By picking up shells on the beach, a disabled woman in Ho Chi Minh City has turned the lifeless covers into valuable art.
Although she was born with a disability that affects both her legs and one of her arms, Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu, 37, still maintains her optimism and endless passion for art.
She used to make and sell gemstone paintings, but she has recently changed her focus to shell products.
Hieu’s legs are weak so she usually moves with the aid of a custom-built skateboard.
The weakness in her hand can make it difficult for her to hold things.
|Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu showcases her flair on different types of shells in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
Six years ago, a British woman wanted to order a painting using shells, so he came to Hieu for help.
At first, she refused to do it due to her lack of confidence.
However, Hieu decided to try it and realized that she enjoyed this art form.
“During a trip to Vung Tau [near Ho Chi Minh City], sitting on the beach to pick up pieces of shells, I tried to put them together to make a flower," Hieu recalled.
"Seeing that I was disabled, the people there helped me scratch a lot of shells.
"I thought I could do it, so I texted that woman back to accept her order.”
|A jewelry box made from mollusk shells is pictured in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
Hieu said that her ideas for a painting only pop out when she is holding a different type of shell in her hand, then she will find the suitable shells and arrange them into flowers.
Up to now, Hieu has made hundreds of beautiful items from shells such as jewelry boxes, wedding flowers, pen cases, and vases.
So far, Hieu’s works of art have been made from the shells of 70 species of mollusks, including oysters, cellanas, and trapdoor snails.
To make pictures, Hieu orders shells from Vung Tau.
When she receives the shells, she sorts and cleans them before starting to work on the covers.
|Different types of shells are seen at Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu’s showroom in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
Among Hieu’s gastropod shell products, paintings are the most difficult to make.
They require not only diversity in the quantity, color, and shape of the shells for making the background and details, but the painter’s creative mind to make the paintings vibrant.
Hieu often uses both hard and soft shells to create depth for her paintings.
When she first started making shell artwork, her products were rough but after a period of learning and improvement, Hieu realized that if arranged according to the size and natural color of the shells, the flowers will look softer and more delicate.
|Picture frames and vases made from shells are seen in this photo taken at Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu’s showroom in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
According to Hieu, flowers can only be made from white, pale pink, and purple shells.
The shells which Hieu uses to make flowers are in their natural color. With patterned or dark-colored shells, she adorns the painting. The green mussel shells are used as leaves.
Hieu can make two to three pieces a day depending on customers’ orders. Each shell painting has a meaning of its own, and she wants to tell her life stories to everyone.
|This image shows a customer with a shell product in her hand in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
“Shells are normally considered scrap, but they have become more valuable items in my hands and that brings utter joy to me," Hieu said.
"I remember when I saw myself as a mollusk, hiding in my shell because of self-deprecation and an inferiority complex about my body.
"However, when I had the ability to transform useless shells into a piece of art, I recognized myself in my work.
"I am finally able to step out of my comfort zone and lead a healthy and confident life.”
|A close-up of shell flowers made by Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
Her art pieces fetch VND300,000-4 million (US$13-173), depending on the meticulousness and sophistication of the artist.
According to Hieu, besides the shells bought from Vung Tau, the main source of material comes from picking up shells from shores, which helps clean up the beaches.
At her manufacturing factory in Thu Duc City, Hieu runs free workshops to teach youngsters and people with disabilities that have a heartfelt love of shells so they can work decent jobs to make a living and build happy, positive lives.
|Artist Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu instructs her daughter on the shell painting technique at her shop in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
|Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu exhibits her skills on a shell product in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|
|A shell painting made by Tran Thi Ngoc Hieu is seen in this photo taken at her showroom in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre|