Artist paints to benefit life

"With Childlike Faith" by Trinh Mai / special to Xpress

Staring back at the face in a painting, tears start to build in Trinh Mai’s eyes. She is reminded of a distant connection she shares with this little boy she has never met, thousands of miles away in Cambodia.

The boy’s portrait, which is on display in Mai’s exhibit, “For Life,” at “a.Muse Gallery” in the Mission District, is part of the overall glimpse into the struggle of those in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

“One of the main themes of the exhibit is the sanctity of life and being conscious of others as well as those in need,” Mai said.

Having already been recognized for her work in the Asian American community, Mai felt urged to do something more.

“I wanted to build a bridge to my roots and find the profound in what my family does and what I do,” she said.

With the help of Lori Shantzis, owner of “a.Muse Gallery,” Mai was able to showcase some of her work at a benefit reception of which 50 percent of the proceeds will be donated to Friends Without a Border, an organization providing medical care to Angkor Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The artwork is meant to represent not only the children in need at the hospital, but also to those facing similar dilemmas.

“You can tell Trinh really put a lot of thought into these pieces,” Shantzis said.

The exhibit has a mixture of portraits of Mai’s family members and the children struggling in Cambodia.

“I drew from my husband’s experiences and my family’s experiences and now I realize just how blessed I am,” said Mai, a first-generation Vietnamese American.

Mai’s husband Hien Thach emigrated with his family from Vietnam to the United States in 1981 and was one of the influences in her artwork.

“As I was painting this one, I realized it kind of looks like my husband,” Mai said when describing a portrait of a boy. “Then I thought back to my husband’s experience with his family, hiding in the jungle, having to fend off thieves, traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.”

Much like the children she had painted, her husband and his family endured similar hardships.

“On our way here, there were 14 or 15 of us traveling,” Thach said, recalling his family’s retelling of their journey. “All the while we had picked up children along the way. Unfortunately, six died.”

Coincidentally, Mai and her husband were not the only ones with a connection to Cambodia. Shantzis’s daughter, adopted in Cambodia, is a child of similar background.

“Having Lori here, hearing about her daughter, we had a common connection, it was all too fitting,” Mai said. “I mean, her daughter could have been one of those children.”

The line of inspiration drawing from Mai’s family to her husband to Shantzis has come full circle, culminating in her exhibit, which will be open until April 5.

“After meeting Lori, learning about her daughter then the organization, it made me more conscious and made my goal more defined,” Mai said. “Not only to become aware of people in need but building connections with people.”

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