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'He . . . Knows What It Means' : Young Immigrant Lifts Eyes to Liberty

May 29, 1986|DAVID HALDANE

Panha Nithik Mao thought he understood the value of freedom. So putting brush to poster paper, he painted the slogan "Freedom Is Not a Game" on a drawing of the Statue of Liberty in front of Manhattan. And this month, southbound motorists at the intersection of Pine Avenue and 7th Street in Long Beach can view Mao's work on a 24-by-14-foot billboard for all to see.

"It just came to my mind and I put it on there," said Mao, 10, who escaped from his native Cambodia to settle in Long Beach six years ago with his mother, brother and sister. "I never dreamed I would have my work on a billboard."

Mao, a fifth-grade student at Bixby Elementary School, was one of about 200 youngsters who submitted drawings this year to a school contest sponsored by Foster and Kleiser, a Los Angeles advertising company specializing in outdoor signs that has taken Bixby Elementary under its wing as part of an adopt-a-school program.

The goal was to produce a poster exemplifying liberty.

"It had to be highly visible--something that someone could read in 10 seconds," said Christine Merriman, art director for the company. "This one won because he had a very good phrase and visually it was very powerful. It was the best drawn and had the most fully filled-in imagery."

After being selected by a team of judges representing the company and the school, Mao's work was taken to Los Angeles, blown up to billboard size in outline form, then returned to the school where a group of students helped the young artist fill in the details and the colors.

Bixby Principal Andrew Allergetti said the billboard is a moving reminder of what freedom is all about.

"He really knows what it means because he lived under an oppressive regime," Allergetti said of the young artist. "That statue is a symbol of liberty--I hope the kids get a sense of patriotism out of it."

Mao, who admits to having taken several friends and relatives past the billboard to show them his work, said he gets a good feeling every time he sees it.

The drawing has a simple message, he says: "Not to take freedom for granted."

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