May 2016: Found Threads

Our Village gathers on a sunny afternoon, with charcoal smothered all over our hands and smudges on our cheeks. Since charcoal was a fairly new medium for most of the students, I brought in some drawings for them to reference, to give them a chance to play and get a feel of how different kinds of charcoal can behave, how much the marks may vary, and how delicate lines can be drawn into deep, heavy ribbons. The room flushed with unfettering cheer as they giggled joyfully at themselves, at each other, at each other's drawings, and at the charcoal dust that somehow made it to someone's brow.


a peep of the sketchbook: CHÚ LÊ ĐỨC'S LESSON ON CHỮ HÁN. HIS CHARACTERS, DRAWN IN PINK, SURROUNDED BY MY COPIOUS NOTES. second character On the bottow row: "Spirit".

After class, Chú Lê Đức graciously invited me over to his apartment that serves as a gallery as much as it does his dwelling. With his original works in delicate watercolor, expressive acrylic, rich oil paintings, and splashes of Chinese calligraphy, I stood spinning on a single axis, taking it all in. I immediately walked toward his desk, where bold, black swaths were painted upon delicate rice paper, and before we knew it, we were deep into my first lesson on chữ Hán. During our lesson, he tells me: 


"The Spirit must come into agreement with the language

for one to know and to understand

the heart of the language and its characters."


[ And now a quick break for a most beautiful lesson: The character for the word "Spirit" (see image on left) is written by combining the two characters, "tree" (left) and "chi", or energy (right). Together, the characters create this abstract line drawing to describe its essential definition: "Spirit is the energy that leans upon the tree to hold one steady". Honestly. How beautiful is that? ]

We sipped on jasmine tea from his pure white porcelain teacups as he continued leading me deeper into his life. I learned that Chú Lê Đức is a father, an intellectual, a poet as much as a painter, a natural teacher, and during the Paris Peace Accords, he worked in Paris as a media correspondent. 


I shared with him that soon after arriving in America, my grandfather, Trần Vân Học, also served as a media correspondent for Spirit of Vietnam, an organization based out of Harrisburg, PA, which gave assistance to newly arriving Vietnamese refugees. Ông Ngoại (grandfather) was a language arts teacher who taught English in Vietnam before arriving with his family at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, in 1975. He would go on to help organize Spirit of Vietnam until his passing in 1979. Ông Ngoại's role at the organization was to translate the American news into Vietnamese, which would then be broadcast through Spirit of Vietnam's radio station, informing the Vietnamese American community of what was happening back at home in Vietnam, and here at home in the United States. (At that time, my mother her older sister were paid $1.20/hr to read the news on air.) After chatting further, we discovered that Chú Lê Đức knew of my grandfather and my grandfather's work.

We laughed together as we unearthed this tie that binds us, this path that brought us right here where we belong, sitting face to face among his paintings, and sharing our commonalities. How magnificent is this life that we, as humanity, are so much more closely connected than we can ever fathom ?! 

Oh, these glorious, invisible, found threads. I walked home with my ankles tangled in them, their silky strands pulling in all directions, provoking me to search for their ends, though I knew there were none. Sometimes life can be sweeter than the pineapple he sent me home with. 


MY Ông Ngoại, my mother's father, at spirit of vietnam. 1976.

MY Ông Ngoại, my mother's father, at spirit of vietnam. 1976.