Asian styles mimic instances in nature
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
For 13 years, the handmade paper lanterns glowing in the window of HiiH Gallery on Northeast Alberta Street (pronounced Hi Hi) have yet to dull. Husband and wife team, Lâm Quảng and Kestrel Gates, keep their designs as fresh as Portland’s turning seasons.
The most colorful of the dangling lanterns and stationary lamps mimic a unique instance in nature—the fleeting beauty of a poppy in blossom—while others more subtle, reflect the originality and freedom of an artist absorbed in creative thought or memory.
Other lanterns take the form of sea creatures, insects, budding plants, or Asian aesthetics and encompass a list of light fixtures including sconces, ceiling fixtures, table lamps, standing lamps, pendants, and chandeliers.
Using traditional and self-taught techniques and natural raw materials, the duo brings together the function of light, the craft of paper, and the art of sculpture, in a process of papermaking, wire bending, painting and waxing.
Originally from Vietnam, Quảng started making paper after he moved to Portland in 1990. Inspired by childhood memories of moon festivals, he soon began experimenting with structural lamp forms and honed his skills through workshops and admired influences.
In 1998, Quảng’s refined pieces lead to the opening of HiiH Gallery. His wife, originally from Ashland, joined him in 2004, drawing on her background in the performing arts to enrich the design and creation of HiiH’s lamp forms.
Quảng says many ideas for the lanterns come from the natural world, invoking the cycles of new growth, of silence and fruition. “We have a garden; we spend time in nature as much as possible,” he said.
The couple revels in hikes around Portland –local swimming holes, in fields, and off trails– to observe the changes of the same place at different times of the year.
“It’s quite amazing seeing the changes of one specific flower, going from a twig and budding into a plant with flowers and then eventually dying,” said Quảng.
Linked closely to the natural world, HiiH’s lanterns take on a spiritual element as well. In Vietnam, as in many traditional Asian cultures, children and families light lanterns on holidays to honor traditional spirits and the dead.
In relation to the indigenous way of life, lanterns sometimes symbolize animals of astrology. During mid-autumn, in celebration of the end of harvest season, glowing lanterns are sent floating across the night’s sky, lighting the way for spirits when the moon is at its fullest.
HiiH’s lanterns not only draw from the ceremonial and abstract, but are shaped by a wellspring of Asian aesthetics, like structure, the landscape, architecture, and other artists, notably, the Japanese designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
In the week-long process of a lantern’s creation, the pair of artists work individually and in tandem from the original concept and design until the final touches of paint. Usually, Quảng sculpts and creates the canvas for his wife to paint.
Most of the materials used to make HiiH’s handcrafted light sculptures are retrieved locally. Beeswax is harvested from a local beekeeper, and while Golden airbrush paint, walnut and indigo dye, bamboo, wire, welded steel, and lighting fixtures can also be found at nearby stores, the dammar resin is received from Indonesia.
Cotton and abaca paper pulp from a paper-making neighbor two blocks away is used to make the paper in the first step of the process. Using a mold and deckle, the papers is formed into sheets and then pressed under an eight-ton press to bind the fibers.
While keeping the light fixture in mind, Quảng designs each lamp to its destined shape and size using wire or bamboo. Then, the damp paper is applied the armature one panel at a time.
No glue is used, just a soft brush to fold back the edges onto themselves forcing the fibers to bond together. Once the paper has dried, Gates paints each piece with watercolor paint using brushes and airbrushes.
When the paint is dry, the dammar resin is applied, acting as a protective layer that strengthens the lamp structurally and gives the paper a translucent, glowing quality.
The final step is to configure the electrical components, at which point the light is ready for installation. “People like our work because it’s unique,” said Quảng, who enjoys artistic freedom even in custom-designs.
From local residents to the interior designers of upscale restaurants, the functional artwork of HiiH is loved and respected by many and showcased in galleries in Ashland, Seattle, and Berkley.
Lâm Quảng and Kestrel Gates live in Portland with their son Xanh and new daughter, Mai Linh. HiiH is located on 2929 N.E. Alberta St. View their website at hiihgallery.com.