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My parents owned a hand-textile business. Weaving Fiber Art had been a part of my life since I was a young girl in Vietnam. I remember weaving, threading, and spinning the thread on a bobbin, and then placing them in the shuttle for my parents to weave in the Jacquard Loom. I would have to make hundreds of these per day. I remember watching my father create beautiful silk fabrics decorated with flowers, while wishing to one day, be able to become that talented.
In my early years, we had no electricity, so there was no television or radio to entertain us. I would hang around the local craft shops to watch and learn about sewing, knitting, embroideries, and other crafts. I then, as I do now, tried to continue the Oriental tradition.
When hand-textile shops gave way to electric operated factories, in the mid-sixties, my father and I went to work for a textile factory. I worked at night for money while going to school during the day. I performed much of the same work that I had performed for my parents during the previous forty years.
Ultimately, the American military presence in Vietnam was so great, and the opportunities so plentiful, I left the textile factory to take work at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It was there that I met and married an American civilian named Richard Redmond. We soon had a daughter we named Kim. Kim is a model prominently featured in many of my artworks.
We left Vietnam for the United States a couple of years later and settled in Rick’s home state of Missouri. Sadly I lost Rick in a car accident in 1972. Now, I found myself a single mother in a foreign land with an infant child. Kim and I spent an additional three years in Missouri, saving some money to enter the next stages of our lives, me acquiring a college education. An old friend persuaded me to move to Sarasota. One experience with the cultural centers, climate, sunshine, and white sandy beaches was enough to convince me to stay.
In 1975, Vietnam fell to the communist government. My brothers, and sisters, were forced to endure re-education and/or labor camps. Ho Chi Minh was dead, and his successors prison, killed and tortured many Southern military and citizens. The new government eventually realized that waging war on its own citizens did not make a prosperous nation. The citizens were poorer than they had ever been. Because of the estranged relationships between the American and Vietnamese governments, I was not allowed to send financial aid to my family. The economy was in shambles and the populace suffered. After the collapse of much of the communist world in 1989, the Vietnamese government made the decision to open up much of the government, society, and culture to the rest of the world. This meant travel visas being approved for the first time in fifteen years.
I revisited my family and former home in 1990. My family and most of the other citizens lived in poverty. My brothers and sisters were working at hard labor for barely a dollar per day. Because of my interest in the ancient art of embroidery and my own mother’s deteriorating physical condition, I commissioned my sister to leave her job and make a full time career of caring for our mother and having her and her children work and earn a salary creating embroideries for me.
By then, I had remarried. My new husband Ed Gerwe and I had a daughter of our own named Erika. She also, is the model for many of my artworks. It is a challenge to juggle the responsibilities of marriage, motherhood, employment, and simple everyday tasks while at the same time creating all of the pictures that I have in my mind that I want to create.
I began composing my pictures to be made into embroideries. These started out as sketches, photographs, parts of paintings, and collages that I would send to my sister To-Lan. To-Lan and my young nieces would re-create my pictures in thread. Unfortunately, I found that the early embroideries emerged as being too mechanical. There was not enough subtle detail so I decided to paint my own works to breathe life into our embroideries.
`I studied under a local artist and art teacher named Suzanne Beck. I painted with oil, water color, and acrylics. I attended various courses at the Art Center and the Ringling School of Art. By means of paint, I was able to employ a full spectrum of colors and achieve the look I wanted. The better my paintings, the finer the embroideries become.
When my paintings are completed, I photograph them and send multiple photos to To-Lan who plans, composes, and ultimately reproduces the picture with cotton, silk, rayon, or metallic thread, with the help of her young apprentices. Various threads are used to create the illusion of shading or detail. The completed embroidery requires between five-hundred and twelve-hundred hours to be completed, depending on the difficulty or complexity of the subject. The completed effort make for an item of unparalleled beauty and demonstrates that the ancient techniques that have been prized in the East for thousands of years still have a place in today’s modern world.
Sadly, To-Lan and I lost our mom in July of 2009. Everything came to a halt. We are in a process of mourning. The loss is felt more severely by To-Lan who spent the last forty years caring for her. I myself regret that I had not seen mom during last four years of her life.
To-Lan and I had collaborated for nearly twenty years on pictures to make into embroideries. I now asked her to take a rest and come visit me in the United States. After a time of mourning for the loss of our mother, she agrees. This agreement to visit the U.S. coincides with the opening of the invitation, to show the two sisters’ embroideries in the show at the Art Center.
Meanwhile, the economy is booming in Vietnam. Foreign investors are taking advantage of inexpensive labor costs in Vietnam. It is hard to keep our young apprentices interested in making embroideries while they are tempted to work at factories that will pay higher wages once they become of age. The older workers want to retire. We fear that soon our continuation of the creation of these fine pieces may become impossible.
For the same twenty years, I have also created Fiber Arts by means of hand-painted, hand-sewn silk men’s neckties and women’s scarves. We design and paint these amazing items as homage to old masters or from the inspiration of my own paintings. Together, To-Lan and I represent nearly a century of experience in creating art and design in fabric.
We have been featured in several local art exhibits. In 1999, we were bestowed with the high honor of receiving an invitation to be an exhibitor at the Florida Invitational Exhibition which is limited to ten exhibitors and is only held once per decade.
In this day, I prefer to paint. As a child in wartime Vietnam, I enjoyed dreaming. Dreams have shaped me into who I am today. My mind is bursting with pictures yet to be composed, painted, and embroidered. I believe that a measure of my success comes from the fact that my paintings are created with feeling and that the measure of the “heart and soul” which I bring to them breathes into them a manner of life. Each passing day represents another episode in a never-ending story for me to paint.