Pham The Trung never imagined he’d receive an Award of Merit from the City of Toronto when he escaped from Vietnam 1980.
But 27 years later, the renowned artist and sculptor is one of 10 people being recognized for their accomplishments.
On Civic Honours Day, March 6, Pham’s actions and the impact he’s made through his work will be recognized with an Award of Merit from Mayor Barbara Hall at City Hall.
“I was very surprised. When I’m working, I’m working because I enjoy myself,” he explains.
Born in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam in 1957, Pham’s artistic skills began to shine at an early age. By eight, he was drawing and sculpting.
He studied at the Saigon University of Fine Arts and, in 1979, taught students at Petrus Ky Secondary School.
In 1980, he and his younger brother escaped Vietnam by boat. He stayed in a refugee camp in Thailand for five months before being asylum in Canada. In 1983, Pham became a Canadian citizen.
“Canadians – they appreciate their freedom. They appreciate the talent, not like in communist countries,” he explains.
“In Vietnam, when you’re making a statement, you write about things, paint it, sculpt it – whatever. But (the government) doesn’t want that. Lots of people are in prison because they’re against the way the communists are ruling.”
Pham lived in Stratford for a year before moving to Toronto where he lives today.
“Stratford’s a nice place, but Toronto offers more functions and exhibitions,” said Pham.
Escape to Freedom, the artist’s most famous sculpture and his favorite, was erected in Ottawa in 1995. The bronze sculpture of a mother carrying her child commemorates the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
“The Vietnamese back home don’t like my sculpture.” said Pham. “Communists don’t wan’t history. They don’t want to make a statement like we have to do.”
He says the sculpture is a monument to the human spirit and the struggle for freedom. The woman is running from the enermy behind her and before her lies hope. She carries her son because, “when you’re running to escape, all you take with you is your child.”
The little boy represents the future, he says. She can die, but she will live on with him forever.
“Sculpture is symbolism. You have to understand who captured her,” explains Pham. “You have to understand why Vietnamese people escape.”
A lot of his inspiration is drawn from his life and future vision.
“When I feel a certain way, I use a difference medium,” he said. “when I want to capture a large crowd, I’ll paint. But if I lide the sculpture, I’ll sculp it.”
Like many artists, he likes to try different things. He might use plaster for one sculpture and bronze for another and sometimes he paints with water colours.
“Nobody teaches you – that’s creation,” he said. “You can’t learn one thing and not the other. They go together.”
The time it takes to finish a sculpture depends on its size and, to him, it’s like building a house.
“When you build a home, you need a frame. The same with sculpture,” he laughs. “With sculptures, express your feelings.”
Pham’s work has been displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Safe Haven exhibition, the 1996 Junction Arts Festival and even graced former Minister Lily Munro’s greeting cards. He’s also had his work featured on a CD-ROM, True North Arrivals II.
These days, he’s working on a Trubute to Canada and Freedom, featuring 10 well-known Canadians casts in bronze.
“Some have died and some are still alive. It’s important we don’t wait until they die to recognize them,” he said.
So far, Pierre Trudeau, Jeanne Suave and Lincoln Alexander have been sculptured. Others include David Suzuki, Wayne Gretzky and Donovan Bailey.
“(My vision is to) capture culture in Canada at the same time I’m here,” said Pham. “There have been a lot of important people before I arrived, but these ar the people who have had an impact on my life.
“I’ve been inspire by their actions.”
Would the artist change his life if he could?
“I’d continue doing it the way I’m doing,” said Pham. “I love art.”