Every time I visit my friend, Jew, I come away with more respect and admiration for him and what he does. He and I share a passion for the statues he creates, he with a firm love of making Buddha statues and I with a firm love for sharing them with the world.
Jew is a 40-year-old producer of Buddha sculptures in the small village of Nakom Pathom, Thailand, about an hour and a half north of Bangkok. Having known him for 12 years now I always knew that he took over the business from his father who started it 40 years ago. What I learned on this trip was that Jew had taken over a struggling business at the young age of 20. I was always under the assumption that his father had a thriving business that he took over and made better, but this was not the case at all. Jew’s father had only one artist working for him while Jew has created a prosperous business employing all the families in his surrounding village of almost 40 people. Click here to view his Buddha artists handcrafting Buddha statues. Every day he spends hours going over each of the statues to make sure they are being executed correctly. He is very concerned with the well being of his workers. He pays them well and wants them to succeed.
I first fell in love with his work because he had the best patinas on his sculptures that initially made me mistake them for antiques. He had beautiful antique patinas that no other producer was able to create. This is still the case today. He recently developed two new patinas of a stunning antique green and a deep red mixed with gold leaf. I went out to dinner with him last night and in his broken English he summed up his worldview…
“When I die, I cannot take money with me. Money paper…I make Buddha, I pray Buddha so I can be born next time.”
When I asked him about his customers he told me the majority of his business, besides Lotus Sculpture, comes from temples within Thailand. I asked him if he sold to the antique dealers of the Riverside mall in Bangkok who are known to sell fake antique Buddha statues. He leaned over to me and said, “No, I do not lie.”
This is who he is, he is the salt of the earth with a good heart. I love his family; his crotchety old mom who yells at me every time I see her in Thai I do not fully understand, his beautiful wife and 3 children. And most of all I love him!
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 woodcarver 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 the 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 the 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 everyone 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 export 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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