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Painting provided a path back from a traumatic brain injury

'Art changed my life'

Painting provided a path back from a traumatic brain injury

"One day I may not live but all my artwork, what I've given out to the community, will be here."

At the urging of his sister, Thanh left his native Vietnam as a young adult to come to Seattle to pursue a better life. After getting a job as a janitor, he suffered a traumatic accident and underwent back and brain surgery. Facing a long recovery, he continued to experience extreme chronic physical and mental pain, including debilitating headaches, memory loss and bouts of anger.

To aid his recovery and help manage his symptoms, his doctor recommended enrollment in an art therapy class. Thanh learned how to draw and paint in the class and found the process helped him relax and stopped his pain from controlling his emotions.

“Before I learned how to draw, I was a very violent man. Every time I opened my mouth, I said a lot of negative things,” said Thanh. He said that all changed through art. “I feel more calm, I feel more relaxed and all my anger just goes away. And when I draw, I am more like a monk.”

Disabled from the accident, Thanh was unable to continue working and could no longer pay the rent on his apartment. He applied for housing assistance and moved with his wife and their two children in with neighbors, crowding two families into one small apartment.

Then Thanh received a phone call from the Seattle Housing Authority and learned an apartment was available at Yesler, where he lived until briefly relocating while new housing was built. Thanh recalled returning to the brand-new Raven Terrace apartment building at Yesler.  “When I first moved to Raven, when I have a key, I feel so happy,” he said.

As part of its master redevelopment plan for Yesler, the Seattle Housing Authority had applied for funding to integrate art into the community and received a grant from The Kresge Foundation. As Thanh was returning to Yesler, a community arts program was launched and SHA commissioned artists-in-residence to create works of art and engage Yesler community members in the arts. The artists recognized Thanh’s unique artistic vision and worked with him to further develop his art skills.

An older vacated Yesler apartment slated for eventual demolition was turned into a community art house, where Thanh was provided with studio space. Over four months, working days and nights, he painted each wall to depict a different season in Vietnam.

It took Thanh more than three years to feel proficient in drawing nature scenes, especially the Hoa Mai flower, which has special significance in Vietnam. He said, “At first I can draw just a simple flower, but it doesn't have any meaning to me. And then I keep drawing, drawing, drawing. After three years my picture feels like it has a soul.”

Thanh said, “Art has changed my life. When I draw, I feel like my body and my soul are really relaxed. My mind is just empty. I don't have to worry about any negative things in my life.” It has also helped bring his memory back, “When I draw, I feel like I can remember everything, every detail from 50 years ago.”

He was grateful for the experience of working with the SHA artists-in-residence. “They respect my art. They are willing to work with me,” said Thanh. All I can say is thank you. This is something I will not forget. One day I may not live but all my artwork, what I've given out to the community, will be here.”

Thanh’s art has been featured in various galleries around Seattle, including the Seattle Art Museum’s Community Gallery and the ACRS Search for Meaning Art Exhibition, and his work is on permanent display in the lobby of SHA’s Hoa Mai Gardens residential building at Yesler.

This profile is in memoriam. Thanh passed away on December 8, 2020.