Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Hiep Cao Nguyen, Creator of Circle Painting, Tells His Story

At the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, I began my life journey in Saigon. My mom, uncle and aunt were musicians and teachers, so I grew up in a home filled with music. After school, my siblings and I would sit around playing music, telling stories, and drawing comics, sometimes underneath the dark staircase which doubled as a bomb shelter. I was mesmerized by Uncle Kien's vivid tales of a curious boy who traveled far and wide. Kien drew pictures to illustrate the boy's adventures: crossing plains, navigating rice paddies, climbing mountains, fighting beasts, and eventually becoming a warrior and peacemaker. I dreamed of travelling the world like this boy, armed with my brushes and paint.

And then, when I was seven, the war ended. The communist regime tore my family apart and my dad spent three years in the “education camp.” After being released from the prison, he escaped Vietnam by boat, and eventually made it to the U.S. as a refugee in 1978. My twin brother, Home, followed soon thereafter. 

Growing up amid the pain of separation and abandonment, my coping mechanism was to escape into drawing with my worn pencils and scratch papers.

I missed my uncle's artistic imagination immensely so I took over his role, continuing to draw and tell stories to my younger siblings. During junior high school, I traded sketches of characters from legends and kung fu movies in exchange for ice cream and food from classmates.

As time passed, my childhood hobby became a serious profession. Defying parental pressure to enter a financially stable career like medicine or engineering, I applied to the art university after finishing high school. Even though I scored the highest on the entrance exam, my admission was denied because of my dad’s past political affiliation. Disillusioned and disappointed with the system, I sought another way to educate myself. 

Over the next three years, I traveled Vietnam on foot, inventively living out Uncle Kien’s stories. From village to village, I stayed at the homes of friends and strangers alike. A nomad, I painted portraits and landscapes for my benefactors in exchange for their food and kindness.  I learned to be ready for any change, and all the while advanced my artistic craft through experimentation and determination.

My family was separated for eleven years.  After what seemed like an impossible journey at the time, we were finally reunited when the rest of my family and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1991.

I spent the next several years in Los Angeles trying to assimilate in to the U.S., learning English, and working odd jobs. I felt depressed, isolated, and invisible to the point of suicide. Working seven days a week, money was good, but my life was sad. Drawing every night - at least a few sketches on a pad no matter how tired I was - was the only thing keeping me afloat. But even then, what good was money or art without a community to share it with?

Self-portrait.  Oil on Canvas.  30”x 40”
I recognized similar despair and the need for connection in my fellow refugees. This drove my brother, Home, and I to start the first Vietnamese American theater company. Club O'Noodles received awards and acclaim  for its performance art focused on helping refugees who had been traumatized by war and its aftermath. I worked as a lighting director, stage designer, and performer. The work generated healing for others as well as ourselves, but it did not generate enough income to pay the bills, and the troupe dissolved after a few years.

In 1999, I returned to Vietnam in search of the root of my childhood dreams: drawing and painting. On my journey home, I encountered a spiritual practice which transformed the way I see the world and the way I create today.  

Armed with this confidence that art would be my guide, I unrolled a ten-meter canvas and struggled with the overwhelming sensation that the canvas was as blank as I was. What should I paint? How would I begin? Finally, after many agonizing days staring at this canvas, I began drawing the most basic shapes on this blank slate – circles. 

For three months, eight hours a day, six days a week, I religiously painted this infinite shape in a peaceful, repetitious, and meditative manner. I felt unstoppable. I became focused and saw circles everywhere I looked. One day I invited the neighborhood children to come see my art studio. I encouraged them to paint their own circles along the same ten-meter canvas on which I worked. More and more children came by my studio in the following days and did the same thing. We talked about how this motion exists in everyday life - through the movements of our bodies when we dance, through the rotation of the Earth around the Sun, and through the cycles of water. They too began to see circles everywhere they looked. This was my AHA moment.

I had discovered not only a new way of making art, but a new way to build the community I always yearned for ... a community of playfulness, creativity, compassion, and teamwork. I felt connected. I felt loved. I felt alive. Circle Painting was born. Having also discovered my love of teaching art, I returned to school at CSU Long Beach and received my MA in Art Education.


Since 2007, with the blessing and unceasing love and support from my wife, Tammy, my family and friends, I’ve devoted all of my time and energy to expanding and refining the Circle Painting process. Our Circle Painting work has transformed hundreds of empty walls and canvases and stretched the artistic muscles of tens of thousands of people from all backgrounds and cultures to produce an artistic unity around the world in countries as widespread as Singapore, Vietnam, China, Australia, Denmark, Israel, and many, many states in the USA!  

The first major break for Circle Painting was when I was invited work with the Southeast Asian Service Leadership Network (SEALNET), and the ASEAN Secretariat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, to highlight the community service efforts of ASEAN youth at ASEAN’s 40th anniversary. SEALNET had community service projects in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and Cambodia where I conducted Circle Painting workshops in each of those countries. 

In the end, five enormous Circe Paintings were created, each painted by people from all walks of life across ASEAN and the world ‐ from kids on the street to university students. These five paintings were displayed during the celebration ceremonies at Raffles City, Singapore, and PM Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore and other ASEAN ambassadors added their own artistic expressions to the paintings. The artistic expression became a literal as well as metaphorical representation of community and collaboration among nations.

Most recently, I spent a month in Hong Kong and Macau leading four back-to-back training workshops for teachers and social workers, combining painting and mindfulness practices for underserved communities. I am honored to partner with the Center For Community Cultural Development (CCCD) and POLA (a Japan cosmetic firm) to organize the first Circle Painting Arts Festival at Hong Kong Polytechnic University where hundreds of artists, students and the public were involved in three days of interactive and participatory art making. It’s another dream come true!

One of my most memorable and profound experiences working with children was at the Cancer Hospital in Vietnam. This mural project vividly transformed the pediatric unit of the hospital through the creativity and hard work of approximately two hundred patients, staff, and volunteers. I learned the story of a boy who calls himself “SuperEGGman.” He was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. He had lost his eyesight. When he heard that there was painting going on outside his room, he asked to participate. At first, the nurse didn’t let him, thinking that he wouldn’t be able to. When I heard about this from a volunteer, I insisted we wheel SuperEGGman into the room. As soon as the paint touched his fingers, he was like a fish in water again, painting, laughing, and happy. When asked why, he said he didn’t want to be taken away from the painting, he said it was the happiest day of his life. A couple of days later, he passed away. I learned that art might not cure cancer, but it can surely offer a dose of joy and happiness for the patients. 



This year, I had several opportunities to travel to Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, and Vietnam to lead numerous local and international community programs that brought so much joys and creativity to myself and thousands of lives.

Installation of paper plates created by students at Taipei American School

In collaboration with United Nations WOMEN, CCIHP, CSAGA, and the Youth Union, I spearheaded the "Strong Hands to End Violence Against Women and Girls" event that involved over two hundred families and five hundred local college students to join hands and hearts to spread the powerful message of love, equality, and non-violence toward women and girls. Subsequently, the artworks were showcased at the Women’s Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Straw Hats Installation at Women Museum, Hanoi

I am also fortunate to have an opportunity to teach many art engagement programs for diverse senior communities such as "Treasures Project" at the Bowers Museum; "The Art for The Visual Impaired " at Braille Institute Regional Center, Orange County and Singapore; "Culture Heritage Month for Vietnamese American Adoptees" at Catalyst Foundation, "My Active and Healthy Life Mural" and at School for the Hearing Impaired. We were also able to create numerous murals in several schools and organizations.

Recently, I formulated another collaborative drawing project called S.T.E.A.M. Drawing. The initial idea of this project was generated from my experience of drawings from a childhood game called “Please Draw Me”. I encourage participants to use symbols, motifs, and images from subjects such as science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) to activate our observational skills, develop their drawing skills, expand our visual vocabulary, encourage collaboration, and create artwork that empowers all. 

S.T.E.A.M. Drawing from Mission Viejo Arts Alive Festival, Ink on canvas,  5'x7'The drawings are displayed at CSU Fullerton Campus

Circle Painting  has transformed my life and I invite you to sit down and draw a circle, maybe draw and paint several circles. Better yet, watch my videos below and come join me at a Circle Painting event!. Together we can paint away our stress, isolation, depression and creative obstacles. Together, we can connect, create, and celebrate and share my mantra, “Art for All, and All for Art!”


This is week 51 of Artists Tell TheirStories. Thank you for reading and sharing Hiep’s story today. To connect with Hiep and see more of his work, please visit the following links: