LIVING WITH ART, EVERY DAY By Jennifer Bauman (Orange County Register) May 29, 1999.



When two prolific artists live in the same household, people have to compete with paintings for space.

At the Westminster home of Be Ky Nguyen, 61, and her husband, Duc Thanh Ho, 59, the living room walls are hidden by a combination of Be Ky's "one-stroke" ink drawings and complex collages pieced together by Duc. Their car sits in the driveway because the garage is full of completed artwork.

The world-renown artists even jostle for space in an enclosed patio, which doubles as their studio.

Be Ky motions to a colorful collection of paper scraps and says, "Duc" She points at a pile of paint, glue and lacquer and again says, "Duc" She dodges a large canvas, also part of his territory. When she reaches a small corner with a box of brushes and a bottle of China ink, she giggles and says, "Be Ky."

Her drawings appear as simple as her tools, bold black in on paper or silk. A closer look reveals an intricate plan behind the simplicity. In one picture of a mother carrying her child, the line that creates the infant's tiny hand flows uninterrupted to become the mother's profile.

The petite artist was a child prodigy in Vietnam who rose to international fame as a teen-ager, selling her sketches on the streets of Saigon. Be Ky's life as an orphan in the war-torn country was full of hardship, yet she avoids the sadness and poverty in her drawings.

Instead, her art filled with caricatures of children playing, women smiling and mother embracing happy babies. "The drawings represent the life I wish I had as a child," Be Ky says. "I want to express the hope for a happier life."

Duc's art offers a distinct contrast to his wife's intuitive spontaneity. His collages are intricate, somber and full of metaphors. Thousands of carefully torn pieces of paper are glued to a canvas to create color and texture. It's a technique Duc adopted as an art student, too poor to buy paint. The atrocities of war still haunt him, so he uses layers of lacquer to seal in his palpable pain.

The couple met when Be Ky attended an exhibition of Duc's artwork in 1964. Love developed gradually after the two learned they were both orphans, joined by a common bond of loneness. They married the next year and prospered, raising a family of four. Good fortune and freedom of expression ended when North Vietnam conquered the South in 1975. Communist officials prescribed socialist-realism and ordered artists glorify workers. Duc and Be Ky refused to compromise.

They felt art without emotion was dishonest, so they decided to leave their homeland. An unsuccessful attempt to flee by boat landed Duc in prison for two years. Be Ky and the children lived in poverty, surviving on rotten fish and salvaged vegetables. A severe hearing loss, suffered when she was abused by one of her mentors, became the family's key to freedom. In 1989, the Vietnamese government allowed them to leave the country for medical treatment.

Be Ky adjusts the volume on her hearing aid as she tells how grateful she is America has given her the opportunity to develop her talents. One of her artworks is on a worldwide tour, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Duc is preparing for one-man art show in December. He says he's been more productive since coming to Orange County because there's easy access to richer materials and freedom to express his feelings. Some optimism even appears in his most current work. The couple's talents have been passed to their children. Oldest son Cao, 33, uses oil paints to create landscapes. Daughter Thu, 32, remains in Vietnam, where she draws and paints on silk. Cung, 30, set up an easel in his parents' living room where he paints in an Impressionist style, banned in Ho Chi Minh City. Their youngest daughter, Diane HaiDuong, 28, says living with two of Vietnam's leading artists is like "having a museum at home."

As a child, the people in the paintings became part of her dreams and created an extended family. "Every time my parents would sell a lot of paintings, we were happy for the money, but sad because we missed them." When money allows, Be Ky and Duc would like to have a larger house and an art gallery. For now, they work elbow-to-elbow in their three-bedroom home. The artists insist that their ideas come first, so space doesn't matter.

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Young girl

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Love and tenderness

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Women and affection

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Stone face