Le Minh Chau: An Artist with a Mission

Blogs - Vietnam: Jan. 22, 2018

Severely affected by dioxin contamination, Le Minh Chau has never been able to stand upright, walk on his own two feet or lift his arms above his head.

As an artist who reached international success thanks to the Oscar-nominated short documentary about his life, Chau, Beyond the Lines (2015), Chau’s oil-based, realistic artwork, painted entirely holding a paintbrush in his mouth, represents much more than just a way to make money. For Chau, it was a way to independence.

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Bordering on Obsession

Sitting in his small studio in District 2, Chau told #iAMHCMC through a translator that he became interested in art when he was nine. Living in Tu Du Peace Village in District 1 with other dioxin-affected children since he was six months old, Courtney Marsh, the director of Chau, Beyond the Lines, told us by telephone that the nurses at the facility meant well, and thought they were doing Chau a service by telling him to be realistic.

“The nurses thought, ‘Being an artist is hard enough,’” Marsh said. “‘You need to stop daydreaming.’”

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But what marked Chau, above all, was his determination, which at times bordered on obsession.

The ultimate goal of Tu Du Peace Village was to enable the children to graduate and attend vocational school, most often with a career in computers in mind.

Instead, Chau continued to enter an annual children’s drawing competition put on by the War Remnants Museum centred around the theme of world peace, and has come a long way since then. At 17, he left Tu Du Peace Village to return to his parents in his hometown in Dong Nai, though didn’t stay for long. “I don’t have a lot of affection for my family,” he said in his studio. “It was not until I was 11 or 12 that I met my parents.”

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The Lightbulb Moment

Chau returned to Saigon, where what Marsh calls the “lightbulb moment” occurred: after seeing the fame a dioxin victim garnered after learning to paint with her feet, Chau developed his own technique, painting with his mouth, partly because it gave him more control over his technique, and partly to show up his artistic adversary.

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With the help of a friend, he was hired by an interior design company to paint pictures for staged rooms. And when Marsh’s film received international recognition, Chau was able to support himself entirely based off commissions he received from around the world. “Most of my clients are from America. They heard about me from the movie,” he said.

Today, Chau says that he works around 12 hours per day, often throughout the night so he can chat with fellow artists in America as he works. (“I can type quite well in English,” he said. “But I’m not good at speaking it.”)

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Though Chau enjoys his work, he’s ready for a new challenge.

“I’m moving forward to… becoming a fashion designer,” he said. “I’ll start with a collection of clothes for women. I plan to register to launch the collection at New York Fashion Week next year.”

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