In the Titan Student Union, a vibrant canvas emblazoned with red and gold paint rests in the hallway near the information center, glowing under a reflective glass frame and lit by bronze candlesticks painted on the bottom.
The painting, which was bought by Cal State Fullerton in 1995, holds a place in the artwork collection that lines the walls of the TSU. But the story behind the artist doesn’t start there.
An artist’s cursive signature occupies a dark corner of the painting. It reads: Ann Phong.
Phong was born in South Vietnam and grew up in what was previously known as Saigon, but is now known as Ho Chi Minh city. While she was in high school in 1975, the South Vietnamese government collapsed under North Vietnam.
Phong said her family stayed in their home because they hoped they would be safe among the locals there.
She then decided to pursue her love for art by applying to the only art school in South Vietnam, but was rejected twice.
Phong changed her approach on pursuing art, instead choosing to get her teaching credentials. She spent her days telling her junior high and high school students fairytales they never got to learn, such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Snow White.”
At the age of 22, Phong escaped. She travelled from the city to the countryside of Vietnam to meet with a 13-year-old student she had grown close to, as well as a group of people.
When she got there, she found out that her student had been caught and put in prison.
“The night we escaped was a night that had no moon, nothing. It was so dark that the police couldn’t catch us. That’s how we got out of Vietnam,” Phong said.
The shoreline of Malaysia was the first thing Phong saw after three days at sea. Here, she would spend the next year of her life in a refugee camp. She wrote to her older sister, who had escaped three years prior to her, in hopes of moving to the United States.
The Turning Point
Phong moved to Connecticut after being sponsored by her older sister’s church, but once she realized how cold the weather was, she flew to California in 1982.
The biggest barrier for her was language. Over the course of her life, she learned Chinese, Vietnamese and French, but when she arrived to America she had to relearn everything in English.
When she first arrived in California, she made a living as a dental assistant. The job was something that she felt she was adept at because of her artists’ hands.
Not long after she accepted her boss’ proposition to go to school to become a dentist, she was in a car accident that hospitalized her.
Phong said she reflected on her unhappiness in the hospital, focusing on how she risked her life to come to America. In that moment, she said that if she were to die at the hospital, she would die unhappy.
This ultimatum inspired her to change her major to art when she got out of the hospital. She moved from Cal State Long Beach to Cal Poly Pomona, where she would later teach.
“I just think Ann is an incredible person. She’s been through a lot and yet she’s managed to really survive,” said Barbara Thomason, a retired part-time lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona who shared an office with Phong for close to 20 years.
Phong currently teaches at Cal Poly Pomona. Before she started teaching there, however, she went to Cal State Fullerton for her M.F.A.
As a graduate student, Phong perused through CSUFs library in search of something that would shed light on the American perspective of Vietnamese people. She found magazines that labeled them “boat people.”
This offensive term prompted her to look into her own identity for her thesis. She explored the notion of what it meant to be a “boat person” and expressed that in her artwork.
Much of Phong’s art revolves around her 3-day journey to Malaysia, which caused her to fear the ocean for the first three years in California.
“I couldn’t face the ocean at night because I was scared. I knew that at night when I was in the ocean if I fell down from the boat, nobody would have noticed anything happened. I would perish,” she said.
The ocean is now a regular subject in her work. Phong said her personality reflected the temperament of the ocean; her happiness is represented by glistening colors and her anger portrayed through violent brushstrokes.
Phong graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 1995 and continued to paint about self-identity until ten years ago when she changed her subject to environmental waste.
Along the way, Phong joined the Vietnamese American Arts and Letter Association (VAALA), where she met Ysa Le, executive director of VAALA.
Le has worked with Phong since 2007 on various projects for VAALA, including a children’s art event. She said that Phong is someone she considered to be her big sister because of her artistic talent and wisdom.
Today, Phong teaches at Cal Poly Pomona. She comes back to Cal State Fullerton to visit the art gallery and Mike McGee, a professor in the department of visual arts.
“To me, I look back and I’m one of the boat people. I escaped with pride. Between life and death I had to choose, fifty-fifty, and I made it,” said Phong.
Her paintings are filled with tantalizing color, but she said she hopes people will look beneath their surface layers and try to find her.