Describe your work for us.
My work addresses the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War (1964-1973) when the U.S dropped more than two million tons of bombs, equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. There were 580,000 bombing missions, and Laos still stands as the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The paintings are a blend of abstract, war-torn, crumbling buildings and fractal landscapes, mingled with loud colors, disorienting shapes, sweeping gestures and hints of smoke and debris from the bombings. The puzzle-like construction alludes to the shattered homeland and the themes that encompass the lives of people in the Laotian Diaspora: displacement, identity, isolation, and confusion. The mural-sized paintings are purposeful and alert viewers to the issue of the Secret War on Laos.
Tell us about your process.
I use pictures taken from my trips back to Laos, a trip to a Nong Khai Refugee Camp in Thailand, and Vietnam War images found online and in books. With these photos I create small drawings and collages. Then, I scan and alter them on photoshop to create a larger composed painting. My work evokes the creative ideal of early immigrant Abstract Expressionists in New York City because I work very intuitively and automatically while composing, but also consider formal elements such as composition, color, line and intensity and expanding the image beyond the picture plane. I then draw or project the images onto larger panels and adjust as I paint, because the paintings are mural size. I have chosen acrylic paint for its immediacy and quick drying nature. The paintings are designed to be nomadic and modular. They can easily be dismantled and rebuilt on a new site, symbolizing the way of life for refugees throughout the country, who are still slowly putting their lives back together.
From where do you draw inspiration?
I drew inspiration from the founder of Legacies of War, Channapha Khamvongsa. I was truly moved by her speech about clearing 80 million unexploded UXO (unexploded ordnances) cluster bombs that still lie hidden in the landscape waiting to be detonated. Over 20,000 people, mainly children, have been injured from shrapnel, or simply killed, by UXO since the bombing ceased. The goal is to rid the landscape of its contaminants. My other inspiration is my mom. She was a weaver in Laos and the Laotian textile and design incorporates intense colors, stylized animal, and human motifs.
Recently though, the Syrian refugees are constantly on my mind as I am working, because that issue is in the news all the time. It makes me reflect on the experience of hundreds of thousands of Laotian immigrants who faced the same issues as they fled to another country. As an educator it is important for me to contribute to the cause and make others aware of their surroundings, and not to exclude history, past or present
Your recent work features geometric shapes with sharp angles and bold colors. Could you talk about what ideas or feelings you’d like to convey through those elements?
My work is not subtle and delicate, but instead sharp like a razor. It also explores the challenges of being a Laotian female immigrant and, recently, the escalating refugee crisis. Abstraction in the paintings express a disordered system on the verge of chaos. I want the audience to be confused, aware, and in a state of conflict. War is draining. Hope is draining. Represented is the on-going nightmare for Laotian immigrants during the escape of their war-torn niches.
Part two of the question above: do you find you’re able to tell more complex “stories” or convey more complex ideas or emotions with abstract works than would be possible with representational painting?
My work does not constitute a literal narrative, but instead, a non-tangible reality of endured hardships and loss after the Vietnam War. It is not linear; I am painting a feeling of conflict and the internal displaced war-ravaged country. I am not interested in telling one story, but many stories. War is universal. It has no boundaries and continues to affects lives, society, the planet, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Although much of your work is abstract, place and home are strong influences. With that in mind, do you find that having lived in middle Tennessee for 15 years has shifted your sense of place or home?
It has not shifted my mentality, because I will never be accepted as a Laotian native in Laos and I will always be a refugee/immigrant/minority in America. I find the older I get the less I struggle with my Laotian roots and respect and accept the culture. Even though America was founded by immigrants, Americans today are still not open to the wave of displaced people trying to seek shelter in a safer zone. The Vietnam war was over fifty years ago and the world has shifted its attention elsewhere to more recent events, but the past will always be part of the present.
What would you like viewers to learn from your work?
My hope is that the public will be educated about The Secret War on Laos, and possibly reflect on events that occurred. My hope for the audience is to be overwhelmed by the bright colors, feel anxious, disoriented, confused, and become discombobulated in the fractal landscape. For these are the many feelings refugees and immigrants’ families feel when they enter a new country, where they do not speak the language, know the terrain, or understand the culture. Most step into darkness hoping to find their footing, a path that will lead their kids to safety, hope, or opportunities not provided for them in their native country.
How long have you been working as an artist?
My love for the arts started at a very early age. I found art to be therapeutic and have continued for over thirty years to produce work that is closest to my heart.
How has your practice evolved?
I have grown into my skin as a Laotian American artist. In my earlier years as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, I was making art about identity, displacement, religion, family, and Laotian diaspora. Then in graduate school at the University of Carbondale, I created works about being a mother, having a family, and 9/11. Now, I have gone back full circle to shinning a light on my Laotian identity, history, culture, and educational outreach.