An Agent Orange victim born with a silver brush in his mouth

By Kim Uyen, Huu Khoa   October 28, 2019 | 10:42 pm PT
Le Minh Chau was born with stunted limbs that are almost non-functional, but the artist in him could not be denied.

Armed with just basic art training, the 28-year-old artist who uses his mouth to paint is self-taught. Chau, subject of the Oscar-nominated "Chau, Beyond the Lines" movie, has been inspiration for many disabled people.

He cannot hold things with his stunted hands and has to move around using his knees since he can’t walk normally like other people.

However, his story is not merely about overcoming the severe disabilities he was born with.

Because of difficult family circumstances, he was raised in Hoa Binh Village, a shelter for children suffering congenital and other defects as a result of Agent Orange, run by the Tu Du maternity hospital, Saigon.

"My life was always filled with sad notes. I carried a big inferiority complex because of my physique. I thought about killing myself many times. Then a woman came to the Hoa Binh Village and changed my mind and my life. She was an art teacher."

Le Minh Chau controls a brush with his mouth. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Le Minh Chau mixes colors with a brush held in his mouth. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

As the teacher created one painting after another, the little boy’s imagination was captured. He stood behind and closely followed each of her movements.

He suddenly saw the possibility of transforming his life from a dull one to a vividly colored one.

However, just as Chau had grasped the basics of painting, the teacher went abroad and the class was disbanded.

Without an instructor, Chau taught himself how to mix colors through books and pictures.

But the biggest obstacle was that Chau could not control his twitching hands. The 9-year-old boy had to spend six hours to complete a picture.

Worse still, his friends in the Hoa Binh Village laughed at his passion and zeal to become a painter. The caregivers who raised him confiscated his brushes, because they thought his dream was impractical and impossible.

But the desire burned stronger in Chau. He wanted to prove to everyone that "physical defects cannot limit talents."

"The idea came to me after I happened to learn of other people with disabilities using their mouth to paint. Why can't I try to be like them? I can't control my outside look but I can control my own faith."

Of course, it was not easy to just shift to painting with the mouth. The brush broke, poked his jaw and caused it to bleed, and he ended up swallowing paint, from time to time. Chau cannot remember how many brushes were broken or replaced. It took him three years of practice to be able to control the brush as he wanted.

"If ordinary people try once, I try twice, thrice, even 10 times harder. Perseverance helps me to overcome my limits, making the impossible possible."

At 17, Chau left Hoa Binh Village, able to eke out a living with his paintings. But he still faced many hardships as he pursued his dream of opening his own art gallery. At 20, he took his first big step with his first exhibition in Saigon's District 7, showing the public, the world at large, his creative side.

A portrait of a a woman by Chau. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

A portrait of a woman by Chau. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

"Creativity is the most important character of the artist, I do not allow myself to copy anyone's ideas. That's how I make a difference."

When new ideas come to mind, Chau would stay up all night, not bothering to sleep till he finished the work. Some paintings would take just 10 minutes, and others could take up to a year to complete.

Alongside this almost constant work of creating new paintings, Chau is also trying learn foreign languages.

He admitted that he does not pay much attention to his health, driven more by his passion to create than anything else. Over the last two decades, he has been prolific, producing around 2,000 paintings he currently has represents the relentless efforts he put in for nearly 20 years.

Giving back

Chau can finish a piece in 10 minutes. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Chau can finish a painting in as little as 10 minutes. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Chau has no intention on resting on his laurels. He wants his experiences to inspire others, and has opened an art course to teach others.

"Opening an art class allows me to fulfill both my passion for art and foster the next generation of talents, encouraging them to persevere in pursuing their dreams," he said.

At around 7 p.m. one day, the artist was teaching an art class to a group of four students 12 to 15 years old in a small attic in District 2, Saigon. It was a small drawing class with a few tables and chairs, and he wielded his brush in his mouth as he introduced the children into the world of paintings.

"Every day, looking at the children painting, mixing colors passionately, I see the image of myself almost 20 years ago when I loved painting so much, I even forgot to eat and sleep."

Among the secondary students he has tutored, four have won scholarships to learn painting in the U.K., France, Australia and Belgium.

Over the last five years, Chau has more than 100 paintings exhibited at international exhibitions in the U.S., Canada, France and Japan. His artworks were all sold out and the money donated to charity.

But Chau is far from done. He still has dreams to pursue. He wants to open an art gallery in the United States and have his work displayed at a museum there.

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