hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture October 2020


Seeking strength and sanctuary

Exhibit, events put college’s focus on immigration



Trinh Mai Thach works on a portrait of her husband at her studio in southern California. The work will be shown at Gallery 51 in North Adams as part of a yearlong show related to immigration.courtesy photo


Contributing writer


In her studio in southern California, Trinh Mai Thach turns to show a life-sized portrait of her husband, Hien Van Thach.

She has drawn him in charcoal, tall, broad-shouldered, muscular. He stands with his hands at his sides, looking out at anyone who looks up at him.

“There he is,” she said, “vulnerable.”
Mai is an artist exhibiting nationwide in museums, universities and arts centers from San Diego and Seattle to Minnesota and Massachusetts. This month, she’ll meet virtually with students in North Adams in one of a series of events leading up to a local exhibit in that opens Feb. 4.

She describes Hien as a man of compassion and strength. She met him when he was a football player at San Diego State. He came to America as a young child and grew up in a close family in a poor neighborhood. He has studied immigration law and works with teenagers from the same background, helping them to win scholarships to get to college.

He stands in this portrait with his weight balanced and his hands open. Trinh Mai is expanding a new work around it. She may map his body, she says, and his scars.

This one, she said, holding a print she has made of the design on his skin, was never stitched. He would not go to the hospital then, he told her, because it would frighten his parents to see him that way, and he loved them.

Hien is Vietnamese Cambodian American.
Trinh Mai was born in Pennsylvania. Her mother’s family left Saigon in 1975 when the city fell. They got on a boat and hoped it would get them away, she said. Her father’s family also came from Saigon to Harrisburg with their own risks.

Growing up, she would sit at the foot of their bed, and they would tell her stories about the homes they had left, the family they loved and their lives here before she could remember.

Family stories and experiences move deeply in her work. She will talk with students in the Berkshires this fall, and with the community, as she works toward an exhibit at Gallery 51, the college-run art space on Main Street. The show is an artistic collaboration and one part a global conversation around immigration that the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is hosting locally from this fall through the spring.

MCLA will take part in “Hostile Terrain 94,” an art installation happening this year across the country and around the world. Installations are opening in America this fall amid an election season in which immigration is a major issue.

“Hostile Terrain 94,” or HT94, has grown from an art and research project MacArthur Fellow and University of California Los Angeles anthropology professor Jason De Leon created to remember the names and the lives of people who have died in the Sonoran Desert, along the Mexican-American border, and to talk about policies that have shaped that border area and the people who travel it.

In the Berkshires, projects related to this installation are growing, and MCLA will invite the community in. Anna Jaysane-Darr, an assistant professor of sociology, anthropology and social work, has created a course around HT94, with virtual programming.

Sanctuary City Project artists Sergio de la Torre and Chris Treggiari are holding a conversation in texts and in ink and, they hope, in person. They and Trinh Mai will talk with students and the community this semester, and they will show their work together at Gallery 51 this winter.


Images of arrows and flight
Trinh Mai plans to bring her portrait of Hien across the country.
“It is inspired by Psalm 91,” she said. “I have been thinking about prayers of protection, thinking of a verse. ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flyeth by day … a thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.’”

She memorized it so she will have it in mind as she works. And she thinks about the arrows flying.

“Who are that thousand, that ten thousand? Children, families, people deported, families torn apart,” she said. “How are we going through this, and we’re the lucky ones?”

As her work has taken shape, she said she has learned to make arrows by hand as the indigenous peoples in southern California traditionally made them, and she has been awed by their genius.

She and Hien went hiking and found the wood for the shafts. She straightened them in water and over flame. She gathered feathers on their hikes, and one night as they drove home, Hien saw a great horned owl on the side of the road, just hit by a car.

“It was a magnificent creature,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can’t take it … What should we do to honor it?’”

And Hien looked up at her and told her that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. She could study it and see it closely and bring it into her art. The owl is a permanent resident, not a migratory bird. So she has learned to preserve the feathers in three baths of water and lying in the sun like a kiln.

She holds up another shaft with mallard feathers, and in the sun they glow a dark iridescent blue.
She often sets birds in her work, often in high color.

“How many hundreds or thousands of miles did these feathers carry these birds,” she wondered, “to arrive in a new place or the place where they were born, to bring a new generation into the world?”


‘Country of the immigrant’
In the Sanctuary City Project, de la Torre and Treggiari follow a timeline of immigrants’ experiences across 30 years. De la Torre is an associate professor who teaches photography and film at the University of San Francisco, and Treggiari is a teaching artist in residence at the California College of the Arts. They have collaborated on this installation over the past 10 years, from the Guerrerro Gallery in a warehouse in San Francisco to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, Minnesota Street Projects, Seattle University and more.

Their timeline begins in 1989, when San Francisco became a sanctuary city, and it moves into the present, tracing the experiences of immigrants in America and the changing laws and policies that affect them. De la Torre and Treggiari say they want to open a conversation. They have gathered years of research from articles and essays and government organizations; they show film footage of public gatherings across the country, and they surround them with a collage of prints made by hand.

They begin by asking questions: When did you forget you’re an immigrant? What would you tell an immigrant?

Traditionally they collect an archive of responses, and then they set up a mobile print shop. They spend time in a gallery or art center two or three days a week for several weeks. They silk-screen posters from answers they find compelling.

“The country of the immigrant is here.”
“A sanctuary is a quiet place.”
“Undocumented and unafraid.”

And they invite anyone who walks in to join them. People can feel and see the printing, push the ink across the screen and talk with them.

In the Berkshires, they are adapting to the pandemic and the practice of doing this work from 3,000 miles away. They are asking their questions publicly -- on billboards, on postcards, in conversations with students and nonprofits and community groups. They invite anyone to reach out with an answer.

They want to hear diverse thoughts, Treggiari said. They want to talk with anyone who will genuinely talk with them.

De la Torre remembers a woman coming up to them one day. She looked young, white, punk-rock, and he thought she would see his point of view. She told him she didn’t understand why it was important to provide refuge to people escaping wars or climate change or violence; why should America be concerned?

“I asked her, who are we and they?” he said. “She said, ‘We are Americans.’ And I said, ‘I’m an American too.’”

They could talk about the history of this country, and when and where her family first came here.
“Be honest,” de la Torre said. “We are your teachers and your janitors, your boyfriends and girlfriends and lovers. We are your grandparents. We cook your food, drive your buses and bring your mail. Know who you are.”


Mapping loss through art
The “Hostile Territory 94” installation opens its own conversation, through research, on what has happened on the U.S.-Mexican border across several decades.

Jaysane-Darr, the MCLA professor, explained that in the mid-1990s, the United States adopted a policy of “prevention through deterrence.”

“The point was to funnel immigrants into the most dangerous points of crossing -- the desert -- shoring up the boundaries around towns,” Jaysane-Darr said. “The idea was that people would choose not to cross. That hasn’t happened.”

What has happened, she said, is that more than 6 million people have tried to cross the desert in the last 20 years, according to De Leon’s research, and thousands of people have died.

De Leon’s Undocumented Migration Project has analyzed the effects of the policy since it began.
Industries have grown around getting people across, Jaysane-Darr said. Traders sell the travelers water jugs and equipment. Guides and smugglers take money to get people across -- or leave them abandoned, extorted for money and robbed in the desert.

And now detention camps have become an industry, with privately owned prisons and children separated from their families.

Jaysane-Darr’s class will study De Leon’s research and the people who have made this journey. The art installation will set up a visual image of the border, she said, and she and her students and will create toe tags following De Leon’s guidelines, one for each person known to have died on their way.

One color will show when the body is identified and the artist knows their name at least. A different color will indicate that De Leon knows only that some remains of an unknown person were found.

MCLA will open the project to the community, Jaysane-Darr said. The idea is that people will fill in the tags in a group, to share the experience, though because of Covid-19 they may not be able to share the same space.

They will fill in whatever details De Leon can give about the person each tag represents. They can write a message on the back if they want to. And then the tags will go up on the gallery wall, along the line that marks the border, at the GPS coordinates where each person fell.
“It’s a witnessing,” Jaysane-Darr said, “an honoring of the dead.”


Following stories through generations
Words and memory run strongly through Trinh Mai’s work, as in “Bien, Bien, Bein,” portraits of people who have looked for freedom in a time of war and have died.

She will talk with students and the community about her work in a virtual presentation on Oct. 29. She also plans a workshop on physically erasing fear, recalling a project at the San Diego Art Institute when she wrote the word “fear” in massive letters in graphite pencil and then invited people to help her physically erase the word by hand.

“There are fears that protect us and warn us of danger,” she said, “and there are the fears we grow in our own minds and hearts that hinder us in doing the things we know we ought to do, like taking a stand on things we believe in.”

This winter at Gallery 51, she will ask people to write about their fears: Write on a strip of paper. Roll it into a scroll with the words facing outwards, so they will touch the words they rest near. Bind the scroll with red string. Choose a stone and feel its weight. Then bury the stone and the scroll together.

These scrolls and stories form the core of her installation “That We Should Be Heirs,” as it has crossed the country. She has exhibited at the San Diego Art Institute and at the University of Seattle, led a workshop at Harvard, and now she will bring the work MCLA.

“It is inspired by a Vietnamese belief that to give the departed sound rest, we need to bury them,” she said. “What if we could bury our fears to give our minds rest?”

She begins with her own family stories and objects that hold meaning: “Ba Ngoai’s unread letters, cotton grown at the farm from which my husband and his family harvested when they first arrived in America, hand embroidery, holy water, stones collected from the Pacific Coast, … Pacific Ocean water, and wool.”

With the words people write, the fears they share, she creates a space where people can feel safe enough to sit with those feelings.

One student who worked with her told her, “I had to wait until everyone left the gallery, because I needed to be by myself in the gallery to address these fears.”

It was hard, she said. It was painful. But it was a relief.
“If we could bury these fears,” Trinh Mai said, “we could make decisions with … sound mind and in confidence.”

She thinks of decisions made in panic -- people who have given all of their savings to immigration lawyers who don’t do their jobs, people who have sold their homes, people who will do anything to protect the people they love.

“That We Should Be Heirs” can touch inherited trauma, she said.
“It’s so real,” she said. “It’s in us physically -- and also emotionally and spiritually and mentally. But it’s in our bodies. It saddens me that there’s less talk about inherited strength.”


Strength and compassion
Trinh Mai said she draws strength from her husband and her family. They are supporting people who are fighting their own immigration cases, people facing deportation.

She thinks of people who have been deported to Vietnam, people who had left war and persecution to find sanctuary and knew they faced danger if they were forced back. She knows of people who have had to go back and now are missing.

She looks at a photograph of Hien’s father, Phoul Van Thach. It was taken while he was a prisoner of war in a re-education camp, she said. He holds a wooden sign: “Thach-Phuoi.”
“His father was shot 17 times in the war,” she said, “and he survived.”

Once the blast was strong enough to throw him into the Mekong River, and the river carried him away.

“His hands are so gentle holding that board,” she said.
Trinh Mai’s parents worked hard for her and her brothers.

“I am working as an artist because they supported me,” she said. “I’m privileged. They came with nothing.”

Her father and grandfather could draw beautifully, she said, remembering her grandfather’s sketches in the pages of her grandmother’s cookbook. Her mother loved music. In Pennsylvania, her family would translate U.S. news into Vietnamese, put on concerts, and cook for their neighbors to introduce them to the culture.

Later her family moved to San Jose in the tech boom, she said. Her mother is an engineer, and her father works in technology.

Hien’s father had been an officer in Vietnam. In the United States, when he was a boy, his family worked in agriculture, in fields of peppers, carrots, garlic, alfalfa. They had to help each other to put food on the table, she said. His mother packed lunches, and she was in charge of the younger kids.

He was paid $1 a bucket to pick garlic, and the picking would cut his hands. Worms in the alfalfa would stain their clothes purple.

And he remembers the cages where the farmers would catch birds to keep them away from the crops. His family would go into the cages and take home birds for dinner. They would put them into rice bags they had sewn with drawstrings to hold them closed.

“One day,” she said, “he’s in third or fourth grade, and he went into the cage and caught the bird. He was holding it, and he could feel its heart beating heavily. And then it started to speed up. He felt that it was afraid. He heard the noises it was making.”

He let the bird go. His mother saw, and she called to his father, “Do you see this? Our son is letting the birds go.”

His father asked him why, and he said the bird was afraid, and he didn’t want to see it afraid. And his father asked him: Do you want to let all the birds go?

And that day, they did.

“He and his dad are of one heart,” Trinh Mai said.
His father felt his compassion and honored it.

Not long after that, she said, Hien came home from school one day and found a Mexican family in the kitchen. They were living out of a van, and his father had invited them home. Hien and his family were living in a two-bedroom apartment, eight people together. Now 11 people shared it.
They had no common language, she said. His family speaks Vietnamese and Cambodian, and the Mexican family spoke Spanish, and they lived together for a year.

“How would you explain this experience,” she said, “except through hardship and a need to survive? They communicated through food. The women cooked together and the children would play together.”

He still remembers the salsa verde he tasted for the first time in that year they lived together.
MCLA and the Berkshire Cultural Resources Council will hold a community reading, and a series of artists will give virtual talks through the fall in connection with the upcoming installation of “Hostile Terrain 94,” including events to fill out toe tags on Oct. 6 and Nov. 10, and artist talks with O.M. France Viana on Oct. 10, Vincent Valdez on Oct. 17 and Trinh Mai on Oct. 29. Visit www.mclahostileterrain.com for more information and a complete schedule.