“U Nyo Lay has left an artistic legacy in Myanmar, one that takes incredible skill and patience. Using a slanted paint brush, he was able to create remarkable works of art inside of glass bottles” 

Susan Bailey looks at the remarkable artwork of the late U Nyo Lay, whose legacy is kept alive by his daughter, Nilar

Some would say that U Nyo Lay was unlucky. Born in 1938, he was soon stricken by polio then suffered an accident at the tender age of eight that left him unable to walk. Twenty-four years later, a second accident made it impossible for him to stand up or lift his head. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, bad things come in threes and a few years later fate would deliver yet another blow. This time he was so badly injured that only his left hand was left functioning.

Yet U Nyo Lay has left an artistic legacy in Myanmar, one that takes incredible skill and patience. Using a slanted paint brush, he was able to create remarkable works of art inside of glass bottles. So intricate, so precise were the paintings that many people did not believe they were real. But they were and, although he passed away in 2007, his art lives on through his daughter Ni Lar.

Prior to U Nyo Lay, such bottles only existed in China. In the 16 th century the Chinese started using powdered tobacco, commonly called ‘snuff’, as a form of traditional medicine. The upper-class quickly grew addicted to it and started carrying it around in glass bottles. To denote the ownership of the bottle, artisans began etching or painting the bottles with traditional scenes or symbols. Eventually, in the 1800s, the art of painting inside the snuff bottles began, more as a decorative item rather than functional.

Yet the art form remained unknown in Myanmar until the 1980s. And the story of how it came to be is one of passion and perseverance.

U Nyo Lay discovered his artistic talent at the age of 12, learning from magazines featuring famed national artists like U Ba Gyi and U Aung Soe. After matriculation he became the arts chairman in his native township of Pyo Bway. At that time he also began to build a reputation as a talented wood carver, cartoonist and signboard maker.

But in 1978, bed ridden and with limited mobility, U Nyo Lay once again found artistic inspiration. He read a magazine by artist Daw Saw Mon Nyein which featured an article about bottle art in China. U Nyo Lay was fascinated. Over the next eight years he taught himself, through trial and error, how to decorate the inside of glass bottles. Ironically, his physical disabilities actually helped him hone the delicate skills required to paint- his body being immobile, he could keep a steady hand while holding the brush.

What started as a hobby quickly developed in to a career. U Nyo Lay’s bottles were highly sought after and he was even flown to Thailand to present a bottle to a member of the Thai Royal Family. He brought such attention to Myanmar’s cultural scene that the government rewarded him with a generous prize.

However, U Nyo Lay was concerned. He was the only one in Myanmar possessing these skills. Although a few other artists had started to study, no one had mastered the art of bottle painting. But his daughter, Nilar, showed a keen interested in painting and studied alongside her father.

It took her around a decade to perfect her talent. Unfortunately U Nyo Lay passed away in 2007 but Nilar carries on his legacy. Working from her home in southern Mandalay, she is more than happy to demonstrate the process for guests.

Any glass bottle with a short neck can be used. There is no template, no stencil. Nilar dips a slanted paint brush into paint and inserts it into the bottle, carefully creating designs inside the glass. The level of detail is incredible. It takes around twenty days to complete a bottle but more complicated designs can take up to two months. Depending on the size and detail, prices vary from 100,000 up to 300,000 Ks.

Unlike other bottle artists in Myanmar who sell contemporary designs or ‘tourist’ designs, Nilar continues to draw traditional scenes like her father. She also does commissioned portraits and has painted bottles featuring everyone from Aung San Su Kyi to Jerry Garcia.

Nilar said that although many have expressed interest in learning, few have the patience and the steady hands required. She is concerned her father’s legacy will die out. ‘I am very proud of what he did and want to continue bottle art. It brings attention to Myanmar’s arts scene and lets the world see our creative talents’.

Visits by appointment only.
U Nyo Lay Bottle Painting


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