Painting a bird flying in the moonlight reminds Tam Mai of his mom, who married young and lived a difficult life in poverty. Brush strokes detail a small boatman crossing a large river and make Mai reflect on how he forsook his teachers as a child. Mixing the reds, oranges and yellows of fall leaves give him strength. A brightly colored landscape brings to his mind the romantic dreams he wants to accomplish with his wife.
These and a dozen other Mai paintings are on display in the Leu Art Gallery where on Monday the University hosted a reception for Mai, a Wheeler Hall custodian.
Mai, who has worked at Belmont for a decade, immigrated to Nashville as a political refugee. He speaks little English but with fellow custodians and his son, a Belmont alumnus, working as translators, he addressed the Belmont community during the reception.
“He’s really excited. He never had a chance to draw in our country,” said Kim La, the Freeman Hall custodian, who translated.
Kim described her and Mai’s families as “black flowers” in Vietnam. Because their parents worked for the former capitalist government, staying in the country during the current communist government threatened their lives. Mai sold bicycles in Vietnam before coming to the United States and earning U.S. citizenship five years ago.
“He always dreamed to have paintings but he didn’t have the opportunity back then. But after living here for a while, he got the inspiration from professors,” said Mai’s son Vinh Mai, who studied chemistry at Belmont before graduating in 2011. “He felt the love of Belmont touched his heart, so he takes from his heart and spreads the love with his paint brush.”
During his free time, Mai would look at the College of Arts & Sciences webpages and sketch portraits from faculty’s professional photographs. Soon, many of faculty and staff around the college were hanging Mai’s drawings in their offices.
When Mai was transferred to Pembroke Hall, he painted the humanities buildings from his view across The Quad. Meanwhile, College of Arts & Sciences faculty and staff wrote letters to get him working in Wheeler Hall again.
Mai’s gallery is part of the 2013 Humanities Symposium, which is centered on the theme “Encountering Otherness” and parallels the 2013-14 University theme of “Through the Eyes of Others.” The Humanities Symposium seeks to stimulate intellectual conversation through its 31 events, which together will engage in a week-long conversation designed to increase interactions with different cultures, religions, political views and historical understandings to dislodge the default view and open students to broader understanding.
“Essentially we want people to think about what kind of learning takes place when people of different backgrounds come together. Here we see Tam’s view of Belmont and his view of his homeland through his paintings,” said Associate Professor of English Cynthia Cox, who is chairing the symposium.
Tam’s art gallery “Life & Love” will remain on display in the Leu Art Gallery through Sept. 30.