“Angel,” a 2014 mixed-media work by Ann Phong. She often uses discarded electronics like phones and computers as materials. (Courtesy of Ann Phong)

Finding beauty in the discarded

The identity of Vietnamese people who fled Vietnam by boat and risked their lives in the ocean is one of the subjects of Ann Phong’s pieces. Phong is a visual artist and adjunct professor in the art department at Cal Poly Pomona. 

In her work, Phong views herself like the ocean — being both still and calm, courageous and tempestuous — and remembers that life isn’t always perfect. She visualizes this in her detailed paintings to portray the flaws of the world that are out of our control. 

Phong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as Saigon, in southern Vietnam. She speaks of her childhood and adolescence in Vietnam, witnessing the Vietnam War and hearing the bombs and all of the traumatic incidents that took place. 

Her upbringing in a communist country influenced her to pursue art and she applied to the only art university in Vietnam but was denied acceptance twice. 

Peddling along the streets of Vietnam, she saw rich people sleeping on the streets because the Communists confiscated rich people’s property and kicked them out of their homes. At that moment she realized that there was no future for her there. 

After facing rejection twice, she decided to get her teaching credential and become a high school teacher where she was able to connect with students in a positive way. 

She would tell stories that weren’t communist stories like “Snow White” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” 

In her early 20s, there were many times Phong tried to escape, but couldn’t make it. But when one of her 13-year-old students asked her to escape with her, she accepted. 

“In Vietnam at that time, not many people escaped with their whole family because they worried if they couldn’t make it, they couldn’t come back, and there would be no house to live in. So, one person had to sacrifice to keep the house,” Phong said. 

It took them three days on a boat filled with strangers to Malaysia to reach the seashore, where she spent a year living at a refugee camp. 

One of Phong’s sisters escaped before her, so she had her church in Connecticut sponsor her. 

Her first year in America changed her significantly. From being a child living in Vietnam to being on her own and learning how to survive.    

Because of the 40-degree weather difference in Connecticut, she decided to move to California.

Living in Vietnam, she learned Chinese, Vietnamese and French, and coming to America meant she had to overcome language barriers. 

As a first-generation immigrant she had to make a living for herself, so she became a dental assistant because she was good with her hands from being an artist. 

One day on her way to work, someone ran a red light and crashed into her. She ended up in the hospital. 

“I told myself I wasn’t happy. I escaped a desperate situation in Vietnam to look for a better future for the freedom,” Phong said. 

When she left the hospital, she dropped the dental program and went to Cal Poly Pomona and majored in fine art; she didn’t understand what the teacher was saying, but she knew what he wanted.

“My friend and my professor at that time teased me; you’re a late bloomer because I was old enough to be a professor, but I was a student,” Phong said. 

She made a commitment to herself and knew that the path she chose wouldn’t be an easy one. 

She repeated the phrase “I could do it” under her breath when it came to following her passion. 

While attending school she showcased her art at galleries, so she had enough confidence to be an artist before graduating. Then, Phong went to Cal State Fullerton to complete her Master of Fine Arts. 

Working with dark and light brush strokes, she starts a lot of her paintings with identity. 

“Human Traces On Earth” (2015), an acrylic mixed media by Ann Phong. (Courtesy of Ann Phong)

Different paintings reflect different stages of being; it reflects aspects of her personality. 

“I see the Pacific Ocean saved me, because of the ocean I could get out. So, in my paintings there is a lot of oceans,” Phong said. 

Her mother used to always tell her she talked too much and doesn’t listen. However, when she came to America, she used her voice as an advantage. She could speak up vocally, as well as with her visual art. 

She has exhibited her art more than 150 times across the world in galleries and museums, including a recent solo show at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton. She created art revolving around identity for 20 years, so she decided to shift her focus to the material life in America. 

Phong realized that the proper ways of disposing of material are different in Vietnam than in America, where we use plastic with one-time single use. 

She wanted to raise awareness of this issue, so she did so through her art. 

With discarded objects that she collects — mostly household objects, such as cell phones and computers — she saves them and takes out all the parts to reuse them and recompose them into paintings. 

“I want to tell people these objects won’t disappear on Earth; if we throw them away, we can sell them to the poor countries.” Phong said. “The more material we produce, the more trash we will have in the future.”

“Angel,” a 2014 mixed-media work by Ann Phong. She often uses discarded electronics like phones and computers as materials. (Courtesy of Ann Phong)

Looking back on all of the struggles she went through, Phong is proud of her accomplishments. 

“Ann is amazing to work with, very appreciative, humble and willing to help students or anyone who comes through her path,” said Patricia Martinez, administrative coordinator of the art department. Martinez adds, “She’s a phenomenal teacher that invites you in her classroom no matter who you are, sharing everything she knows.” 

Martinez has known Phong since she came to the department in 2006.

Phong is currently teaching at Cal Poly Pomona and continues to make a difference in students’ lives by pushing them to take art seriously and work very hard.

Celia Lopez, a former student of Phong’s, was encouraged by Phong to be committee chair of the Fine Arts Senior Show when she attended CPP.

Lopez said she learned so much through that experience about opening an art show that if it wasn’t for Phong, she would not have stepped into that position. 

She now works at an art museum in educational programming and Lopez thanks Phong for pushing her out of her comfort zone.  

“One valuable thing she taught me is to sharpen your pencil! Pay attention to every tiny detail, but also don’t lose sight of the big picture,” Lopez said. “I am forever in debt to Ann Phong for all that she has done and continues to do for me through her teachings.”

Phong says she believes she can go through any moment in her life and she won’t feel any regret and will have her art left over when she disappears on Earth.

Ann Phong’s visual art will continue to connect with people through time across all generations. 

Phong’s work was on display through March 10 in the exhibit “March 1st Movement,” at the Proxy Place Gallery in Chatsworth. 

She will also have a solo exhibition from May 14 through the end of June that emphasizes the environment at Fourth Element Gallery in Santa Ana.

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