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Inspiration, Roots and Memory: An interview with Sayon Syprasoeuth

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Little Laos on the Prairie has enjoyed the work of Lao American artist Sayon Syprasoeuth for quite some time now. His journey to the US reminds us of the enormous complexity of the Lao diaspora, with many of his early years spent in Cambodia prior to coming to the US.

A graduate from California State University Long Beach, he received his Master in Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University in 2007. Sayon Syprasoeuth was born in Cambodia and raised in Thai refugee camps. His family came to the US in 1979. His art incorporates memories, spirituality, nature and culture.

He’s very interested in social hybrids and cross-cultural references, often combining Eastern sources with Western sensibilities. He has shown in Phnom Penh, Berlin, China, Los Angeles and throughout the United States.

He was recently appointed to the Board of Directors of the Long Beach Arts Council, and many of our readers had a chance to meet him during the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit in Minneapolis this year. He currently resides in Southern California, and you can view more of his work at www.sayonart.com 

We talked with him about his inspirations and his hopes for our community.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in art? What’s a part of your family’s story in coming to America that lingers with you the most?

Gladly.  I came to the United States, to Elkader, Iowa when I was 9 years old. As a child I think creativity and curiosity about the world fuel my artistic side. Plus I think I’m just weird, I also talk to aliens and invisible things.

The part of my family coming to America was really fun. The most important thing I kept seeing and hearing in my mind is the positive family outlook my parents and my siblings had when we first arrived in Iowa. We had the attitude of enjoying and figuring things out about White people, their language and the ways of life in America. Like when they would call each other “you turkey!” We would have a huge laugh about it because, why would one call another person a bird?

What was it like growing up in Cambodia? And what are some of the ways you feel it affects your approach to creating art and being a part of the community?

Growing up in Cambodia was fun and a peaceful time until the war in 1975. Hearing bombs and gunfire off in the distance was unsettling. The bombs in the distance left everyone in the village on edge.

This is a hard question.  I want to make work that invoke curiosity but yet not blatant or contrive.  I think the Lao and Cambodian community is making a huge stride in working and supporting each other.  Many folks still carry old baggage from the past with them, but overall I think if we artists, writers, activists continue to make progress by leading in a positive way to share our work and change people’s perceptions, perhaps their hearts will loosen up and see what good change we are trying to do.

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Do you prefer tea or coffee?

I like both! I drink coffee in the morning and tea when I’m with calm people or before bed.

What’s your least favorite trend in modern art these days?

Ugh. I can’t stand re-hashing conceptualism in paintings today. I feel taken for fool and I don’t buy it. Do us all a favor and give us the straight talk, please! I think the art community does it to make money. But c’mon, we are artists let’s try to discover and create something new for Christ’s sake!

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What’s a skill you picked up which was unexpectedly useful in your art?

I really want to say “my ability to bullshit. But that only goes so far.” Seriously though, I think having people skills. The ability to connect and share your personal story behind your work and what it means make the work intelligible, and it opens up understanding and the people can relate to it.

What keeps you motivated as an artist?

Various things: people, events, travel, movies especially. I love being motivated by leaving a theatre and going home feeling like I can contribute to the greater good through creation and out of that object, inspire others. If God created us, would it be fair to say we are also Gods?

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What’s something you might change about our understanding of our culture What’s a value you’d preserve?

I might change the way we think as a community that came from having very little, fear, ego-centric to helping and foster understanding of one another and see the greater opportunities we all have available to us today.

I value family and our roots of family, friends and community.  I think being in this country, we can easily forget how important that is in bringing everyone close together. Let’s not forget where we came from and what our cultures really mean in terms of love and connectivity.

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What’s your favorite Lao food dish? Which one is the hardest to find for you?

Raw laaub shrimp, with lettuce to wrap! Oh, boy, that is good if it’s done well.

When are you most satisfied with an artwork you’ve made?

It depends on the piece. Most of my work I’m not happy with, only very few. The ones I’m satisfied with are usually about a month later when I look at it and it is complete and I don’t even want to change anything about it. Like a timeless beauty it has.

If you could paint anywhere in the world, where would you like to paint?

Anywhere isolated from distractions, and where it is quite and only nature is around.

What’s your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into art seriously?

Don’t bother. Don’t bother-unless you would die if you don’t make art. Like air, you need to breathe then O.K.  See what subject interests you and start from there. Have people look at your work and be open to various viewpoints and inputs. Some opinion maybe hard to take, but have thick skin and be open to suggestions.

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What’s next for you?

This will be an ongoing project.  Earlier this summer, I have been inspired by many Lao and Cambodian folks, so I decided to visit with American veterans.  Since the end of Vietnam War over 40 years ago, I have been visiting and buying homeless veterans lunch or coffee and having a conversation with them. It is a chance meeting, usually I find them on the street, hopeless, begging for food or money with their sign.  I stop and invite them to lunch and visit with them, I also mention that I am also a refugee and I share my story a little bit.  Then I ask them if I can snap a photo.

I’m hoping this way of connecting will translate to series of paintings, if nothing else I will understand more about that dark time in our history.

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~Bryan Thao Worra
Little Laos on the Prairie

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