WALNUT CREEK -- Once upon a time, Kristan Le was a financially stable software engineer working in Silicon Valley.
But after nine years of the daily grind, Le had an epiphany.
"I kind of cried on the way to work because I wanted to paint," Le said. "I felt something was missing. My sister told me, 'Just do what you love.' "
Taking a leap of faith, Le quit her career and big paycheck and enrolled at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Still, she approached art with trepidation.
"I always wanted to paint, but was afraid," she said.
Her computer background helped steer her toward animation; she thought she could play it safe -- create art while still in a familiar computer environment. But, she said, her heart knew best.
"I realized I really wanted to touch paint," Le said. "So when I took my first painting class, I never looked back."
Le always remembered what her sculpture teacher once told her: "Choose art over fear."
She said she took that line a step further:
"Choose love over fear. Even if you're painting, there's so much inhibition. But if you chose what you feel is right, it will be OK."
Le embraced her own philosophy when she opened Renditions Art Gallery in downtown Walnut Creek with her partner, Tu Bui. It's been a venture, she said, which has proved fruitful, as the gallery will be celebrating its first anniversary on Nov. 10.
The gallery features not only Le's oil paintings but also the painters of other local artists. She named the gallery for the paintings that represent various renderings of life.
"A painting is a rendition of anything you see," she said.
Embracing new life adventures has been Le's modus operandi. Born in Saigon, Le remembers when she and several other people headed for the United States by boat from Vietnam in 1975.
"The boat drifted out to sea and we were stuck out at sea for at least a month," she said. "I was a kid. I thought it was adventurous. Kids didn't understand the fear. For the adults, it was terrifying."
She settled in San Diego with her family and even then, Le had her heart set on art. Her high school art teacher submitted one of her drawings to the Congressional Art Competition. She flew to Washington, D.C. to accept her first-place award when she was in the 11th grade.
Still, Le took up cognitive engineering at UC San Diego because she didn't think she could make a living as an artist. But the fine arts degree she obtained from what is now known as Academy of Art University in San Francisco proved to be a fulfilling investment, Le said.
Now, the Walnut Creek resident splits her time between running Renditions Gallery where she holds studio painting sessions and teaching art classes at Academy of Art University.
Her work has been shown at Gardner Colby Galleries in Naples, Fla. and at national exhibitions of the Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society.
Le uses color and shapes to depict her emotions on canvas, and admires the work of Russian Impressionist painters such as Nicolai Fechin. Many of her paintings show street scenes, seascape and landscapes of her native country.
"There's always Vietnam in there because I'm trying to find something I lost or bringing back something I had," Le said of her art. "I was born in one place but raised somewhere else so I'm just making that connection to where I was born in my paintings."
Bui said Le's paintings are very diverse in subject matter and style.
"What I find to be most captivating about her paintings is that each one of them has their own mood or story," he said. "I am most moved by the expressiveness in the lighting and the faces that she paints."
Le said she aims to make the gallery space very easy going.
"As you will see on your visit, you will be welcomed by my two four-legged employees -- my gallery dogs," Le said of her Labrador and her Pointer mix.
Groups of artists meet at the gallery every Monday morning at 10 a.m. to paint using a live model.
Local artist Barbara Hafner said she's a huge fan of Le's work.
"I have a large piece of hers that my husband and I are very excited about," said Hafner, whose paintings are featured at Renditions Gallery. "I think it's a very welcoming, friendly place with wonderful art that is reasonably priced. I think Kristan did a great job designing it, especially the lighting. It also has a lot of flexibility for her teaching activities."
Other local artists work featured at the gallery include Le's teacher, award-winning artist Hui Han Liu; Weizhen Liang, who's known for her floral paintings; landscape painters Bryan Mark Taylor and Paul Kratter; Cristen Miller's pastels; Carole Rafferty' unique cityscapes; Cynthia DeBenedetti's plein air miniatures and Karen Leoni's impressionist paintings.
ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY RECEPTION
WHEN: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Nov. 10.
WHERE: 1383 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek
INFORMATION: Visit www.RenditionsArtGallery.com