Sight Work | Artist Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published July 7, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Life changed profoundly for Quang Nguyen after he twisted his ankle playing tennis one afternoon seven years ago in Hanover, New Hampshire. His had hardly been an ordinary journey up to that point, but an epiphany following his injury would lead Quang on an even less conventional course.

At the time, he was a 29-year-old artist winning renown for his evocative watercolors of country and city life in Vietnam. Quang was also working at the Dartmouth Co-op as its visual-arts coordinator and living happily with a male partner. His life looked like another all-American success story -- you know, the one about the immigrant from an impoverished, oppressed country who achieves prosperity in the Land of the Free.

Except that Nguyen's early years in his native Vietnam were marked by excessive wealth, not scarcity. On his fourth birthday, he recalls with amusement, his father gave him a life-size, solid-gold statue of a chicken.

Quang Nguyen was born in 1968 in Tui Hoa, a town about 400 miles north of Saigon, during the time of the Tet Offensive. Viet Cong guerrillas were staging attacks throughout South Vietnam that would push the U.S. toward withdrawal from Southeast Asia.

A few years later, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies were sweeping victoriously southward and the Nguyens fled to Saigon. They had good reason to fear the impending collapse of the American-allied government, because Quang's father ranked as one of the top officers in the South Vietnam intelligence service. But at 7, Quang viewed the final spasms of the war as a gigantic fireworks display. He remembers that the sky above Saigon was "completely lit up" on each of the last three nights of fighting.

Soon after the communist takeover, Quang's father was arrested and threatened with immediate execution. But he persuaded his captors to spare his life by concocting a tale about a brother being an influential figure in the North Vietnam government. The elder Nguyen was then sent to a "re-education camp," where he nearly starved to death. His health was so bad that he was released on humanitarian grounds.

Stripped of their wealth and relying on handouts from relatives, the Nguyens spent the next three years plotting an escape from Vietnam. In 1979, some 40 members of the Nguyen clan boarded a boat and, after eight days at sea, landed in the Philippines. They spent another year in a refugee camp before gaining admission to the United States.

Quang could speak almost no English when they got to Kansas City, where some relatives had settled earlier. "Even though we had managed to save our lives and get to the U.S., this was a hard period for us," he says. Quang's parents and siblings were disoriented and worried about the fate of relatives who had stayed behind in Vietnam.

This succession of traumas at a young age shaped Quang's tragic view of history and his keen sense of the impermanence of all earthly relations, possessions and experiences. That awareness helps explain his readiness to renounce attachments that most of us regard as indispensable. "You should try not to set yourself up for the disappointments that life will deal you anyway," he counsels.

While in junior high, Quang was required to take an art class in which he claims to have felt no interest and demonstrated no talent. But his teacher "must have seen something in my drawings no one else saw," he says. "She encouraged me to do more and more."

In high school, he was awarded a gold medal for an intricately designed embossing and won a full scholarship to art school. Quang was now committed to becoming an artist, but his father wanted him to go to medical school. When Quang refused, his father threatened to disown him. To avoid a complete estrangement, Quang agreed to move to Dallas to help his father open a Chinese restaurant.

Eventually, however, the yearning to paint grew irrepressible, and he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute. There, and in the years following graduation, Quang's talent flowered fully. Scenes

of daily life in Vietnam had become

his subject matter, and watercolor his medium.

"I know some artists think watercolor is difficult to work with, but for me it came naturally," Quang says. He has grown so adept with the wetted brush that he often paints on unforgiving rice paper. The slightest mistake can ruin an entire image.

Although his genre scenes do not vary much, Quang is able to infuse his works with distinctively different moods due to his skill representing the effects of light. Some of his watercolors include figures that are crisply outlined by tropical sunshine, while in others the human subjects are hazily defined as they go about their business at twilight or in monsoon rains.

Quang's strength lies in depicting landscapes and urban settings. He is able to convey, sometimes quite powerfully, the feel as well as the look of a particular place. But he is less successful in rendering the human form; his faces often lack character and individuality.

Quang identifies his main influences as the American watercolor masters John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. His vibrant images of Vietnamese peasants stooping in a rice paddy or market women bartering with customers are entirely Western in composition. He says he feels little affinity for the "heavily stylized" art of Asia.

As Quang sits for an interview at the Starbucks Cafe in South Burlington's Barnes & Noble, other customers probably don't suspect he's the creator of the paintings hanging nearby. Taking a break from his job as a manager at the nearby Kohl's department store, he's wearing a dress shirt and tie; his hair is closely cropped and his manner is businesslike. Quang smiles more readily as the conversation progresses, and he punctuates his colloquial English with graceful hand gestures.

He explains that he does preliminary sketches for his watercolors during yearly visits to Vietnam, which he began making in 1993. Living conditions have improved significantly for his family members there and for many other Vietnamese, due in no small measure, he says, to remittances from expatriates like himself.

By the mid-'90s, he had established a comfortable life in Hanover, where he was regularly selling his work at local galleries. Then came the twisted ankle -- and the turning point he associates with it.

Retiring early from the tennis court, Quang says something caused him to pause near a collection of miniature Buddha statues he kept in his apartment. Pulling back a sheet that covered one of them, he experienced a revelation telling him to immediately leave his lover and his art and enter a Buddhist monastery.

Which is what he did.

Quang says he had no devotion to Buddhism as a child or young man; it was a cultural influence rather than a wellspring of faith. But "I found inner peace when I lifted up that cloth," he explains. "Time just stopped altogether and suddenly everything made sense."

Quang spent three years in a Houston monastery, studying, meditating and doing no painting other than an occasional temple-bound Buddha. "The greatest lesson I learned was non-attachment," Quang says. "Up to that time, painting had been my life."

But, he would no longer define himself in that way -- not even after leaving the monastery in 2000 -- "because then was not the time for me to be a monk." He says that "time" will definitely come, however.

Quang eventually returned to New Hampshire, finding a different partner and job. He did begin painting again, but now he does it only when the mood strikes him -- and solely, he says, for the trance-like serenity he achieves during the process. The actual product matters little, Quang insists. "My ego is gone," he says.

As evidence, he cites the case of a wealthy collector who saw two somber scenes Quang had painted and offered to pay the artist's full asking price of $10,000. Quang says he politely asked the man why he wanted those particular pieces. When the would-be buyer replied that their colors would go well with his living-room motif, Quang refused to sell him the work. "It would have meant dishonoring the process," he says.

Quang moved to Essex last year after his partner was transferred from a Barnes & Noble in New Hampshire. As a result, a dozen or so of his watercolors were displayed last month in South Burlington. There were no price tags attached. Quang says he received several calls from potential buyers, but all were dissuaded when they learned his non-negotiable prices were between $3000 and $7000.

Whether he sells any works at all has become a matter of indifference to him, Quang maintains. "Art for me has become strictly a vehicle for reaching inner peace. It's not a commodity for me to make a living from," he says. "I think all the joy would be gone if I made it a career choice."