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War Paint: Huong's Scenes From Vietnam

In April 1995, twenty years after fleeing with her baby from the terrors of war in Saigon, a Vietnamese artist resolved at last to translate the horrors of her war experiences into paint. It was hard to do. The screams, the bombs, and the deaths she had witnessed were things she had struggled to forget. Up until then the artist, who goes only by the name Huong, had maintained a bubbly, smiling exterior, and, for the most part, her paintings were undulating, richly colored, and sunny.

For example in Windy, a serene and expansive eight-foot-tall oil painting, a girl in a flowing, flowery dress sits in long grass blown by a wind that ruffles her hair but doesn't disturb the peace. A white bird, possibly a dove, approaches her outstretched hand. The painting manages to combine curvaceousness with an Oriental stillness that renders the girl, with her symmetrical oval face, as an icon for peace. This painting -- and others like it -- belong to an artist who has reached a safe haven. They express a serenity she found first in Alaska, where she lived for thirteen years, and now in Miami, where she relocated in 1986.

"As a refugee," explains Huong in what is still a very broken but highly expressive English, "the hurt and the tragedy of the war were the last things I wanted to talk about. To start all over again I had to forget the pain and the past and find a new direction in my life."

But she was scarred inside by memories that endured long after she fled the former South Vietnam. Twenty-two years ago last April, with Saigon in chaos as it fell to the North Vietnamese, Huong strapped her eleven-month-old son to her back and scrambled onto an overloaded boat heading out to the Mekong Delta.

Though Huong was safe, she left behind her father, who died after nine years in a Communist "re-education camp"; an older brother, who was killed in action fighting for the South Vietnamese; and a younger brother, who committed suicide in a Communist prison. "The reality in Vietnam was worse than any nightmare you've been through," Huong says now. "After an experience like that you keep running and you keep hiding all your life. Even in your own home you're frightened someone will kill you. I wanted to forget it, but it lingered -- it wouldn't leave me alone. I have to face it, to accept the presence of this horrible war in my life. Now I have the peace to sit down and create these paintings."

The paintings she refers to leave behind the lightness of her prior work to bring out the darkness she has been holding inside. Two years ago in April, almost twenty years since the day she escaped from Saigon, she began translating into paint those stark, repressed memories. The wounds are so deep, she notes, that it has taken her two decades to begin what she envisions as a massive project of 24 larger-than-life paintings -- a series she calls "The War Pieces." Last year she did more than 200 sketches and anticipates that it will be five years before the task is complete.

In her spacious Miami studio -- she calls it the Palace -- she climbs a ladder to tackle these vast canvases. It's the only way this diminutive woman can get her brush to pictures that reach far above her head. The first four in the series -- big and powerful and blood-red -- can now be seen at Boca Raton's Ryals Gallery. Full of anguish, desperation, and terror, they speak of women caught helplessly in the conflict. Later pictures will tell the story of Huong's father and her brothers -- and the millions of men who suffered so terribly in a war that cost the lives of 220,000 South Vietnamese and 440,000 North Vietnamese troops, 58,000 U.S. servicepersons, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians.

Screaming at Heaven, one of the four paintings at Ryals, does just that in its sheer violence. Almost totally red, six feet high and nearly eight feet wide, the painting shows an anguished woman bent over her dead baby against a sky red with fire or blood. White paint is streaked across the picture like tears. Huong does violence to these paintings, flinging red paint at the canvas and then, using a knife, cutting into the blobs. "I witnessed so many women who lost their children," recalls Huong. "How can you describe their pain? See the anger in her face? See the tears from the sky, the tears of her eyes and of blood?"

In 1975 Huong worked as a freelance reporter writing for a variety of Vietnamese newspapers on the war's impact on families. What she wrote then colors the painting she does now. Red Rain, another painting in the "War Pieces" series, is a study in contrast: Despite its curves and circles, the effect is sharp and cubist, a boldness mirrored by ugly, masklike faces and bared teeth. In the foreground an ashen mother and child shed bloody tears, while the artist herself intrudes with her own anguish -- red lines scratched across the grim canvas.

"This mother with her baby is just hit," Huong explains almost dispassionately. "She can't believe what's happened to her. The violence comes up above your head and drops on you, and you have no escape. You leave your house and they bomb you. And this happened in this century."

The seven-foot-high, eleven-foot-long Children Without Father... Home Without Roof, also at Ryals, depicts children -- dressed in white funeral clothes and holding candles -- assembled around an open funeral wagon. On one side their grieving mother bends over them, holding a baby close to her. A bleak orange sun manages only a feeble glow, unable to brighten the desolation. The children's tears mix with the wax that drips from their candles. In the background lurk dark, roofless, ruined houses, a metaphor, says Huong, for fatherless children.

These graphic statements contrast dramatically with Huong's earlier, more carefree paintings, some of which were on display at Ryals until last month. It was only after arriving in Alaska in 1976 that Huong, completely untrained as an artist, took up painting, often using as subjects the Aleuts, Eskimos, and other native peoples she lived among on the island of Kodiak. "Journalism in Vietnamese was my trade," she points out. "I had a pen, and my pen was broken. No way could I continue in what I'd been trained to do. So I found the brush."

The next two paintings in "The War Pieces" will go on display at Ryals in January. She's just finished one of them, The Cyclone. According to Huong it represents war as destroyer, sweeping everyone in its path.

"The War Pieces" haven't a price tag. In the year 2000, when Huong's 24 paintings are finished, she plans to take them on tour, "to send a strong message of peace as we enter a new century," she says. "How do you answer men who have died when you haven't learned and you still support war?" It's an age-old message, she knows, but people nevertheless have to hear it again and again. "If you fall down a hole, you tell people: 'There's a hole in the road,'" explains Huong. "That's your obligation."

-- Peter Hawkins

"The War Pieces" are on display through December 24 at Ryals Gallery, One S. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton; 561-393-2461.

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Peter Hawkins

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