What you need to know
Louis Barnard no longer takes photos to share with his family, opting instead to share intimate urban sketches to document Vietnamese culture.
By Michael Tatarski. Illustrations courtesy of Louis Barnard.
Louis Barnard, who is originally from South Africa and has lived in Seoul, Hanoi and now Saigon, uses art as a way to connect with the cities he calls home.
"I started doing urban sketching in Seoul, it was a project I did with students," he says. "It was a unit on observing our environment, and eventually I just got obsessed with it. I would force myself not to take photographs to send to my family; I said I'd do a drawing of a place instead, and it kind of took off."
Barnard, who is an International Baccalaureate arts teacher and has an MA in illustration, began drawing a monthly illustration for an expat magazine in Seoul, and after a year he held an exhibition of his work.
"When me and my wife moved to Hanoi, I just picked it up and started drawing again," he shares. When asked about the creative process, Barnard explains that it is pretty casual.
"Usually I just meander down the streets until I see something that I think is really cool," he says. "At first it was just temples because I thought they were really interesting visually, and I would sit down for a bit and do a rough pencil sketch, and then eventually it would get too hot and I'd take a photograph, go home and start drawing."
Barnard spent a year in Hanoi and has been in Saigon for three months, and perhaps to the surprise of some, he has found the southern metropolis more creatively inspiring.
"I remember when I would draw in Hanoi people would seem more stand-offish or skeptical, while here people say 'hey' or wave," he shares. The woman depicted in the top illustration, which shows a run-of-the-mill restaurant near the Jade Emperor Pagoda, saw Barnard drawing and invited him over. She even flipped through his sketch book.
"I think it's the people, not the city itself," the artist says. "They make it more fun to be creative."
Barnard ultimately hopes to turn his work into merchandise, and he has printed a series of postcards and fine art prints, though he admits he isn't very good at business. His drawings, meanwhile, help him to feel closer to the foreign cities he has lived in.
"Working in South Korea was my first experience living abroad, and I had intense culture shock," Barnard says. "Coming from a conservative South African white family background and moving to Asia, that first experience walking through Korea was intimidating. Forcing myself to look at something and breaking it down into basic shapes and elements, you start developing this love for a place, and that's how it started in Seoul for me."
He continues, "This idea of drawing and building empathy for a completely different culture, and I think that is what I love about the process — not the actual drawing, but looking at a place that is so different from your home and just appreciating it for what it is."
Barnard and his wife are moving to Vientiane later this year to work at an international school, but the artwork shown here has engendered a close relationship with Saigon, even in a relatively short period of time — and that will likely continue in Laos.
"I really believe that drawing can build empathy and cultural understanding, and can show and document culture in a new way," he says.
Check out Barnard's sketches from the streets of Hanoi and Saigon, as well as one from the rice fields of Sa Pa, below, and find more on his website or Instagram:
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from Saigoneer, an English-language digital platform covering urban development, history, food, culture and the arts in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and throughout Vietnam. The original article can be found here.
TNL Editor: Cat Thomas (@thenewslensintl)
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