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Links to the Past : Darlene Nguyen-Ely's large sculptures draw inspiration from her memories of Vietnam.

August 12, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford is a regular contributor to The Times

BURBANK — The art of Darlene Nguyen-Ely is a mix of nature and industry, of old and new, a clash of cultures with roots reaching back to the final days of the war in Vietnam.

Her large sculptural works are dynamic constructs of wood, concrete, bamboo, steel and wire, all scattered elements pieced together in an effort to reconcile her childhood in Vietnam with her present life in the United States. "It's a theme that basically dominates everything I do," says Nguyen-Ely, 28, whose solo exhibition runs through Aug. 26 at the Creative Arts Center Municipal Gallery in Burbank.

Nguyen-Ely was only 8 when she escaped Saigon in 1975 with an uncle, brother and sister, but memories from her homeland remain a key influence on her work. The 15 pieces from her "21st Century Tribal Series" now at the gallery are abstract in overall design, but made of materials that represent older traditions.

In addition, one corner of the gallery is devoted to Nguyen-Ely's earlier "Shrine Series," a trio of smaller works that reflect her memories of the religious icons she saw destroyed in the war. These works are built of steel, wood and bone, incorporating crosses, religious icons and other found objects.

"It's a renewal," she says of the works. "Something that was dead and tossed out is made into something new."

For gallery director and curator Claude Hulce, the "Tribal Series" offers an "inventive use of materials. . . . It's definitely unique."

Arts Center Director Carol Finkle adds that she is "impressed with the strength of her pieces. It's fairly unusual for a woman to do such massive art pieces."

"The overall design of the work I learned" in the United States, Nguyen-Ely says of the avant-garde nature of her sculpture, created in the Long Beach studio she shares with her husband, commercial artist Paul Ely. "I'm very much influenced by the contemporary art around me."

Yet her interest in art emerged years before she left Vietnam. Nguyen-Ely was often too shy as a child to wander outside to play with other children, preferring instead to make small sculptures indoors. Her mother finally hired a private art tutor to visit several days a week, and young Nguyen-Ely won a best of show prize at a 1974 children's exhibition in Saigon sponsored by UNICEF.

But all her early artistic efforts were left behind when her family became refugees the next year, landing in Hong Kong for a year, before being allowed into the United States. Rather than join the aunt who already lived in Burbank, Nguyen-Ely and her family were compelled by the U. S. government to move to the East Coast. They settled in the small steel town of Lebanon, Pa., staying for nearly a year.

"Every time I walked down the street, people looked at me," she remembers, a long dark braid hanging over one shoulder. "People thought I was Chinese and knew kung fu. When the teacher called my name, everyone would turn around to look. I was so embarrassed."

The family finally moved to Burbank, where Nguyen-Ely attended John Burroughs High School. (Her mother arrived in the United States only three years ago. Her father, now divorced, lives in Europe.) Nguyen-Ely later studied art at Cal State Long Beach and found inspiration in an exhibition by sculptor Ron Pippin in the mid-1980s, work that reflected a concern with spirituality, using assemblage and found objects.

"I responded right away because that's what I do," she says. "It really encouraged me to do more."

Nguyen-Ely was recently interviewed by a Hanoi art magazine and by the Hong Kong-based Asian Art News, but she has not returned to Vietnam.

"In the future, I would like to visit Vietnam and see the artists there, see what they do and what inspires them," she says. "I'd just like to get to know them. I want everyone to be friends and open.

"It's better to leave the past behind and move on," she says of the bitter war that ended two decades ago. "I would rather have peace than war."

Where and Where

What: Sculpture by Darlene Nguyen-Ely.

Location: Creative Arts Center Municipal Gallery, 1100 W. Clark Ave., Burbank.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 6:30 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays. By appointment on weekends. Ends Aug. 26.

Call: (818) 953-8763.

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