A cartoonist and a teacher, But Chi’s raison d’etre is to use the creation and appreciation of art as a way to open up the mind. Words by Hoa Le. Images provided by the artist
When But Chi was a child, he dreamt of a school where the pupils were free to do anything they liked. It was a school where kids like him could hardly wait for the next day to dawn so that they could go to study. Just like the school that Mr. Kobayashi built inside the five abandoned old-fashioned railway cars — Tomoe Gakuen school in his favourite Japanese children book, Tottochan — The Little Girl at the Window.
Although that school didn’t exist in his childhood, its memory has followed But Chi throughout his life, giving him inspiration throughout his career. In November last year, the 30-year-old cartoonist opened an art school with a unique concept, a concept aimed at encouraging students to learn and practise drawing and other forms of creativity. He named it Toa Tau or The Railway Carriage in Vietnamese. He also designed and painted the classrooms with lively pictures and colourful windows, just as what he had imagined the Tomoe Gakuen school to have.
But instead of an elementary school like in the story, But Chi’s school teaches many forms of art to students — both adults and children, from drawing to photography, dancing to playing musical instruments. The most popular course at Toa Tau, and also the one that But Chi started off with, is the Drawing for Storytellers class. There the students not only learn to improve their drawing skills, but more importantly, they are encouraged to express themselves, to tell stories through their own drawings. It’s not about getting a good grade.
“When you tell people to draw, the first reaction of many people is ‘Oh, I can’t. I don’t have any talent.’” says Chi. “But we believe that everyone can and they have a lot of potential inside themselves to do so. It’s just they were somehow hindered as they grew up. We want to encourage people to get over that fear and enjoy drawing.”
Hue, Hanoi, Saigon and Beyond
But Chi, which means ‘pencil‘ in Vietnamese, is Do Huu Chi’s pen name on his comics and book illustrations. Born in Hue in 1984, although neither of his parents worked in
the art industry, Chi loved drawing from a young age. And like many children, he started off by imitating and redrawing his favourite cartoon characters.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, as Vietnam moved into the early stages of Doi Moi, there were not many comic options for But Chi and other children, except for a few Japanese manga series such as Doreamon, Dragon balls and Black Jack.
When Chi was 18, he moved to Hanoi to study architecture. He soon realised his love and passion was for drawing, and in particular cartoons. He began working part-time as an illustrator for several well-known children‘s and teenagers‘ magazines, and for a period wanted to quit his studies to follow this passion. But he couldn’t.
“I faced very strong opposition from my parents,” he recalls. “And in Vietnam at that time, being a cartoonist couldn’t bring a stable income or a career.”
He completed his studies.
Chasing the Dream
Chi’s love for comics never faded, and after six years in Hanoi finishing his degree, he moved to Saigon and started working full-time for Nha Nam publishing house as an art manager-cum-illustrator.
“I always look for a change and try to experience new things,” he says. “To me, it’s not [important] what your job is, but what you’re interested in doing.”
In 2011, he received a Fullbright scholarship to study a Master’s degree in Georgia in the US, majoring in comics and art. The opportunity brought him access to a rich world of comics and cartoons.
Coming back to Vietnam in 2013, Chi opened his first Drawing for Storytellers class and quickly got positive feedback. He then went a step further, opening Toa Tau.
“It was a very simple [decision],” he says. “I didn’t have that kind of creative school when I grew up. Now I wanted to start one and let others to have such opportunities.”
Not Just About Drawing
But Chi is full of energy. In the classroom, he jumps up and down on his chair, and often runs back and forth when explaining things to his students. But in drawing, But Chi is different. He loves metaphors and his comics often send out messages that are inspired by philosophical or literary ideas, all combined with his observations on daily life. His comics are often without speech bubbles and quite short, from only eight to 20 pages. He also loves getting his audience to listen to a pre-chosen piece of music while reading his comics.
In the comic Sisyphus, inspired by the same-titled Greek story, The Myth of Sisyphus, But Chi creates a male character who gets on his motorbike to go to work every day, from morning to night. His routine is repeated every day, but he has no idea of what he is doing or who he is working for. The story is the same as that of King Sisyphus, who as punishment for his trickery was made to roll a boulder to the top of a hill. But the boulder would always fall down the hill, making him perform the action again and again.
In a story called Ngo (translated as Myself or Illuminating), he creates a young art student — it could be But Chi, himself, or a friend and colleague.
The art student is forced to come to school every day, but has no interest in the boring classes. He only comes alive when he gets out of the classroom and goes to a place where he can draw whatever he likes.
Very often But Chi leaves his stories with an open ending, for the audiences to interpret themselves.
Art is Freedom
For But Chi, comics are art. They tell a story through a chain of images. It’s a whole world, big enough to embrace almost any thought or idea. It goes beyond entertainment.
But for his students at Toa Tau, But Chi wants them to discover art or drawing in its most simple form. It is a tool with which people can tell their stories and express their emotion.
“Art is meant to free people from worries, to give people a balance,” he says. “We’re trying to release the fear in people, and for many, it starts from the fear to draw.”
Toa Tau is at 632 Dien Bien Phu, Binh Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City. To view some of But Chi’s comics, visit behance.net/chimagine