During his Arts/Industry residency at Kohler, Wisconsin, artist and art professor Tomas Vu dove back into a lifelong biographical project. He grew up in Da Nang – South China Beach in Vietnam – during the Vietnam war. As a young boy, he soon became friends with the American soldiers. Tomas Vu helped them take care of their surfboards and in return one of the soldiers introduced Tom to the Beatles. At the age of ten, he moved to El Paso, Texas with his family. He pursued his interest in art and music and graduated from the University of Texas with a BFA and completed his MFA at Yale University. Since 1996, he has been an art professor at Columbia University and continues to create art outside of his teaching. About eight years ago, he started a project creating wooden surfboards called Alaias. He hand-sands them and uses laser-cutting techniques to apply his drawings on one side and Beatles lyrics on the other. The boards are designed after pre-20th-century Hawaiian surfboards that are between seven and 12 feet long. The original boards were made from Koa wood. Now the new boards are made from Paulownia wood and linseed oil. The process to apply the drawings thorough laser-cutting is ‘somewhat hypnotic to see the machine draw your ideas’ as Tomas Vu describes it.
At Kohler, he picked up a similar idea to produce surfboards from ceramics. The initial idea was to create so many surfboards that could hold the lyrics of two Beatles albums. But to cast the boards of that length turned out to be quite complicated.
Ceramics is a new medium for Tomas and he marveled at the fact that Kohler ‘lets the non-ceramic people in and play’ and the technical aspect of casting. For this project, he finally decided to reduce his aspirations and produced enough surfboards that could accommodate the lyrics of one album – the Magical Mystery Tour. The second body of work during the art residency included the production of about 300 human skulls. Each one of them is hand-crafted out of ceramics and hence a bit different. The idea for this project evolved from an earlier autobiographical narrative. In 2002, Tomas formed 125 skulls in wax and added silver leafed doilies on top of them representing the Killing Fields of his native Southeast Asia. In the Kohler factory, Tom was hard at work to produce this large number of ceramic skulls and give each one of them their own identity and dignity. From his studio, he had brought some silk screens that he wanted to use during his residency. He was curious to see whether glaze could be used instead of the usual ink. The result on the tiles is beautiful with intensely clear lines and patterns. Tomas Vu currently exhibits another body of work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina in Serbia. Read more about contemporary artists who attended the Arts/Industry program at Kohler: Ghada Amer, Jim Neel, Scott Carter, Mary Lorenz, Xavier Monslavatje, Dave Cole, and many others.