When I was 13, I won the award for best 8th grade artist. At that point, I figured I might have some sort of knack for art and so I fell onto the path of creativity. Over the years, much to my dismay, my talent progressed painfully slowly. When I was 30 I actually began making a fairly decent living as an artist. It has been a roller-coaster. I am now 43. I make my living with art, photography and music. I have seen, up close, within a nose-length, (because that’s as far as the museum guards would let me go), Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait,” Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel,” Seurat’s “Grande Jatte,” Monet’s “Water Lilies,” among many other great masterpieces. But in those 30 years, there has been only one painting that has brought me to tears. It is a portrait of a business man, hanging his head down and leaning his hand against the Vietnam Wall, and reflected in the wall are several of his fallen comrades, one also with his hand touching.
This painting was done in 1988 by Lee Teter, and I believe that’s about the time I first saw it. To me, this represented the mourning of what could have been. What those men could have become.
This week I am going to a place where a leader declared war on his own country. I am going to Cambodia. The killing fields. At one point, I will be standing inside former high school Tuol Sleng, which became known as code name “S-21”, a prison holding victims awaiting torture and death by the Khmer Rouge regime. Photos of the prisoners line the walls of S-21. Accurate records and photographs of many thousands of victims were kept, and were acquired after the regime was forced out.
How will I stand in this building? Me, departing from a village where people will pull off the freeway to rescue a grasshopper who decided to hitch a ride on a windshield wiper. Where stray dogs or cats are scooped up and whisked to the vet to be rehabilitated and given a good home. Where a friend in need will be tended to at the drop of a hat. How will I stand in this very room where the total opposite on the spectrum of humanity occurred. Thirty years ago, as I was being handed my award for best artist, on the other side of the world, human beings were being exterminated for being intelligent. For wearing glasses. For speaking English. For playing a musical instrument. For having a college degree. How does one stand on their own two feet in a spot where their brothers and sisters fell in the blink of an eye, wiping out an entire generation of would-be artists, doctors, musicians, writers, photographers. Can you imagine if all the members of Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Queen, AC/DC, or Heart had been murdered by our own government? James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Karen Carpenter - killed for having a voice. What about Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper, Morgan Freeman, Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton? There would be no Star Wars, no Jaws, no Saturday Night Live or Carol Burnett. There would have been no making science projects with my Dad from instructions from the Childcraft Encyclopedia, Volume 11 -" Make and Do". "Roots", by Alex Haley, one of the best books I've ever read, would not have been written, and would not have went on to enlighten my generation to the horrors of slavery, segregation, racism. This was my childhood. This is what was going on here in my country when I was a kid - an explosion of creativity. Over there, was an annihilation of creativity.
So how do I stand in this high school that became a prison? I plan not to stand until I have first knelt and paid my respects to these people who could have been my mother or father. In which case, my two younger sisters, born in the late seventies, would not exist. There are many brothers and sisters who do not exist. Many books unwritten, songs unsung, words unspoken, pieces unperformed.
I am going to Cambodia as an artist, photographer and musician, and my job is to capture the extreme beauty and unimaginable ugliness in one of the most intriguing places on earth. I am a part of a magnificent project, brought to life by people from my village. A project that honors the story of these lost souls.