Bladensburg artist finds the art of life

Oeur puts his experiences into his work

Thursday, May 4, 2006

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Greg Dohler⁄The Gazette
Bladensburg sculptor and painter Chanthou Oeur's art depicts the culture and history of his native Cambodia.

The life of artist Chanthou Oeur reads like a novel. Orphaned when he was a baby in Cambodia, Oeur escaped the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, became a freedom fighter and later settled into life in Bladensburg as a sculptor.

The story doesn't end there. Oeur's artwork will soon be on display at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Oeur will be at the event from 6:30 to 9 p.m. May 12 to discuss his work.

Also, his piece, “Farmland?“ will be on display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport beginning Friday and through the rest of May.

The road Oeur has traveled to get to this point is reflective in his backyard studio. The area is comprised of three sections – an office, the main workshop and the third – his favorite – contains artwork reminding him of his past, which very few guests get to see.

A small sign hangs above the entrance. It is written in Cambodian and translates into ‘‘The Hut of Pride.”

The room is small and intimate with paintings along the walls and sculptures displayed throughout that harkens back to what Oeur, 53, left behind in Cambodia at the age of 28. ‘‘If you don’t see the movie ‘The Killing Fields,’ it’s beyond what anyone can explain,” said Oeur as he discusses life in Cambodia.

He points to a painting with a tree surrounded by a mountain of skulls. ‘‘To me it was more of a killing country. It wasn’t just a killing field.”

Oeur’s father died shortly before he was born and months after his birth, his mother died.

Oeur was raised by his older sister, Nakry, until he was 4 years old, then he went to various Buddhist temples, which he likened to orphan centers, until he was 15.

Oeur enjoyed painting but did not find it fully sufficient to convey his thoughts, so he turned to sculpting.

One of Oeur’s favorite creations is his painting of a car with a flat tire.

‘‘I didn’t know much of the language, wasn’t familiar with the culture so instead of a shiny new car, I felt like I was a flat tire that no one knew,” he said referring to when he first arrived in America.

A return trip to Cambodia in 1990 revealed that little had changed when he left in 1978 to escape the communist regime of Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979.

The Khmer Rouge forced all city dwellers to labor camps in the countryside while banning institutions from stores, banks, hospitals, schools and family and forced people to work 12- to 14-hour days.

During this time, approximately two million people of the Cambodian population’s seven million were executed.

Oeur decided to become a freedom fighter in the jungle for two years.

‘‘I was trying to liberate my people but we got no help and our forces got smaller so we joined a refugee camp in Thailand,” he said. ‘‘I had no choice but to go with the flow.”

From there, Oeur joined a refugee camp where he taught Cambodian children in a refugee camp before coming to the United States.

Encouters with residents who were missing limbs as a result of stepping on land mines remained in Oeur’s mind long after he left Cambodia. His artwork reflects what he has seen.

One piece he is especially proud of is one where a woman missing her left arm lifts her right arm to ask for money while her newborn baby is reaching for its mother to continue feeding.

‘‘It was symbolic of me of the circle of life as the baby wanted something from her and she wanted something from me,” Oeur said.

The room is filled with inspirational notes such as, ‘‘You can cut me off from anything but not from my creativity and imagination,” and, ‘‘I will sacrifice anything to let the world experience the recent Cambodian tragedy through my art work.”

Oeur is currently working with a friend in Philadelphia who wants to use some of the pieces for a museum dedicated to educating people on the Killing Fields.

‘‘My work is always about life and people,” he said.

While hesistant to identify a favorite medium, ‘‘it’s like children, you love them in different ways,” he explains, Oeur has found himself working more with stone pieces lately.

‘‘My ambition is getting bigger and I want to turn something that is seen as hard and rough into something smooth and nice while keeping the same look,” he said.

Oeur pauses a moment to instruct his 23-year-old son, Ed, on how to properly treat the stone and the discipline required for future projects.

‘‘It helps train his patience by learning how to control his lines,” Oeur said.

To the younger Oeur, working with his father is similar to most aspects of his life.

‘‘It’s the same thing as living with him. He tells me what to do only out here he’s my employer,” Ed Oeur said. ‘‘I’m trying to grasp everything while I’m still can while I’m young.”

Oeur said that he never tried to push his own love of art on his son but is thrilled that he wanted to learn the craft.

Oeur’s nephew, Pipu, is making the family proud in his own right as he recently won the Cambodian counterpart of the American Idol singing competition, titled ‘‘Freshy Boy,“ after placing first in the singing, general knowledge, best behavior and looks category.

‘‘Right before I left Cambodia he promised that he’d do something to make me proud and I told him the same thing,” Oeur said. ‘‘He sent me the DVD. I loved it. He’s very close to me.”

E-mail Jeffrey K. Lyles at