Son Thai Tran
@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images CATHERINE FREDERICK
Son Thai Tran, a Fort Smith artist, was one of more than a million people who fled Vietnam in the months and years after the fall of Saigon. He tells the story with precision – the hulky boat taking on water, the sound of the raging sea that threatened to crack the ship in half, the 500 other escapees fearing they might not survive the journey.
But they did survive. Son arrived in California on Christmas Eve. It was 1978. Everything he had had been stolen. All that was left were the pants he wore and the shoes on his feet.
Still, he looked around and saw paradise. The greater part of his life had been lived in a war-torn country bitterly divided between North and South. “My counselor gave me ten American dollars,” Son said. “I felt like even if I had just one American dollar I would be okay. It was warm, like tropical, and beautiful. ..In Vietnam, I spent two years in a prison camp. I was field labor for the communists. My dad come down there to see me. He say, ‘If you can escape here, come back to Saigon, I find somebody to help you out.’”
Son devised a plan, teamed up with two other prisoners, slipped out of sight and spent days hiding in the jungle. “I was scared, sure,” Son said, “but I didn’t want to die there, in prison, so there was not a choice.”
Two weeks after he made it back to his home in Saigon he was boarding a ship to the U.S. His father had gold that he used to secure Son’s spot on the boat. Son was twenty-two. “My dad said, ‘I’m old. I don’t want to start over again.’ He said, ‘I love this place, I can’t leave this place.’ He said, ‘You have future.’”
After a few months he decided to come to Fort Smith where some of his family had already settled. “People talked to me and I nodded, yes, yes, yes. But I couldn’t understand anybody. My family took me to the only Vietnamese restaurant in town. I asked did they have a job. I started washing dishes that same day.”
He took English classes where an instructor began by teaching him the alphabet. At night he washed dishes. He was more than 8,000 miles from home, missing his father, but grateful to be free. In his spare time he did what he loved. “Somehow I always had paper and I was always drawing. ..I have good memory for art. Somehow it just comes out for me. I pull out color and a setting.
“My uncle is big in art in Vietnam. He would not teach me,” Son said, still puzzled by the older man’s refusal. “I love my uncle. He traveled all the time. Later he got sickness and lived in a small room in the back of our house.
“I say to him, ‘I cannot do what you do.’ He say, ‘Practice. Let it come out. Later on you recognize it in your brain and it come out in your hand like music playing. You’ll practice everywhere, drawing in the sand, drawing in the dirt.’ And I did. And it came out.”
He held tight to his talent during his early years in America. But there was little time. He was a busy man, washing dishes, and then working in a factory.
When the furniture factory shut down a few years ago, Son decided to paint full time. His work is now sold at Gallery Under the Arch in downtown Van Buren. At home his dining room table is covered with projects, many framed and stacked in a neat pile, others in various stages of completion. Blank canvases lean against one wall, the result of a recent sale at a local crafts store.
Son likes to work with acrylics because they can move as fast as he can. “I can paint quick, quick, quick. Like my mind” he said, tapping his right temple with his index finger. “If I don’t paint fast, it’s gone.”
His work is prolific. A still life covers nearly half a wall near his front door. It is an abundant display, flowers, fruit, all tumbling out onto a dark canvas. “That one take too much time,” Son said. “Can’t make money when you paint one thing for too many months.”
Another one of his paintings is Picasso-like, lines and curves and angles creating a woman who seems a bit perplexed to be on display in his hallway. There are portraits as well, the subjects poised and hopeful. Some of his favorite pieces are what he calls “free art,” abstract visions of emotions he feels in a flash and captures before they fly away.
Many of these are done without using a brush. He demonstrated, cutting a corner from a piece of cardstock, then dipping the edge in green paint before sliding it deftly across the paper. “A long time ago I realized I could do things my way,” he said, explaining the technique he developed himself. He worked fast, applying the paint in a thick, wavy line . “A tree?” he asked, and then dipped the makeshift brush into red, applying the color sparingly, a bit here, a spot there. “Now a flower,” he said, looking satisfied with the result.
Son seems unaware of his talent, perhaps because it comes so easily for him. He shrugged, saying, “I could not write a book.” But he tells stories just the same. There are frogs placed in unsuspecting places, a face peering through a blast of color. When asked to describe the painting he uses only two words: surrender and witness. It is enough for him. He knows the tale by heart.
He believes his work has great value, but not a grand price. “In New York they sell paintings for thousands. Here, not so much.” Son gestured toward a masterpiece of his own making, a landscape with verdant hills and azure water. “But who am I, here in Arkansas?” he asked. “I am nobody.”
It isn’t true.
Son is talented. That he takes for granted. But not freedom. It’s what he loves best about his life, and about his work. “I have a free art because I didn’t study it,” he explained. “You go to school, your master tell you what to do, right? Then you belong to him, not yourself. I,” he said, his fist thumping the spot where his heart beats, “I belong to me.”