Riot of Color by Paul Sinclair
When the last helicopter lifted off from the U.S.
Embassy compound in South Vietnam's capital city of Saigon in 1975, artist
Truong Buu Giam realized he was in very serious trouble. After four years
as a young lieutenant on a South Vietnamese battleship, he knew he could
not rejoin his mother, father and 12 siblings in his now communist-controlled
Today he is a successful and multi-talented artist in Westminster, Calif.,
but he remembers those days when he and a few South Vietnamese Navy buddies
struggled to make their way to the Philippines where they would wait for
a sponsor into the United States.
Minnesota family brought me to the United States and took me in. I only
spoke Vietnamese and French, and when I told them I was a painter, they
got me a job — painting houses," says Giam. He moved to Orange
County, Calif., in 1981, a move that was followed by many disastrous years
of little or no income, joblessness, a business failure and in 1992, bankruptcy.
did everything I could but I lost everything and I had no idea what I
was going to do," Giam says. It was the same year that his father,
who had never approved of his being an artist, died. "What a pity
he could not live to see me today," says Giam, whose work is sought
by collectors around the world.
AN UNUSUAL APPROACH
experience in many artistic media, Giam is widely known for an unusual
approach to mixed media, using basic colors with powder, epoxy, resin,
liquid gold and liquid silver. He knows his work defies normal classification,
saying it falls somewhere in the field of abstract impressionism with
Asian art overtones. "I'm seeking to create something unique, which
cannot be copied. I tried to show my art in Europe but they laughed. They
only use water, oil, pastels and pencil. They would not consider anything
new," says Giam, whose name is pronounced trong boo jam, and translates
into "Preserving the Precious and the Beautiful."
His works are a riot of color that demand attention and reward the careful
viewer. Though people may at first stand back to look at a work, they
quickly move to within a few inches of the paint, squinting into the details.
It is common to hear, "Oh look, there's a horse; my word, there's
another, and another—when you look closely, they are all over the
place." In some works it is horses; in others, butterflies, fish,
birds, almost every branch of wildlife.
At a recent California Open Wildlife Art Festival, San Diego chiropractor
Meris Von Jenef was in Giam's display booth, looking for some of his art
to decorate her new clinic and offices. "You have to mentally climb
inside his paintings and then open your mind and see what pours in. Sometimes
the images appear chaotic, but in fact, they are very calming and I am
looking for that experience for my patients," says Von Jenef, who
came to the show specifically to look at Giam's work.
was during the years that Giam worked day and night trying to save a failing
printing business in California that he was exposed to a wide range of
colors. The experience led him across the conventional boundaries of juxtaposed
color to a world where, Giam says, traditionally trained artists would
never go. He points to a picture in which patches of vivid green are pushed
against swatches of shocking pink. "Training says 'no,' but if you
reduce those two colors to a gray scale, they are very balanced, and the
mind and brain accept them," says Giam, who has taught himself to
reduce colors to the gray scale as he paints.
Trained as a traditional artist—he graduated at the top of his class
from the Nationale Ecole d'Art Superieure in Saigon—Giam, 56, became
a U.S. citizen in 1983 and says that his American experience has a tremendous
influence on his art. "Life is so vibrant here, so full of energy
and feeling, and it is feeling that must come across from a work of art,
not just a colored picture.
at all the magnificent landscapes that have been done over the centuries,
right up to modern times. But that has been done. It is virtually impossible
to improve on them. In their traditional way the best of those landscapes
are as good as it can get, so you have to move on and create something
different, and that is where feelings come in," says Giam.
used to paint classically—paint family values on silk—very
traditional." But when thrown into the maelstrom of American life
he found in the freedoms and open expression of ideas, a pathway to his
own expressions and visions. "Sometimes we forget that what we see
is different than what we feel. Good painters paint what they see, but
that does not necessarily make them into good artists. Good artists go
a step beyond."
Giam believes that most traditionally trained artists could not put a
purple tree in a serious work of art because it would violate their training.
They might do it for a joke, but that is all, he says. For himself, "If
I wake up thinking about the color purple, I might go and paint a purple
tree, adding other colors and shapes to see where it goes, and that will
be guided by my feelings."
After Giam's father died, his mother came to live with him in the United
States, where she converted from Buddhism to Christianity. During some
difficult times before his success, his mother encouraged him to "seek
help from God. I used to drive her to church, and she would urge me to
listen to the minister as he preached. I listened and he made a lot of
sense. God has been in control of my life ever since."
Giam especially likes to paint wildlife because, he says, "there
are no political overtones. No matter where in the world you come from,
there is generally some agreement on what represents beauty, but not universal
agreement. I know that some people do not like my vivid colors, but I
love color and I am not afraid of it."
Giam remembers that even in the darkest of times, his determination to
be an artist was constantly in front of him. "My father said that
painting was not a very good job. I told him, 'Father, it is not a job,
it is my life.'" And the passion with which he shares his vision,
his views and his values, makes it clear that it still is.
Sinclair is a free-lance writer living in San Diego, Calif.
Buu Giam: An Artist for All Season by
Buu Giam is a 57-year-old youthful, slender Vietnamese American with profundity
of glossy, silver and gray hair falling casually, gently over his forehead.
It speaks volumes about a shy, but by contrast, direct and extroverted,
whimsically persistent personality with a brutalizing, diverse history,
both somber and triumphant. It was an honor and pleasure to interview
him in 2004. What follows are excerpts and a taped interview done recently
at the Holiday Inn in Great Falls (2005).
was born Christmas Eve, 1948 in the province of BenTre, South Vietnam.
He is the fifth child of a French-educated father and loving mother; his
name means, "Preserving the Precious and Beautiful." His teachers
were enchanted by his art in elementary school. He was accepted at Vietnam's
National Institute of Art in Saigon in 1967 and graduated in 1970. Giam
was a Naval lieutenant from 1971-1975, experiencing both the heroism and
confusion of the Vietnam War. He fled in horror "for any port that
would have me:" when North Vietnam laid siege to Saigon in 1975.
He still remembers the bitter trauma and chaos, abandonment of his country
by American forces, the terror and the struggle to survive.
left family and friends, the battle scarred, impoverished world of Vietnam,
for the United States in '75. He found his new home, bewildering. He said:
"Even your poor aren't really poor here. Vietnam has the very, very
rich and the very, very poor. There's no middle ground." He immigrated
to the United States via the Philippines and waited for a host family
to sponsor him. Giam was assigned to a family in Minnesota. He graduated
from VoTech Institute in Minneapolis in 1977, acquiring new skills in
commercial art. He did commissioned work with art studios, his paintings
exhibited at the University of Minnesota (1979) and in Cleveland, Ohio,
sponsored by the Northern Ohio Vietnam Veterans of America (1981). He
has been a full time professional artist for the past ten years, his work
featured at Jacobs K. Javits Convention Center in New York (1996) and
in Singapore (1997). His art is shown throughout the U.S, Canada and Southeast
Asia with galleries in Arizona, California, Washington, Utah and Minnesota.
with Truong Buu Giam (2005) by Mark
What was it like growing up for you to grow up in Vietnam in the 1960's?
What impact did it have on your art?
Everything was peaceful after WWII. The French left; China wasn't involved.
This was a happy time for me. Then the war came, you know, Communism.
I was too young to know about these things, maybe twelve, thirteen. But
people really misunderstood the Vietnamese War. They thought it was a
civil war. It wasn't a civil war; it was too big for that. Russia and
China were against America.
So it was ideological?
(A) Yeah. We were invaded from the North, so we fought back. By the time
I became an adult, I was going to art school. But I could not use it.
There was no time for art. I used the time when I was in the service for
art, because you didn't know if you were going to be alive the next day.
There was a sense that you might not live the next day?
(A) Yeah. You don't know if you'll have it (your art); you don't come
So there was a sense with the war in Vietnam, that you might lose your
(A) Yeah. After the war those of us who were soldiers were sent to reeducation
camps. They let us get sick; you couldn't survive. There was malaria,
cold, not enough food. They didn't care. Their attitude was to let us
die slowly . . .. But you have to fight to live. That made me strong.
They tried to control you like a chicken in a cage, no education, nothing.
You wake up and they tell you what to eat... Life is better if you fight.
Even with my art I have to fight. The artist's life is really difficult
for me. How many artists actually make it? It's difficult."
So you had to fight to survive in Vietnam and this has affected your life
as an artist here in America? What about you're training as an artist?
(A) I was trained in South Vietnam. Competition was very high. The culture
was using traditional Vietnamese and Chinese watercolor on silk, brush
stroke. And then we had to learn impressionistic, Western art, which was
beautiful, but confusing . . . Most artists didn't use it.
Who influenced you most in your development, training?
(A) I studied with a professional in my third year in college (pause).
Everyone has a model. If you don't have one, then you have nothing.
Were there any artists that influenced you?
(A) I admired Van Gogh.
Van Gogh? What was it about Van Gogh?
(A) He saw things differently. He was unique. He painted what he saw.
I never thought of Van Gogh, but when you look at what you have done with
horses.... He would have taken the colors and...
(A) (Laughing)... He played with it
What about technique? What do you use in your art?
(A) Epoxy and resin mixed with pigment colors. The most important thing
for me in art more than color is value. You have to know the value of
is more important to you than color?
(A) More than color. Each color has a value, like the green and red. They
work beautifully together.But how do they work so well together? There
is harmony; they contrast each other, the same hue because of value.
Spiritual Journey": Discussion by
I was totally overwhelmed by "A Spiritual Journey" and wrote
about it last year. Does it typify your art? Was there a style you were
using? Can you talk about it, as subject and content?
(A) I used to do water color on silk. I don't have a style yet; this is
derivative not like Japanese and Chinese. They use dry; we use wet silk
and then let it flow and try to control the subject matter.
So you use wet silk and then let if flow?
(A) Yeah. And control the subject matter. I used epoxy and resin with
this one. I made the brown color and then another color 15 minutes later,
and another 30 minutes later and then let the colors run through them
and something happens beautiful."
This painting personifies a lot of your work, but its derivative of water
on silk, but its wet silk and you let it flow using the resin, so it expands?
(A) Yeah. The medium affects each other.
What about the content?
(A) I let it flow and control it and forget about everything else. Nothing
has happened yet; there are no horses or Indians. Then I see nature, the
pure country, but again, nothing's happened yet.
So you place the action, the characters, after the colors?
Many of your paintings seem to swirl, as if you are combining different
techniques. What are they?
(A) I use acrylic, mixed media. The gold powder I use mixes Eastern and
Western art. Western art uses pastel, softer colors. I use gold to highlight
and dark shades, like dark brown and blue. Western art doesn't use gold
Are there any other artists that have influenced you besides Van Gogh?
(A) Yeah. Monet and Gauguin, mainly Van Gogh, though.
An extremely powerful artist with amazing vision and scope, Giam
deliberately creates waves of motion with intoxicating colors that blend
East and West with spellbinding results. His diverse creativity offers
a stunning, ecstatic vision of nature. "A Spiritual Journey",
depicts two Native Americans crossing the wind swept Rockies. The figures
are small, almost miniscule. Giam concentrates on the vastness, inexplicable
beauty of the region. The painting is a silhouette of opposites, the overwhelming
power of nature juxtaposed with tender grace and beauty. His paintings
blend Western and Eastern Art with a master's stroke.
Fusion by Laura Klesper
not unusual for people to take a moment or longer to look at a painting
before deciding whether or not if they like it and if it interests them.
Looking at Truong Buu Giam’s paintings requires an extra moment,
but it is a moment you will never forget. A magical moment when you move
beyond just looking at the painting to when you suddenly begin to see
the painting. The moment when you realize that within the incredible mix
of colors, swirls and brush strokes there is something more.
As your eyes travel over the canvas taking in all the colors and shapes
laid before you, your brain is trying to catch up and to appreciate what
your eyes are discovering. “Look, there’s a horse! And here
. . . a fish! Yes, now I see a waterfall! “That is the true magic
of Truong’s artistic talent; his ability to put life into his paintings
by pulling the viewer in and letting them discover not only what he sees
within each one, but allowing them to discover their own vision of the
images before them. Bold, beautiful, exquisite, each of Truong’s
paintings are completely different from the others, yet all with one thing
in common - celebrating the beauty and splendor of nature in all her glory.
Although his artistic ability is inherent, Truong’s talent was not
developed without effort, nor without a price. At age 27 Truong left his
home and family in South Vietnam and emigrated to the United States via
the Philippines, where he waited for a host family to sponsor him. Assigned
to a family in Minnesota, Truong spoke only Vietnamese and French when
he arrived in the U.S., but his hosts welcomed him into their home and
into their life. Truong joined the church volleyball team, and soon became
friends with one of the players, who taught him to speak English. The
two remain friends to this day. Adjusting to his new life and his new
home was a challenge, but Truong’s outlook on life and his ability
to make the best of his situation would serve him well. “You have
to see it, to accept it, and you have to find a way to survive in a new
world,” he says philosophically. “When you lose everything
it’s easy to start over.”
Starting over is something that Truong Bun Giam has become accustomed
to doing, if not by choice, by necessity. After graduating with his degree
in Art from the National School of Fine Arts in Saigon, he joined the
South Vietnamese Navy, where he served for three years. After the war,
Truong realized that he could not return to his former home and country,
so in 1975 he and a number of his shipmates made their way to the Philippines.
This move meant leaving behind his mother, father, and twelve siblings,
but Truong felt he had no choice.
In effort to help Truong assimilate into his new life in Minnesota his
host family introduced him at church, telling the congregation that he
was a painter. Almost immediately Truong was offered a job - painting
houses! Glad for the opportunity, Truong accepted the job, but remained
determined not to give up his dream of being an artist. In his spare time
he continued drawing and painting, and earned extra money at Christmas
selling hand-painted Christmas cards. He returned to school, this time
to study commercial art, and eventually moved to California, where he
started his own printing business.
While running his printing business Truong had the chance to learn about
and to experiment with different types of ink, colors, and papers, and
found he could create incredible, fluid designs using different air and
brush techniques. With a world of color at his fingertips, Truong’s
work took a new and exciting turn, and as he skillfully blended technology
with his classical art training striking images began to emerge. “If
you can be open and free you will never get stuck,” Truong say,
admitting that it took many hours and many gallons of paint before he
began to understand how to control the color as he worked with it. “It’s
important to keep learning all your life,” he adds smiling.
“As an artist you put yourself into your painting. You see things
like no one else will ever see them, he continues. “To be different
from all other artists you have to make your own style.” Using all
the colors available to an artist, Truong Buu Giam has developed a style
and technique all his own. While he admits that some people find his work
too colorful, “I’m not afraid of color,” he declares,
adding “it’s about how you can make it more beautiful. That’s
Truong seems to have been predestined to be an artist. Born sixth in his
family, his arrival was celebrated by giving him a name that means “Preserving
the Precious and the Beautiful.” At this point in his life, having
come full circle to realizing his dream of being an artist, Truong’s
work is in itself a celebration.” I chose the hardest way, to be
an artist, but I’m happiest now.”
Has it been worth the price? Most definitely.
- Wildlife Art Magazine (May/June 2005) - Focus
on Habitat, pg 28-30
- "A Riot of Color" by Paul
- Truong Buu Giam, Personal interview by Mark
Fee (March, 2004)
- (Published in Great Falls Tribune, (March 18,
2004), republished subsequently in Latitude Magazine (March, 2005)
- Fee, Mark. M. Western Art Roundup: "Color,
motion reflect Asian view of the West."
- Great Falls Tribune (18 Mar. 2004), pg 17
- Fee, Mark M. "On the Canvas: 'Truong
Buu Giam, A Master's Stroke",
- Big Sky Airlines Latitude (Winter 2005), pg
- Klesper, Laura, Facets: Truong Buu Giam:
"Preserving the Precious and Beautiful",
- Wildlife Art (May/June 2000), pg 66, 67
- A fabulous introduction to the art of Truong
Buu Giam with material
- by Laura Klesper, Wildlife Art.
- Interview with vivid, evocative description
of Giam's art, including comments by
- Ruth Ann Thorn, Exclusive Galleries, La Jolla,
- Galleries, official web sites, and art associations
featuring Giam's art listed below: