From Rural American Girl to Art Impresario in Vietnam
As I grew up in rural Kansas, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams the course that my life would take. My journey to becoming an art dealer living in Hanoi is an example of the serendipity of life and taking leaps of faith even if they seem daunting!
As a young woman, after studying Art History and Interior Design at Kansas State University, in 1975 I moved to New York City to establish an interior design career. Shortly after moving to NYC I met the love of my life and in 1984 I followed him to Japan. We spent many happy years in Tokyo—I learned about contemporary art, studied Kanji (a system of Japanese writing using Chinese characters) and did voiceover translations for Kabuki and Bunraku theater. This was a golden age for Japan with a booming economy. Life was good.
But in 1992 my world was turned upside down when my husband unexpectedly passed away. Not only was this emotionally devastating, but many practical aspects of my life were also upended: visas, insurance and other necessities depended on my husband’s work. I decided to leave Japan and set out on a nomadic journey taking me from Shanghai to Beijing, Bangkok to Chiang Mai, searching for a new purpose for my life. I tried fashion, for some time collaborating with a designer in Beijing, but found it wasn’t satisfying or sustainable. I was trying to find something powerful, a big passion to build my life upon.
The New Beginning
Next came a momentous turning point in my life: Two months before my visa, work permit and housing contract were to expire, a dear friend who was a producer for CBS news in Tokyo came for tea.
She brought with her a newspaper article from her recent trip to Vietnam. The article was about Vietnam’s newly developing contemporary art scene and specifically a group of artists known as the “Gang of Five”.
They were five young, incredibly hip, handsome young men, and I just thought “Wow.” At that point, I knew little about Vietnam, other than the shared sad history with the US but I did have a dream. My husband and I had always talked about setting up an artists’ colony, where we could live and work with artists and when I read this article, I could imagine it.
I had a romantic vision of taking one of those achingly beautiful crumbling old French villas in Hanoi and restoring it; having a salon complete with a grand piano inviting artists and poets, musicians and writers to come and share their visions and dreams in this exotic and exciting new city. Soon thereafter, in December of 1993, I called my moving company and said, “Pack me up, I am moving to Hanoi!”
Diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US had not been fully established then so I secured a visa under my identity as a resident of Japan. It was only a six-week visa and that was the case for some time—numerous six-week visas.
I landed in Hanoi in January, 1994 and my new life began.
At that time, Hanoi had three restaurants, no electricity for much of the day and few telephones. Waking up my first morning on a damp, cold gray day, I was feeling anxious and sad..wondering what in the world was I doing in this strange country where I knew nothing, no one.
All of a sudden I looked down from my hotel room and saw an old Vietnamese man with a long trailing white beard, pedaling ever so slowly and in the front seat of his cyclo, instead of a passenger he carried a bright white architectural model of some futuristic new building. It was like watching the future being pedaled by the past. I was encouraged, knowing that my timing was perfect. Vietnam was just emerging into the world after long years of poverty, struggle and isolation.
I thought immediately I must get out and see what this city is all about. The only tourist site I knew at that time was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
As I gazed down at the legendary leader I saw his wonderful bright brown eyes that reminded me of my husband. I simply felt, right then, that I was meant to be here.
Then in a lucky twist of fate, while strolling around in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in back of the mausoleum on that day, a young Vietnamese man living in New Zealand approached me. I was so happy to have someone to talk to in English. We started talking about dreams, our passions. He had left Hanoi at the age of 7 and at 25 he had just come back for his first visit. He spoke of his dream to come back to explore his childhood and do something to help his motherland.
I told him my dream of starting an artists’ salon. As luck would have it, all of a sudden he blurted out, “Oh you must come and have lunch with me and my friend I am living with, Pham Quang Vinh, one of the Gang of Five.”
I had lunch with Vinh’s family and then he took me to meet Ha Tri Hieu, another one of the artists at his studio. My journey with the “Gang of Five” had begun.
I was excited by the art I was discovering and began to get in touch with contacts in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok, showing photographs of Vietnamese works to curators and dealers around the world. In 1997, I curated my first exhibition entitled “The Changing Face of Hanoi” in Hong Kong, sponsored by Hongkong Land, in Exchange Square, to expose Vietnamese art to a wider audience. After that I presented art in art fairs and exhibitions in the US and Europe, and these artists began to garner international recognition and acclaim.
In 2002, I opened my first public gallery—Art Vietnam—in the first of what would eventually be three locations. It seems that I’ve had to move every five years.
In 2017, I moved back to my current space—which is also my home– in the least likely of locations, a decidedly local area. The benefit of that is that people only come here if they are serious about art—it attracts those who really care about what’s being produced by these established and more emerging artists. Even Mick Jagger has visited! I designed and built the space in 1994-96 which was a traditional country house that one of the Gang of Five artists helped to disassemble in the country and reconstruct in Hanoi. To complete my vision for an arts center, I have a grand piano on the main floor where musicians come to hone their skills and perform. We have book and poetry readings, small exhibitions and concerts, the dream has begun.
It has been not only a very exciting, challenging and amazing journey, but I think what I have learned about life and about myself has just been the most marvelous intellectual exercise that I could have ever experienced. I believe in having a dream and going for it if it feels right to you in your heart. I went to Hanoi knowing nothing about the city and with no friends there. Now I have a wonderful, fulfilling life here and feel great satisfaction knowing I have helped artists to achieve their dreams as well.
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