Ann Phong's future looked as barren as the fields mowed down by the war machine. She felt doomed as an artist, to be used solely as an instrument of propaganda for the new Vietnamese Communist regime. So when the chance came to escape by boat, she took it, even though it meant leaving her parents and siblings behind, perhaps forever.
"I love my art too much," she says. "I realized I had to sacrifice something else."
Today, nearly 14 years later, she is living contentedly in Anaheim with her husband and their 6-year-old daughter. She maintains a warm relationship with her family back home through letters and is finishing her graduate art degree. Like other Vietnamese American artists, she is finding increasing acceptance for her work.
She recently had three large-scale Expressionist paintings in a show at Cal State Fullerton that was praised by critics. Her work has been seen at the South Bay Contemporary Museum of Art II in Long Beach, and she has had solo shows at the Griffin Fine Art gallery in Costa Mesa and at San Francisco State's student union.
Sales have picked up, but financial success has never been as important to her as building a new life and career. "I just want to be an artist," she says.
Phong, 37, describes her work and her journey here with a candor that bespeaks an avid desire to participate fully in the culture of her adopted homeland. "I want to show the Americans that letting me into this country is a positive thing--for Americans too--because I am trying to do something productive.
"I paint about the war and about the Vietnamese people and how I assimilated into American society. I present things in a Western way (artistically), but I use my Eastern thinking and culture in my paintings."
When she got to the United States in 1982, her paintings baldly depicted war's ravages with "fire, burning and dying people," as she describes them. She likens the style to the politically charged figurative Expressionism of American Leon Golub.
But lately she has taken a lighter, optimistic approach. Her vividly colored paintings in the CSUF show, with imagery of boats and leaping legs symbolizing her own leap to freedom, were described by Times art critic William Wilson as having "a lyrical quality of hope."
When Americans characterized her as a "boat person, I felt inferior and subhuman for a long time," she recalls. "But I try to convert that into something positive, like there's nothing wrong with being a boat person; the boat saved my life."
Her sea voyage began after she endured years of war. Her first memory of extreme violence dates to the savage Tet offensive in 1968, which wrought monumental destruction upon Saigon, her home and South Vietnam's capital. She was 10.
"From that time on, I started to see fires and bombs, and helicopters flew all the time. I lived close to the airport and it got bombed, too, about 1974. It just got more and more intense.
"When the war was over, I thought it would be OK, because we were just common people. But it was not OK under communism."
After graduating from high school, she tried for three years to get into art school but was barred because neither she nor her family were Communist Party members.
Finally, she was accepted into a Saigon pedagogic academy, essentially a training ground for government propagandists where archaic, restrictive social realist art prevailed. She spent three years there.
"As I matured, I didn't see any future for myself. I felt it was a dead end. So when I had a chance to escape, I went."
It was 1981. Leaving her parents, a brother and sister, she fled with the family of one of her art students. "They had a connection how to go and they invited me. So I went. I chose my future."
The terror she faced during four days at sea would surface later in her work. "This is one reason I paint water," she says. "I love the movement of water; it is so unpredictable. But I was terrified. It was a life and death thing; at any moment, it could happen. I put that into my paintings, I showed my fear. I wanted to get over it. I'm better now."
She spent a year in refugee camps in Malaysia and in the Philippines before settling in Northern California. She later moved to the Southland and earned an undergraduate art degree from Cal Poly Pomona. She entered Cal State Fullerton two years ago.
Griffen Gallery curator Meg Linton, a fellow CSUF grad student, introduced her to Irvine Fine Arts Center curator Dorrit Rawlins, whose early recognition and support of Vietnamese American artists has been pivotal to their advancement here.
As a result of her past traumas, Phong "brings so much life to the medium," says Rawlins, who picked Phong for a recent group show at the John Wayne Airport. "She's still a student, but her work is extremely mature. It's of professional caliber, and I think that has to do with her having experienced a lot of life."
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Arts in Little Saigon: A Five- Day Series Sunday: Over 20 years, a vibrant culture has emerged, piece by piece. Monday: A small core of believers is working to keep traditional music alive. Tuesday: The pop music mecca of the Vietnamese- speaking world. Today: Some artists struggle to confront the past; others try to move beyond it. Thursday: How the county's arts establishment has- and hasn't- reached out to Vietnamese Americans.