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Vietnamese-American culture featured in Fields Corner mural

By Karen Morales | 9/28/2017, 6 a.m.
The Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans in Boston. A diverse group of ...
An Uong fills in details on aluminum panels to be installed on a Fields Corner wall. Photo: Karen Morales

The Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese-Americans in Boston. A diverse group of local artists and neighbors set out recently to increase the visibility of this vibrant community with a mural outside of Pho Hoa Restaurant.

Grace Ejiwale adds color to the mural.

Grace Ejiwale adds color to the mural.

Ngoc-Tran Vu is a Dorchester native, artist and community organizer heading the mural project. More public and inclusive art in Dorchester has always been something for which Vu strived, but a concrete plan arose when she met Tam Le, another artist and local entrepreneur.

The Le family owns Pho Hoa and Le himself is the owner of Reign Drink Lab, a homemade boba tea, smoothies, and coffee shop behind the restaurant on Dorchester Avenue. “‘My family’s building,’ he said, ‘think of it as your canvas,’” said Vu about her conversation with Le.

“I thought about how I wanted to collaborate with the community and how I could bring in young people, as well as the older residents,” she said, adding, “As a first generation Vietnamese-American, I saw myself in an unique position to connect the past, present and future, and work with others.”

Equipped with a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts Creative City program, a location, and an artist team and steering committee made up of local residents, the Community in Action Mural Project began in May.

The team includes five artists ranging in age from 17 to 30, and eight steering committee members ages 17 to 60 who volunteered to help inform the project. The steering committee has met on a monthly basis, usually for three hours at a time. “It’s been very intense, but so rewarding,” said Vu.

Cultural themes

Le, who has a Fine Arts degree from Brandeis University, not only provided the location but also helped out with the sketching and painting. “This project ties into the values of the building, which is our family’s legacy,” he said. “Promoting and preserving Vietnamese heritage is paramount.”

The mural is a site-specific art piece created on six 4-by-8-foot aluminum panels that will be installed on the restaurant’s exterior wall and revealed on Sunday, October 1.

According to Vu, the mural’s central themes are the Vietnamese-American present, unity and growth. The image contains motifs and references to Vietnamese culture, people, traditional dress, food and the immigrant journey.

“I see other murals in the area ... There is beautiful work here but sometimes I see a narrative that’s missing certain things,” said Vu.

For example, the mural outside of the Bank of America on Dorchester Avenue depicts different cultures and people in the community but “it’s really straightforward,” she said.

Another one in the neighborhood shows Vietnamese culture specifically, depicting a scene at the market with people in traditional Vietnamese clothing. “But beyond that, it doesn’t say anything more,” said Vu. “I wanted to use this project to pay homage to the history, culture, and what it means for the future, too — a timeless piece that anyone can connect to.”

Elder guidance

The older residents in the steering committee have played a big role in ensuring authenticity and accuracy of the Vietnamese culture depicted in the mural.

As with any artistic endeavor, there has been some trial and error. One of the younger artists, Kathy Le, recalled some of the roadblocks the team encountered. “There was a point when we were gridding and it didn’t turn out so well,” she said. “So we had to take a step back and repaint the whole base coat.”

The Community in Action Mural Project will showcase the completed piece Oct. 1 with an unveiling block party at 1370 Dorchester Ave. from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The community and public will be able to view the art and enjoy free food and music.

“I hope the older generation sees it and they get a sense of pride that their experience is being represented,” said Tam Le. “And because the youth created it, they know we won’t forget where we come from and we will honor them through this.”