By Lương Thu Hương
The idea of giving seashells a second life first came to Trần Thị Ngọc Hiếu after she had a bloody experience one day on a beach, when a rather sharp shell pierced the skin on the sole of her foot.
She has made over 1,000 different products from seashells since that fateful day, ranging from paintings and jewellery to frames and other ornamental items.
The 36-year-old had already been making paintings from gemstones and was running a small business of her own, Tranh Đá Quý Của Hiếu (Hiếu’s Gemstone Paintings). Life threw up a challenge for her early on, with her feet and one of her hands being semi-paralysed after she caught a fever at the age of three.
Hiếu said she learned her profession after taking a risk and travelling to HCM City by herself without letting her family in the southern province of Đồng Nai know of her decision.
By the end of 2014, after a successful endeavour making seashell paintings with a British businessman, she decided this was the path to follow.
Every product she makes is unique, with no two being alike. Whether the seashells are still in their original shape or have broken edges, she knows exactly where to place them in her art works.
“Most of my ideas come to me as I look at the shells I have,” she explained. “It takes me only two or three hours to finish a simple product, but it can take up to two days to finish something a little more sophisticated.
“Việt Nam has many species of sea creatures and shells are easy to find all along its coastline. I actually buy shells from various sources and have been given some as gifts by family and friends.
“I hope that when people look at my creations, they will think about protecting the environment and cherish what nature has bestowed upon us.”
The process of creating a final art work includes classifying the shells into different shapes and sizes and types, coming up with an idea, and then attaching the shells to a backing platform of some description.
“The techniques are similar to those I’ve used in creating gemstone paintings,” she said.
“But the difficulty is the limited colours of seashells and how to use glue in a way that doesn’t change their original shade.”
Though the ideas and colours are limited compared to gemstone paintings, her seashell creations attract many customers who are charmed by their original colour and simplicity, she said.
After many years watching Hiếu’s journey from learning how to make paintings from gemstones to doing likewise with seashells, Lê Tuyết, a journalist of Lao Động (Labour) newspaper, said Hiếu is constantly optimistic, cheerful, and dedicated to her work.
“She has never viewed what happened to her feet and hands as misfortune,” Tuyết said. “Rather, she accepted it, has led a happy life, and believes it to be a driving force in creating meaningful things.
“She always thinks about the environment, urging people to pay more attention to it and to cherish objects from the sea through her unique seashell products.”
After making seashell products for over six years, Hiếu recently had the chance to open a small shop of her own in HCM City’s District 1. Her husband, who is also handicapped, decided to quit his job and wholeheartedly support his wife in her endeavour.
“She has been extremely dedicated to the shop, managing everything from decorating to coming up with ideas for products,” he said. “I only help her with work requiring some degree of strength, like pounding shells or delivering products, while also taking care of our daughter so she can focus on her work.”
Like so many other businesses, Hiếu’s has also been hit by falling customer numbers, especially foreigners, because of COVID-19.
“But it’s given me more time to be creative and perfect my products, so that customers can better appreciate them,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re disadvantaged or not, everyone has their own difficulties. What matters is whether you keep your determination and never give up. Success will finally come your way with such an attitude.”
She revealed that she expected her shop would become a rendezvous for others who are handicapped and planned to open an exhibition showcasing her creations as soon as the pandemic is controlled.
“I’m now focusing my efforts on creating even more beautiful products from seashells,” she said. VNS