HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. ― Quietly and harmoniously, they paint.
There is no studio at their house. But paintings and books dictate and breathe life into their daily activities. Pencils, sketches and colors claim space at their dining table, as well as in the living room, bedroom, garage and every other space that exists in their lovely home.
This husband and wife team of veteran artists ― Nguyễn Thị Hợp, 74, and Nguyễn Đồng, 77 ― have mastered the art of collaboration. They sketch, draw, color, exhibit, work and do almost everything together and have for about 50 years. They can order each other’s favorite food at restaurants and finish each other’s sentences.
To put it simply, they are prolific artists. And on Sept. 30, Nguyễn Thị Hợp and Nguyễn Đồng will take part in a book signing with author Trần Thi Minh Phước at the Center of Vietnamese Studies, 15355 Brookhurst St., in Westminster, Calif. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The book, “My First Book of Vietnamese Words,” was written by Phước Trần and illustrated by Hợp and Đồng. It is a bilingual picture book geared toward ages 3 to 8, containing 32 illustrations. The second book of a Vietnamese series published by Tuttle Publishing, the book highlights Vietnamese cultural and linguistic importance through Vietnamese vocabulary and American alphabet in English.
One passage from the book: “B is for Bà. Our grandma loves to tell us silly tales that make us laugh. She tells them very well.”
Bà is illustrated by a Vietnamese grandma whose hair has turned white and who dresses in a traditional red áo-dài. Just as the pink scarf warmly wraps around her shoulder, Grandma encircles her arms around her grandchildren, who express joy and laughter by the stories she tells. They all sit on a plank summer bed with a decorative bamboo hand rest. Behind them is a bamboo open door and a banana tree. All intertwines in an warm hue that depicts an intimate relationship between the Vietnamese grandmother and her grandchildren.
The couple’s work has drawn praise.
“The fresh beauty in [Nguyễn Thị Hợp’s] paintings is not a rough copy of reality, but a refined clarity from impressionistic to animalism and innocence,” said Huỳnh Hữu Ủy, an art historian who specializes in Vietnamese art. “It’s a harmony of color and pen stroke, through the artistic skills cultivated from the East and the West, combined all to create her own. It is a sophisticated union of reality and the soul of reality that is very Vietnamese.”
Dr. Thái Hà, an avid art collector, echoed the sentiment.
“When you look at a painting, you can see somebody else’s [style] because people copy and are influenced by others. But when you look at Nguyễn Thị Hợp’s paintings ― the pastel colors, the soft gentle figures, the hair and hands are usually a little smaller than the body. You know it’s hers. She has done that for herself. She has created a unique style.”
And the couple has great skills in the art of illustrations.
“There is a distinction,” Nguyen Dong said. “There’s illustrative art, then there’s creative art.”
And the art in “My First Book of Vietnamese Words” are illustrative. The artists draw and paint according to the context they receive.
When illustrating a book, they discuss composition, color and such after receiving text from the author. Then they sketch and combine their ideas and critiques. Sometimes it goes smoothly, sometimes they get stuck. When their ideas and sketches are clear, they submit them to the author and editor for feedback
“We work very well together,” said author Phước Trần, who won a variety of awards for the first book in this Vietnamese series, “Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories.”
“To us, ‘My First Book of Vietnamese Words’ is [the] first book of Vietnamese images ― the images of Vietnam as a country to these children. They are born in this land [United States]; these are images of our homeland and ancestors. We are happy to be able to illustrate it,” he said.
And like that, they preserve the Vietnamese culture and language through their illustrations and paintings, quietly and harmoniously.