Nailed It! Metal Mosaic Artist Hu Darfar

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2017 / April

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Hu Darfar /tr. by Phil Newell


Tinsnips in hand, he slices a beer can into small pieces, which he then hammers flat and finally nails to a wooden board. Hu Dar­far, using a mallet as his brush, metal shards as his pigments, and a wooden board as his canvas, produces images of the mountain town of Jiu­fen as it exists in his memory. This master of metallic art, truly an authentic product of Taiwan, is a global outlier in using this unusual technique, and he has been invited to exhibit or teach in the US, Japan, mainland China, and Korea. He has also won a number of prestigious prizes, including Taiwan’s Ju Ming and Nanying awards.


The three keys to understanding the life of Hu Dar­far are “Jiu­fen,” “metal goods,” and an interest in “art.” Born in the historic mountain town of Jiu­fen, Hu left in his 20s, moving to Tai­pei to find a job. From working for someone else to starting up his own business, Hu’s entire working life has been in the buying and selling of metals and metal objects. He only ventured into art at age 60, when, renovating his old home, he came up with the notion of decorating the empty walls with art. With no previous instruction, operating only according to his own inspiration, Hu used the objects at hand—hammers, nails, and cans—to assemble, in time with the rhythm of hammer blows, mosaics based on his memories of his hometown of Jiufen.

Memories of Jiufen

Jiufen was once a goldmining boomtown, and Hu was born there during its glory days. He personally witnessed the prosperity of this small mountain community, recalling, “In those days Jiu­fen was the hub of the whole surrounding area. This is where all the markets were where farmers came to sell their produce, and retail shops were all here…. Three or four hogs had to be slaughtered each day just to keep up with local demand.”

Mining was dangerous work, and miners never knew if they would even be alive tomorrow to spend what they earned today. Not surprisingly, they were free spenders, and the town had every kind of entertainment establishment of that era—pool halls, a movie theater, restaurants, taverns….

Jiufen attracted gold prospectors from all over. Those who struck it rich built themselves two- or three-story concrete Western-style houses, while newcomers had to get by with makeshift shelters made from straw to protect themselves against the wind and rain. Sometimes you could even see both extremes on opposite sides of the same street. It is details like these in Hu’s works that really bring to life at one glance the heady days of yesteryear.

In his creations Hu also captures the charming simplicity of the norms and daily customs of those days. One work, entitled Carrying Seats to Attend a Banquet, vividly illustrates how neighbors would contribute chairs from their own households whenever there was some large catered event like a wedding. The town is small and compact, so homes have only very limited space, and as a result no one had enough furniture for larger gatherings. The work portrays parents shouldering benches and leading their children along, heading off to attend the scheduled start of the festivities.

Since Jiu­fen rests against a steep slope, the houses are literally piled one on top of the other, and often one man’s window opens onto the next man’s roof. When the weather was good and people brought their duvets out onto these roofs to air in the sunshine, it looked like a contest to see who could put on the most colorful display. The image of items such as baby’s diapers, wraps and Japanese-style attire hung out to dry on long bamboo poles is especially effective, since the metal pieces are nailed to the wood at an angle, making them appear to be blowing in the wind. These images of a simpler time are evoked in Hu’s works Airing Duvets in the Sun and The Happiness of a New Life.

Metal mosaics

Hu coined a Chinese term to describe his genre that literally translates as “nail paintings.” At the beginning he used scrap metals like discarded nails, screws, steel wire, and aluminum strips. Metal is cold and bleak in its sensory impact, and each individual piece of scrap metal has a uniform coloring, bringing a certain starkness to Hu’s earliest depictions of Jiu­fen. Later, in order to add color to his works, Hu began to use pieces of metal containers from things like powdered milk and other canned goods. These became his palette of pigments, bringing nail paintings from black and white to a world of color.

However, Hu is still limited to the colors that come on the cans, and he cannot mix his own hues. As a result, Hu’s nail paintings have a certain impressionist effect in their use of color. For example, a green patch in a work by Hu will not be a pure single color, but will have different shades overlapping, and it wouldn’t be in the least surprising to find strips of blue or yellow mixed in.

In the early days, it was a headache for Hu to find enough colored metal. But now that his friends all know that he puts recyclable cans to use as art materials, from time to time people will leave bags of discarded cans at his doorstep. And whenever he goes abroad he makes a special effort to collect pop-top cans with unusual or exotic local colors.

Hu has been invited to hold quite a few exhibitions overseas. To make his work more accessible, he does not describe his work using a literal translation of the Chinese term “nail paintings,” but instead calls them “metal mosaics.” There is also another secret ingredient in his works: He can never bear to cut the word “Taiwan” out of any material, meaning that it ends up embedded in each work. “This saves the trouble of explaining to foreigners,” Hu says with a laugh.

Meaning through detail

In addition to capturing the nostalgic and touching simplicity of Jiu­fen through his metal mosaics, Hu is also able to exploit the surface texture of his material—chilling, forbidding, and reflective in a way that plays tricks with the light—to produce the visual effects of the fog that frequently envelops this mountain town. Looking at works like Clear Sky Through the Mist or Bridge Through the Mist, the viewer can’t help but feel absorbed into a mountain realm of pea-soup haze.

The 2004 work Rain over Kee­lung Harbor is an even more dynamic demonstration of Hu’s ability to use metal materials to express soft, malleable textures. The work, assembled on five long wooden boards each 92 × 55 centimeters, has a total length of 460 cm, making it similar to a traditional Chinese horizontal scroll painting (which can be unrolled to provide a panoramic vista). Hu made three special trips to Kee­lung for this work, making detailed observations of the entire harbor setting, and then used layered colors to create the effect of a fine rain, slanting in the wind, drizzling down on the port city.

Hu is even able to evoke human emotion with his deft handling of his material. Grandparent and Grandchild Walking depicts the two subjects ambling up a stone staircase. The elder’s head is slightly tilted, as if hovering protectively over the child. Meanwhile, the two figures in Walk in the Rain struggle as they walk forward with their umbrellas tilted against the driving rain, the tails of their long overcoats being blustered away from their bodies, in a masterful evocation of daily life amidst the dreary and relentless rains that are part of Jiufen’s climate.

A man of many talents

Hu, who has never received any instruction in the fine arts, is not limited by preconceptions about modes or materials. He is not only able to use hammer and nails to produce nostalgic images of Jiu­fen, he has also experimented with other approaches. For example, he drew a pencil sketch of a Jiu­fen street scene, and then used bamboo strips as tools to apply ink to the work. The hustle and bustle of the town’s market comes vividly to life before our eyes.   

Even more outside the box is that Hu has come out with an album. In 2008, Hu encountered Gao Xian­zhi, a renowned musician who plays folk guitar and the traditional Chinese lute known as the yue­qin, and they immediately hit it off. With Hu writing the lyrics and Gao composing the music, they produced the album Songs of Old Jiu­fen. The songs, written in the Taiwanese language, vibrantly and vividly depict the many facets of life of the intoxicating gold prospecting days.

Hu began creating “nail paintings” 20 years ago, and has produced over 200 finished works. Lately he has been focused more on getting out into nature, though he never forgets to stash a sketchbook in his backpack so he can draw wherever his ramblings take him. But if you open one of these sketchbooks, you will invariably also find one or two depictions of Jiu­fen street scenes.

While Hu often says, “Having fun comes before creating,” he also remarked to us: “Darn it, I haven’t done any nail paintings yet about gold smelting and refining!” It seems like this metal-mosaic maestro, though now an octogenarian, still has a lot of “can-do” spirit left in him for his beloved hometown of Jiufen.

繁體中文

拼貼九份情 胡達華的釘畫世界

文‧鄧慧純 圖‧胡達華 翻譯‧Phil Newell

拿起鐵皮剪刀,剪下啤酒罐上的小片色塊,先用鐵鎚敲平,再釘到檜木板上,胡達華用鐵鎚當畫筆,各色的金屬片當顏料,在木板上釘出一幅幅他記憶中的山城九份。這手技法在國際鮮見,他曾應邀到美國、日本、中國大陸、韓國辦展、教學,更曾榮獲朱銘長青藝術創作獎與「南瀛美展」視覺設計佳作等獎項,是正宗台灣出品的釘畫大師。


「九份」、「五金」、「美術」是胡達華一生的三大關鍵字。出生在山城九份,胡達華二十多歲才離鄉背井到台北求職,從受雇於人到自己創業,都不離金屬貿易。年屆耳順之際,老家翻修,空白的牆面讓他興起作畫裝飾的念頭,只是他手中的畫筆很不一樣,無師自通的他,用鐵鎚、釘子和鐵鋁罐,以九份當主題,在敲打的聲響中一釘一釘地拼貼出記憶中的家鄉。

釘出記憶中的九份

「上品送九份,次品輸台北」是九份當地流傳的諺語,胡達華出生在九份產金最輝煌的年代,「這附近以九份為中心,買菜、市集都在這兒,九份地區人口密集,一天要殺三、四隻豬才夠販售。」他的年輕歲月正見證當年山城的繁華。

礦工採金危險性高,生死難測,對未來的不確定感,使他們習於及時享樂、出手闊綽,商人都把最高檔的奢侈品往九份送,山城裡聚集了撞球間、戲院、酒家等各式的娛樂。

九份也匯集了來自各地的淘金客,從老街兩側的屋子就可見端倪,採金致富的人家蓋起兩三層樓高的水泥洋房,剛落腳的淘金者則只能先以草房遮風避雨。房子方位隨興,但是望出去都能見山望海。這些細節在胡達華的創作中都能一窺昔日的光景。

胡達華在作品中也記錄了當時民風的純樸可愛,作品《帶椅赴宴》生動的呈現九份腹地狹小,每逢擺宴設席,鄰居都會貢獻自家的桌子,開席時間一到,家家扛著長凳、牽著小孩去吃辦桌的畫面。

九份的房子層層疊疊,常常自家窗口就是鄰家的屋頂,天晴時,鄰家的屋頂就成了曬被場,各戶的棉被攤在烏黑的油毛氈屋頂上爭奇鬥艷。巷弄間曬衣的萬國旗景象也是現在城市中消失已久的風景,長長的竹竿上,晾著尿布、背巾、日式衣物,胡達華把衣服斜斜地釘上,彷彿就能感覺到風的吹拂。這些樸實的風景,都一一在胡達華《曬被》、《新生的喜悅》的作品中呈現。

金屬馬賽克

「釘畫」是胡達華自創的用詞,從一開始創作時,用的就是釘子、螺絲、鐵絲、鋁絲等廢棄的金屬素材,在木板上叮叮咚咚地釘出一幅畫。金屬特有的冰冷質地和單一色調,為胡達華創作的九份山城覆上一抹滄桑。後來胡達華另闢蹊徑,剪取奶粉罐、易開罐、鐵罐等金屬片,以此擴大創作,讓釘畫從黑白進入彩色的世界。

受制於色彩全得依著手中的鐵鋁罐決定,不能自行調配,胡達華的釘畫採用西洋印象畫派的「光影技法」創作。比如說綠色不會單純只一色,中間會夾雜著不同的深淺,甚至釘上幾片藍色、黃色也不覺突兀。而這樣的色調安排需要深厚的美學素養,「這其實要看多啦!要思考、想像用甚麼比較好,才會調和。」這是胡達華集多年經驗的結論。

早期胡達華曾為了收集各色鐵鋁罐煩惱,現在朋友知道他利用回收素材作畫,三不五時就在他家門口放上一包鐵鋁罐支持他。他到國外,也會特別收集當地特殊色系的易開罐回來創作。

胡達華曾多次受邀出國辦展,為了讓外國人容易理解他的作品,他又稱釘畫為「金屬馬賽克」。胡達華總是完整剪下金屬罐上的Taiwan字樣,藏在畫裡,成為他畫作獨有的密碼,「這樣也省掉跟外國人解釋」,胡達華笑著說。

用細節拼出寫意

用金屬片拼貼出來的不僅有古樸的人情味,還有九份霧裡迷濛的景致,胡達華利用金屬特有的冷冽質感,加上亮面反光的特性,拼貼出來的《霧中晴》、《霧中橋》讓人形同置身在山城多霧的迷離。《藍天銀雲》中,他把鋁罐底部弧形部分剪下,釘上木板,讓雲朵有如捲積雲般,凸顯立體效果。

2004年創作的《基隆雨港》更精彩的展現胡達華以金屬素材表現軟性主題的功力。為了這幅以5塊長寬92×54公分的木板、組成長達460公分、類似國畫長卷軸的作品,胡達華跑了許多趟基隆,細細觀察港口全景,再以層次的金屬色澤呈現港都斜風細雨的意境。

知名的鐵道畫家李賢欽讚賞他的作品「達到有如油畫的質感,打造生動的具體圖形。」

用金屬表現無形的風也難不倒胡達華。在《大竿林的芒花浪》作品中,他用堆積的色塊,讓人感覺風吹動山嵐、順山勢而下的流動樣態,而釘在角落、剪成芒草狀的金屬片,微傾的角度就能傳達隨風搖曳的意象。

《祖孫行》呈現石階上並行的祖孫,長者微頷的身影,就像在看護著晚輩,而《雨中行》一大一小的人形,打著傘逆著風,斜斜的大衣如被風颳起,表意又具象地呈現九份氣候的淒風苦雨。

釘畫外一章

沒受過任何美術訓練的胡達華,拿起鐵鎚就能釘出一幅幅懷舊的九份;拿起簽字筆,就素描出一幅街景,就連竹片也能成畫筆,蘸上墨水輕輕一畫,人聲喧囂的市集就栩栩如生地出現在眼前。

胡達華不僅自己創作,也樂於將一手功夫傳授大眾。他在九份工作室開課,更藉由出國參展教授外國友人學習釘畫。他亦將旅遊地的印象創作成釘畫,如捷克的紅屋頂、維也納的市景、埃及的金字塔,都成了他鐵鎚下的景色。

胡達華創作釘畫至今已20年了,完成兩百多幅大型作品,問他這手技藝如何傳承,他卻說:「沒有人要學啦!憨人才學這個,懂美術的人不會想學,不懂的人學不起來。」

近年來,胡達華的生活除了釘畫,還多了許多活動。2008年,釘畫大師遇上音樂才子高閑至,兩人一拍即合,胡達華寫詞,高閑至作曲,完成了《老九份之歌》專輯,曲目包括〈輕便車伕〉、〈電火戲〉、〈補盤補鼎補雨傘〉等歌,是胡達華以台語漢詩寫下的九份故事,活靈活現記下淘金的紙醉金迷與人生百態。遊山玩水時,他也不忘在背包裡放一冊素描本,玩到哪兒畫到哪。但攤開他的素描本,總雜著一、兩張豎崎路(九份老街)、基山路的素描。聽他聊著童年記憶,輕便車奔馳時發出轆轆的聲響、按摩師傅的笛音、補鍋小販鐵響板的音效,這些音符都烙印在他的回憶中,多年後,全都與他創作釘畫敲打的叮咚聲遙相呼應。

總說著玩樂重於創作的胡達華,「唉呀!還有提煉黃金的畫面還沒有釘出來。」看來這位年屆八十、深愛九份的釘畫大師,還擁有源源不絕的創作活力,說要歇手還早得很!