The material is immaterial, says Binh Pho. His many mediums – and many collaborators – are all instrumental to the narrative.
The dragonfly is an important motif for Binh Pho. It’s a sturdy, blocky thing the way he makes it, with big, blank eyes. In Vietnam, where he grew up, the dragonfly is “a messenger of good news,” he says. Then his smile fades, and he adds, “It stands for a lot of things.”
Pho was one of the more than 400 people left behind in the United States embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, after the chaotic fall of the South Vietnamese capital, the ghastly last American act of the Vietnam War. The dragonfly will never stop reminding him of the helicopters that carried thousands of people to freedom that day – but not him. The hollows of its pierced shape, rising up the side of one of his wooden vessels, represent the negative space of his life, the horror of being left behind – a necessary counterpoint, he now believes, to the full-on realization of the American Dream that followed, once he finally managed to get away.
“When you experience the bad, you know the good,” he says, and his smile lights up again.
Today Pho, a youthful 60, is known for his distinctive turned vessels, painted and pierced with imagery reflecting his Asian roots, his journey to the West, and his love of nature. He has pieces in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the Museum of Arts and Design, and the Mint Museum, to name only a few.
Since 1997, Pho and his wife, Tuong-Vi, have lived with their two children in a home nestled in the cornfields outside Maple Park, Illinois, a village a couple of counties away from Chicago. Perhaps surprisingly, given the scope and success of his art career, Pho works full time as the national operations manager for Eaton Corp., a global powermanagement company. Every night he goes into his attached two-story studio, which he designed and built with help from friends, for several hours after dinner, and at least 14 hours on Saturdays, he says, with shorter days on Sundays.
He left Vietnam in 1978, one of the “boat people” who risked their lives to flee the regime that took over after the war. He had been trapped there for four years; his first attempt at escape failed, landing him in a Communist re-education camp. On his fourth attempt, he met Vi on the boat that took them down the Mekong – his “river of destiny,” Pho calls it – out to sea and all the way to Malaysia, where they stayed for eight months in a refugee camp before he emigrated to the United States. In St. Louis, Pho was reunited with family members who had escaped before the fall of Saigon.
He moved to Kansas City for college, enrolling at the Missouri Institute of Technology. In Vietnam, Pho had been an architecture student; in the States, he abandoned his dream of a creative career for what seemed like the more practical path of electronics. “I wanted to study something really quick, to make money,” he explains.
He and Vi, who had been living in California, reunited and married in 1987, settling in St. Louis. She bought him a table saw as an early gift, and for a while, Pho satisfied his artistic impulses making furniture and knickknacks. Then, in 1992, he saw a demonstration by John Jordan, the renowned woodturner. He was hooked.
He joined the American Association of Woodturners, bought a lathe, and a few months afterward, found woodturner Fletcher Hartline – “the best teacher ever,” Pho says. He has a snapshot of Hartline, who died in 2002, tacked up on a strut in his studio, alongside photographs of other loved ones who have died – the Canadian turner Frank Sudol (also a mentor), his mother, an old friend.
Making art has become a way for Pho to tell and retell his story, both directly and in dream-like metaphors. An accomplished turner, he now combines various woodworking methods with airbrush painting, cast glass, and other mediums as needed. “The material is immaterial,” Pho says. “I want to be known as an artist – or a storyteller. The instrument shouldn’t matter.”
He shifts among mediums accordingly. Pho associates wood, which is “always moving,” with an inner life, “emotion, feeling, and soul”; glass, by comparison, is “flashy,” representing the material world.
“I use glass when I want to show human ambition,” Pho explains. “Glass, metal, fiber – I need all that to create the narrative. I want to put my feelings into my art. Every artist has an expression he wants to tell the world.”
Often that very personal expression is a starting point to collaborate with others. Pho partnered with other makers for the first time in 2000, as a participant in the Emma Lake International Collaboration, a residency for artists in the forests of Saskatchewan. He has joined forces with so many other artists since then, he says, he’s lost count.
He’ll meet people at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, where he first went as a student in 1994 and where he now teaches from time to time, and at the annual SOFA expo in Chicago, where galleries have shown his work – basically anywhere, and any way, inspiration strikes. He has worked with metal-caster Ron Gerton, basketweaver Patti Quinn Hill, fiber artist Kay Khan, ceramist Richard Flores, other wood artists (Alain Mailland, Hans Weissflog, Joey Richardson, and Graeme Priddle), painter Annette Barlow, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, writer Kevin Wallace, who is also director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai, California. He and Wallace have written and illustrated two books so far, with a third in the planning stages.
River of Destiny (2006), Pho and Wallace’s first book, is a straightforward account of Pho’s dramatic journey to America, illustrated with Pho’s artwork; the second, Shadow of the Turning (2012), is a fantastical fiction, a love story shot through with themes that recur in Pho’s work, such as the balance between success and failure, good and evil – life’s yin and yang. Pho created works for each book, which became exhibitions curated by Wallace. “Shadow of the Turning” closed out its nationwide tour this past January at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.
Within their unusual artistwriter partnership, there is space for other collaboration as well. One piece Pho made for Shadow of the Turning, titled Festival of Fire, involved Wallace, Hill, and Flores. Pho remembers taking a basket Hill sent him, cutting it in half, painting the insides, and affixing the pieces to two sides of the large work. It wasn’t what Hill had expected.
“She didn’t like it at first,” he says with a laugh. But as she saw the work come together, she came around, he says.
“I think for Pho, working with people in other media is an extension of his desire to extend the media he works in, to push at the very limits of what that is,” Wallace says. “He always wants to do what is impossible. That’s his stepping-off point.”
Wallace and Pho’s newest project will explore Pho’s story once again, but this time, it will use the lens of Vietnamese history and culture. That heritage, Pho says, has been on his mind ever since filmmaker Rory Kennedy interviewed him for her Academy Award-nominated documentary, Last Days in Vietnam (2014), about the fall of Saigon. As he toured with Kennedy to publicize the film, he reflected on the centurieslong struggle of the Vietnamese people, fighting one invader after another, carrying their culture forward in spite of obstacles. “Those four years I struggled, I learned so much,” he reflects. “I never take this freedom for granted, because I’ve been to the other side.”
Now that his two children are grown and off to college, Pho says, he has more time to really dive into his work. There’s the collaboration with Wallace, for which Pho is focusing on Vietnamese mythology, plus workshops to teach and demonstrations to give, including at the Mid Atlantic Woodturning Symposium this September. At this point, he could make a living from his art, but Pho – drawn to tell his story again and again – prefers the freedom of not having to.
“If I need this or that detail to tell the story, I can take the time,” he says. “I can do what the work needs to have done.”
Delia O’Hara is a Chicago-based freelance writer.