By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Sisters Marie and Leda Drouin watch intently as master wood turner Binh Pho demonstrates the fine art of airbrushing, a technique that in and of itself is not unusual.
But applied to his handcrafted works of wooden whimsy, the outcome is exquisite – like the delicately detailed teacups with detachable filigree handles and demitasse spoons, decorated with dragonflies and peacock feathers, respective symbols for luck and dreams in his homeland of Vietnam.
“In this piece, the dragonfly is playing with the poppy – the whole piece is like a playground for the dragonfly,” said Pho, gently turning a cup around in his hand to show off the colorized detail.
There is ebb and flow in every design – the golden dragonfly painted on wood is yin; its mirror image, pierced into the wood using a fine-point dental drill, is yang.
“That's what I love, the positive and negative of an image,” said Pho, who spent last weekend demonstrating his technique to a dozen members of the Association of Revolutionary Turners, a Massachusetts-based wood turning club. Donna Zils Banfield, of Derry, hosted the event in her studio.
“The people who came got an opportunity to study techniques from one of the best in the field, an opportunity they wouldn't have without traveling to a school that offers such courses,” said Banfield, who gave up a successful law practice to turn wood, full time.
Impressive as that sounds, Banfield admits few success stories are as inspired as Pho's.
In the wake of so-called “Red Peace” that followed the Vietnam War, Pho was forced to leave school in 1975. His choice was to join the Communists or go to re-education school to be brainwashed into becoming a Communist.
He chose freedom – a journey that would take four more years and several failed attempts at escape. But finally, Pho reached the United States by way of Malaysia and was reunited with his family. Thirty years later, he is recognized as one of the finest wood artists in the country. His work is on exhibit in museums around the country and part of private collections around the world, including the White House and the Smithsonian.
Banfield said what she admires most about Pho's work is the depth of skill he's mastered, by trial and error.
“He may spend an hour on a lathe to turn a piece, but then put in another 50 or 60 hours doing the intricate work – work that takes tremendous focus. Binh can create something so delicate-looking from wood you might think that if the wind blew it over, it would shatter. Yet, it's more durable than a piece of china,” Banfield said.
Pho spent Saturday creating several pieces using the various techniques he employs to work wood into impossible shapes, further enhanced with designs that tell a story. Sunday, Pho was overseeing a workshop on airbrush and piercing, patiently explaining the various ways to get the most color and control when detailing small spaces.
Club member Bobbi Tornheim of Lexington, Mass., who gained some insight into piercing as she created a butterfly on wood out of strategically drilled holes, took it all in.
“I'm not a teachable person by nature. I learn more by doing, but I came because Binh is world known. I don't do workshops, but this is like – this is like hanging out with Picasso – like learning with the master,” said Tornheim. “I may be able to replicate some of the things I learned when I go home, but mainly, I just wanted to be able to say that I spent a day in his presence, learning how he does what he does.”