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Bhutanese-Vermont Artist Paints Life as Refugee

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Hom Pradhan - COURTESY OF VERMONT FOLKLIFE CENTER
  • courtesy of Vermont Folklife Center
  • Hom Pradhan

The next time you drive past Spinner Place in Winooski, watch for the "welcome" signs, both in English and Nepali, at the pedestrian entrance of the public parking garage. They're part of an in-progress mural by Bhutanese artist Hom Pradhan, proposed by the artist and funded by the city. When Pradhan resumes work in the summer, he says, he'll paint a man and woman in traditional Nepali dress on an abstract background.

Until then, those who want to learn more about Pradhan's work can head to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, where 11 of the young artist's acrylic paintings will be on view until July 31. Pradhan's works have previously been displayed at the O'Brien Community Center in Winooski, Essex High School and ArtsRiot.

That Burlington venue is where Greg Sharrow, codirector of the VFC, met Pradhan in November 2014. Both men were eager to collaborate, but the problem was fitting Pradhan's exhibit into the VFC's schedule. "We have exhibitions planned two years in advance," Sharrow said. Finally, he decided to renovate the center's library into a new gallery space for Pradhan's art. "It had already been over a year. I just didn't want him to wait any longer," Sharrow explained.

Titled "Life Under the Shadow," the show reflects Pradhan's experiences growing up in the Goldhap refugee camp in Nepal. He created the paintings over four years, completing the most recent ones only this year. At the VFC, the paintings are paired with audio interview excerpts that visitors can access using their cellphones.

"This exhibition is for my past life," the 20-year-old said. "I want to tell my story to different people, so they can feel my feelings."

Pradhan's parents, along with tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis, were stripped of their Bhutanese nationality and expelled from the kingdom in the early 1990s. He captured their desolation in "Leaving Homeland," one of his favorites from the collection. The painting shows a rear view of a family of four. The mother carries a child on her back in a sling, while an older boy walks in front of her. The father bears a bundle on his back. All are barefoot. Pradhan says this piece is representative of the experience of a Bhutanese family.

The younger generation, including Pradhan and his siblings, was born and raised in refugee camps in Nepal. "In camp, life was too hard. We were like people with no hopes," Pradhan said.

In his paintings, Pradhan depicts the refugees' daily struggles — people receiving rice rations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; men collecting stones from a river to build houses. "Mother's Love" shows children going to school while their mother takes a break from her work — separating stones from rice grains — to remind them to study hard. In an accompanying audio excerpt, Pradhan says, "I tried to connect the camp with the love of the mother."

Difficult as life was in the camp, it was also where Pradhan received his artistic education. As a young boy, he used to watch one of his older cousins draw. In second grade, Pradhan started attending classes at the Institute of Fine Art and Commercial Art, a school founded by Bhutanese refugee artists to nurture the talent of the next generation.

Pradhan remembers collecting posters of actors and actresses and venturing into the nearby jungle to practice drawing portraits and landscapes. He read about van Gogh, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in books his teacher gave him. Whenever he had materials left over from painting banners for dance competitions, Pradhan would experiment with mixing the colors. At age 15, he became an instructor at IFACA, where he taught for about two years. He and his family were resettled in Vermont in October 2012.

Now a first-year student at Burlington College, Pradhan wants to focus on getting his bachelor's in fine arts and becoming an artist. "We want to help Hom fulfill his goal," said Sharrow of the VFC. When he sent out the exhibit card, there was "quite a stir of interest on the part of venues in Burlington," Sharrow added. "The next plan is to help place the little exhibit in some nice venues so that more people can see it."

Pradhan's mural in that well-trafficked Winooski spot is sure to draw eyeballs, too, as his art becomes part of Vermont's public landscape.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Exhibition by Bhutanese Artist Offers Glimpse Into Refugee Camp"

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