WALNUT CREEK -- Kristan Le remembers the long journey across the sea in a boat filled with people trying to survive their trip to the United States.

"Through a kid's eyes, this was an adventure," said Le.

Since Le left Vietnam in 1975 during a time of turmoil, all she remembered about her birthplace for a long while were poems and songs her father sang to her as a child.

"Young people who came to the U.S. didn't have any memory of Vietnam," she said. "As we were growing up, we still celebrated our culture. Everything we knew about Vietnam we learned from our parents."

As a teenager in San Diego, she turned to art for self-exploration. She tried to depict the Vietnam she remembered from childhood, from songs and from her dreams.

"This was the age when the questions started to come up about who you are," Le said. "I started to speak Vietnamese again and started to develop a connection to my heritage."

When she left her career as a Silicon Valley software engineer to pursue her passion in art, the door was wide open for self discovery.

"I got back to those questions about who I am," said Le, who now lives in Walnut Creek.

It wasn't until her return to Vietnam in 2008 that Le got to rediscover her past, and she immediately connected with her present and future as an artist. While traveling solo around the country, Le feverishly took photos with the aim of coming back home to paint the various scenes depicted in oil on canvas.


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"When you travel by yourself, you meet all these people who become your family," said Le.

She remembers waiting in a taxicab with the driver as the sun rose near the beach.

"All of a sudden, I saw all these people casting their nets onto the water and gathering fish into their baskets," she said.

Le captured these scenes and other street, country and river scenes such as "Floating Market on the Mekong River," in oil paintings currently on display at Renditions Gallery which she opened two years ago in Walnut Creek.

These days, visitors to the gallery will find Le accompanied by her "gallery dogs" Charlie, a German short-haired pointer, and Tigger, a Labrador retriever.

The Vietnamese art show celebrates Tet, the Vietnamese New Year that begins in February. Celebrations often last well into March, Le said.

Last month, the gallery hosted a Vietnamese New Year reception that featured traditional songs sung in Vietnamese by Le's friend Khoa Pham, who used to teach religion at De La Salle High School in Concord and who now lives in Orange County.

"All of these scenes that captured my heart take me back to those songs I listened to as a child," said Le, a former Concord resident.

For example, one of her paintings of a woman was inspired by the Vietnamese song "Forever Waiting." Some scenes, such as those that capture a typical day at a rice paddy or a lady selling sugar cane, correspond to songs about country life.

"Here in the U.S. kids go off to school, but in rural Vietnam some kids have to work at the rice paddies," Le said. "I saw a child in the rice paddy looking off in the distance, probably dreaming about another world beyond."

The ubiquitous Vietnamese straw hat has served as a muse in several of Le's paintings. The hat itself symbolizes art and culture, as hat makers are known to weave poems inside the straw hats, Le said.

Pham sang songs by Vietnamese composers about love, life and people.

"These are songs with meaningful lyrics that touch my soul and I want to interpret and express those lyrics to others no matter what language they speak," said Pham, who grew up in the United States.

Le said she plans a future collaboration with Pham -- a traveling exhibition of her Vietnamese paintings paired with a concert of Vietnamese music.

"The songs I sing and Kristan's paintings go hand in hand," Pham said. "There are songs we choose together and she would paint to the songs we chose. There is one painting of us both which I love dearly: The two of us as children searching for our roots, our heritage, what is Vietnam."

'Vietnam through Art and Music' exhibit
  • WHEN: Through March
  • WHERE: Renditions Art Gallery, 1383 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek
  • INFORMATION: www.renditionsartgallery.com