Stories in the form of paintings surround Duy Huynh. All along the red brick walls, ethereal figures float untethered against earth-tone backgrounds that appear lit from within. The paintings give off a soft glow, contributing to the welcoming ambiance of the Lark and Key Gallery in Charlotte’s North Davidson neighborhood.
Huynh sits, clearly at ease amidst the worlds he has created. He begins to tell his story, starting at the beginning.
The Vietnamese-born artist and UNC Charlotte alumnus emigrated to the United States in 1981 with his parents and two siblings. His family was among the massive wave of refugees, or Boat People, to depart Communist-controlled Vietnam in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon.
Under the new communist government, many people who supported the old government were sent to “re-education camps” and others to “new economic zones.” More than one million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials, and thousands were abused or tortured.
An uncertain future held far greater appeal to hundreds of thousands of refugees than the poverty and destruction of the Vietnamese homeland.
– Duy Huynh
“A lot of us were desperate for a way out of the country and were willing to risk our lives to get out. I was way too young to understand the gravity of the whole trip,” Huynh said.
The Boat People were rescued by the U.S. Navy. They were moved from refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before gaining sponsorship by a Buddhist temple and thereby entry into Pomona, Calif.
Some of Huynh’s most prominent memories of childhood in Pomona include artistic implements and aspirations. Times were tough, money was tight.
Before Huynh mastered the language or understood American cultural norms, he tapped into the power of art as a medium for communication. Handing a classmate a drawing became a way to forge connections across the language barrier and make friends.
“Art seemed instantly gratifying – I could make something tangible. That still motivates me,” Huynh said.
Huynh’s natural talent and enthusiasm for art were the foundation for his entry into UNC Charlotte as an art major. But the many transformational experiences Huynh had while an undergraduate student laid the groundwork for his career as a working artist.
Huynh graduated from UNC Charlotte with concentrations in painting and illustration and has since gone back to the University several times to speak to senior seminar classes.
Now Huynh and his partner, Sandy Snead, are in the position to offer exposure to fellow artists at their galleries, located in NoDa and South End.
“I felt it would be really nice to have my own place one day, but it was a very farfetched thing. I didn’t think I’d have my own place at this age or this stage in my career – of course, Sandy had a lot to do with it,” Huynh said. “We were already organizing festivals and outdoor shows with other artists and there was a certain amount of interest and demand for my work. It just felt right.”
Works by more than 40 different artists in mediums varying from painting to jewelry to pottery are on display at Lark and Key at any given time.
“Years ago all I really wanted to do was have the space and time to make my work, and the forum to showcase it. I feel like I have all of those to an extent,” he said. “But I still have the drive and hunger to improve, and to continue to explore.”