my first impressions of my future shipper. Balan was also a budding artist who had two marble artists in his employment. I looked at his marble work and was impressed. That night we worked over some of the details of my export and his golden tongue went to work on me and I was won over by his sense of humor and keen business acumen. Today he is my best friend in India.
With each passing year Balan’s business has continued to grow. From day one we forged a strong business relationship where I would pretty much buy every Hindu marble statue he produced. I was his only customer. His work he called “Masala statues” where he would mix together different aspects of different gods in poses that were not typical and never produced before. His work was fresh and new and I loved it. With each passing year I would see how much he had grown and each time he would thank me and tell me it was all from me. I was, after all his only customer. View Balan’s red marble and black marble Hindu Statues.
Now Balan is married to his wife of 6 years, Aril. He has two adorable children, Akash 2, and Adittya 5, and a workshop of 30 men working for him. Akash is an eater. When I first held her she tried to bite me by taking a nibble out of my arm I guess it was her only defense against her older sister. Addy is a talker and continually speak to me in Tamil even though I don’t understand a word. Both love photos and on each visit to the house they would take out pictures of me holding them when they were babies and keep putting them under my nose to look at.
Their little friends in the neighborhood call me the “big white man”. Akash got very confused because she thought my name was “uncle”. She asked Balan who is “big white man”? in her high pitched little girl voice and we had a laugh over this.
My favorite days in India consist of sitting under his large Banyan tree he has in his workshop/home with Akash and Addy crawling around causing trouble, which is what we did this Sunday. It was unbearably hot so we just stayed put and played with the kids as we talked about future plans for each other. His workshop has grown so much in the past couple of years. I am no longer his only customer. He is building a temple in Mumbai and is starting on plans for a temple in London! It is amazing how much has changed in 10 years.
Sometimes I feel like I have a double life. I have my life in the USA consisting of my family and friends. Then I have my life in Asia filled with a different group of family and friends. Most of the artists I work with are similar in age to me and thus I have grown as they have grown. As each has married and had children I have been there to see them as babies and watch them grow up. Having Addy and Akash crawling around me like I am a jungle gym calling out “uncle” whenever they want to get my attention fills me with love for them. The connection to my artists and their families only grows with each trip I take. I am so thankful for having these special relationships half way around the world. They are my 2nd family and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Things have come so far since my first meeting with Balan in his bachelor-pad, jail cell home. My “thug” best friend has a beautiful family and business is great! I couldn’t be more happy for him!
For a limited time we are offering free UPS Ground shipping on all orders within the 48 States. International customers will receive a 40% discount off the price of shipping. This discount will be extended to our Canadian customers as well!
Items weighing over 150 pounds including packing materials will be shipped using a freight service. Domestic Freight will be discounted by 35%!