by Len Lear
Innovative self-taught sculptor Vanny Channal’s wonderful “Steel Mantis” is currently on display at Morris Arboretum through October of this year. Channal’s parents are survivors of the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979.
•Did your parents often talk about what they went through with the Khmer Rouge?
“Never directly to me. They would mention the hardship and hopelessness but never emphasized exact events. The knowledge I have was attained through books, autobiographies, etc. In that four year span, the Cambodian population of seven million lost 2.8 million to massacres, torture, disease, cannibalism and starvation. The majority of the population became slaves in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge stripped everyone of their identities. All were told to cut family ties and devote their life to the revolution. They even banned the show of emotions.
“They turned schools into interrogation chambers. The Khmer Rouge began by killing everyone who was educated or had involvement with the military or government. This genocide era of Cambodia is known for the mass grave sites. The reason for that was that they would gather and murder by the dozens. The one thing my father told me about that time was that every day he would wake up to a dead body within his vicinity.”
•You told me earlier that you did not want to disappoint your parents when growing up. What did your parents want you to be?
“I wanted to be a writer, historian or astronomer, but because no one from my background had ever been any of those things, pursuing that dream was said to be unrealistic and, in most cases, laughed at. I did not have the option of deciding what I wanted to be. As a child, my parents would drill into us the urgency of making a living and providing for the family. The pressure I was fed my whole life drove me into the workforce, but the only thing available for someone with my background and level of education (high school diploma) was manual labor.
“Unable to retain a steady flow of income and respectable job, I ventured into criminal enterprises to put up this facade to appear that I was doing something productive. The person they wanted me to be and what I became was what I struggled with. I believe this is the biggest flaw in Asian American households. We are taught money is absolute, that this whole world is based on your financial situation. That approach does not give us the chance to configure individuality. We then struggle to become this person the world says we are supposed to be. But the more we do that, the more we drift away from finding our true purpose and living a life of fulfillment.”
•How did you come up with the idea for your type of sculpture?
“Usually, I would find certain items, and then the vision would start to build in my mind. ‘Steel Mantis,’ for example, originated from a sprinkler tripod. ‘American Steel Eagle’ came into my vision after I found the commercial valve key which I used as the perching. With the sculptures, I am trying to create a series of animals. So far I have Steel Stork, Steel Mantis and American Steel Eagle. My future projects will be Steel Buck, Steel King (as in a lion) Steel Elephant and Silver Back Steel Gorilla. That will complete my animal series, and then I can move on to prehistoric and mythical creatures.”
•Have your sculptures been displayed anywhere else besides Morris Arboretum?
“Yes! I was also involved in an arts festival in the Mayfair section of the city. But my biggest accomplishment so far as an artist is my exhibition at Morris Arboretum.”
•What are your children’s names?
“My oldest daughter’s name is Vanna; it is the female variation of my name in the Cambodian culture. She is 5 and will be starting school next month. My youngest daughter’s name is Davy, 3, the translation in my native language, meaning angel. I gave them both Cambodian names because I see many Asian Americans disbanding their own culture. I want to stop that. We were teased because we were different, but I do not see that as a reason to completely cut off what our ancestors took centuries to build.”
•What is the best advice you ever received?
“It was from my father. He told me that because of who we are, we must work harder than anyone else, that whatever it is I decide to do, do it to the best of my abilities. I only wish I had applied that attitude to my life sooner. Because when I did is when I developed the character and value I needed to accomplish whatever I want to achieve.”
•What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
“The hardest thing was to build enough confidence to believe in myself. To know I am worth more than what I was doing and that anything is possible if I work for it. This is not something that happens overnight. I started by changing my thought patterns. I stopped listening to other people and letting them dictate what is possible for me. I filtered out negativity. I would load up on positive thinking, plan my days for success and did it all with an attitude of a winner.”
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com