THE MAGIC OF CLAY

How her grandfather’s furniture workshop and years of global encounters have inspired the amazing works of Dutch artist Petra de Vree. In recent years, Vietnam has been her focus.

Petra with a sculpture, inspired the Vietnamese Nypa fruit.

The first thing you would notice in Petra de Vree’s living room is the incredibly beautiful dining table, big enough to accommodate 12 people. The table is in massive wood and looks like it weighs half a ton. She designed it herself during her years in Bolivia.

Petra designed her own dining table during her years in Bolivia.

“The carpenters had a Caoba tree brought directly from the forest, a tree big enough to cut a 14 feet piece of wood,” says Petra. 

The texture and smell of fresh wood in processing has played an important role in her creative efforts since her childhood in a small, pittoresk village in the Netherlands.

“My grandfather was a furniture maker and my father a carpenter, and early on I started making things out of leftovers in their workshop. At the same time, I often went with my father to pick vegetables, getting the feeling of soil in my hands. This led me into the magic of clay.”

Petra does not work with just any clay. She prefers the black clay of her own country.

“When we left for Bangladesh in 2014, I brought 600 kilos of Dutch clay with me, and the remaining clay moved on with us, when we moved to Hanoi in 2017. I still have enough for a year or two.”

Petra’s works from Bangladesh is displayed in her studio.

Petra’s unique clay sculptures has indeed resonated around the world, wherever she has lived and worked as an artist. Her works are clearly inspired by the local scene, be it Ghana, Bolivia, Nepal, Guatemala, Bangladesh or most recently Vietnam. 

Petra’s husband is a biologist and an anthropologist with a long career in Dutch development assistance programmes around the world for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Along their way through the world, she has set up her own space as a professional artist.

Lady of the Lamps

“In Ghana the called me ‘The Lady of the Lamps’, because I started a lamp production in cooperation with the local blacksmith,” says Petra with a grin. 

In Bangladesh, they made this fascination documentary The Beauty of Clay , where you can learn more about her works.

Just a few weeks ago, Petra’s works were exhibited at Hanoi Studio Gallery.  A sculpture, titled ‘Da Song’ (Vietnamese for Living Rock) struck me immediately as perfect addition to my own modest art collection. The asymmetric and rough features are obviously inspired by Halong Bay, topped off with the fine features of a human face.  Inevitably, the ‘Da Song’ moved in with me yesterday, now sharing my magnificent view of the Red River.

Female strength and beauty are recurrent themes in Petra’s works throughout her career:

“Born between two boys I liked the kind of games they were playing, or other things they were doing, so I played with them. But if they gave me a certain roll because of being a girl I felt the injustice of not being a boy.  Deep inside I knew I would be capable to do the same as them or what was expected from them.  Nowadays I like to show with my sculptures the talents of women. It makes me really happy to see the younger female generations, women like Jacinda Ardern and Amanda Gorman, taking their space and being a positive inspiration for girls.”

In Hanoi, Petra has also started her own art courses in her To Ngoc Van studio.  Some 20 students are learning how to cope with the mysteries of ceramics.  From the works, I saw there, including a nicely crafted dragon, it looks like Petra will leave another living legacy behind here, when she and her husband move on to their next destination. 

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