This Is Paint: Vilaykorn Sayaphet

Every painting features a home somehow. This makes talking to the painter Vilaykorn Sayaphet (b. 1976) difficult and frustrating right now. This guy is trying to explain to me what home means.

Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

We are sitting in his studio on Flushing Avenue. The walls are tagged in marker and spray paint. Vilaykorn, or Vil, has been inviting me to his studio over the summer to watch him paint and prepare for his solo show at English Kills.

Some evenings it’s just us, a few paint lines and paint brushes. Other evenings eponymous taggers and artists swing through until the sun comes up. There would be a few beers, breeze coming through open windows, and ashtrays filling up over the course of the evening. No matter the scenario Vil painted.

He wasn’t so keen on me at first. I came through initially after an art opening and watched him work while a spontaneous group continued the party all around us. When he finally took a break I told him that I liked his work.

“Looks very old south. Could I interview you at some point over the summer?”

“Maybe.” scratched his chin, “Yeah, we could do something like that.” and asked around trying to figure out who I was, before ultimately extending an open invitation.

The second visit did not seem to go well. He was painting when I arrived. There were various artists hanging around like the cloud of smoke above our heads. Suddenly Vil began cursing at a painting in progress that wasn’t going right. I could see him semi-whispering to Chris Harding of English Kills. He was talking about me. Chris responded “It’s ok man. You’ve done a lot of work today.”

**

On origins:

He is Laotian. His family emigrated as war refugees to North Carolina when he was young (1983). He tells me that this is one of the effects of the Vietnam War. I tell him that my father was a veteran of that war (1969). He tells me that his family had to flee the bombing.

He says that he wants to teach. That his dream right now, on this June night, is to go back to Laos, or to North Carolina, and teach. At this point in his work, he has an internal fulfillment that lends itself to generosity. That is the crux of the desire to teach.

He says, “I feel like I am a painter. That now I’m a painter. Not an abstract painter, or figurative,” or any pre-emptive adjectives. “I am a painter.”

But this is what is making it so goddamned frustrating to interview Vil right now. All of his paintings look like the mind’s snapshot of a home. And he is winging them out in impressionistic flights nearly every day in here. His desires and his truths are so self-evident to him that he can only iterate them in simple, but key, phrases.

This is also the zen of it.

A painter is a human being. They have to wake up and go to sleep. Eat and defecate. Breathe in and out. When he sits with his back straight, and touches his fingertips together and says, “I am a painter.” He’s taking us to the elemental parts of his self. “When I paint I envision myself as music.”

This is why a miniscule dollop of disharmony can send him into an uproar.

“Do you know the reason I got so angry the second time you came over?” he asks. “It was because you were here. You were this person. This writer, who I didn’t know, coming to watch me in a very personal setting. It sent me over the edge that day.”

I look at the works in progress surrounding us, there are things that I see that I would hope would stay the same. And when I think this, I have to remember that I shouldn’t comment too heavily on them. That I should let the course take its natural way so that I can observe it.

After all, that is what home does when one is no longer around. It changes, weathers storms, and sometimes it’s lost to memory. The paintings that I see one month could be new paintings the next month. And the only thing left is remembering what you can.

“There would be days when that wouldn’t have done it. But it’s good that it did on that day. I had to know that I could let you in, so I had to ask about you.”

There is one piece painted on the leather seat of a folding chair. It looks Scandinavian in its atmosphere and architecture. This is a piece that when finished, isn’t considered anymore.

“‘Why is it important that you paint?’ hmmm…” mulling over the question. “What do you do? Are you alive?”

How many people came through and sat on it? He nonchalantly told me to sit on it while we did this interview. There could have been many.

He picks up a spatula and begins carving dried oil paint off of a piece near him. He puts the paint chips on a chair that serves as a palette. “It’s important to be alive whatever it is you do. I guess that’s why I paint.”

Then there is the arresting depiction of a waterfront neighborhood of stilted houses. Mountains in the background. A path through the center of the painting leads to the next town. He has been working on this piece for quite a while now. The first time I saw it, he had done the sky pink with broad brush strokes and one house.

**

Over the course of July new houses were made from the original. The sky had gone to sundown sometime after the fourth. Then it remained untouched for a week and change.

I swung by one evening to see how the work was going and watched as a graff-dude shook a spray can and painted all over the piece. He used a brush, some oils, and the spray can to completely demolish the brooding landscape into a brightly colored vanishing point.

Vil sat in a chair and watched. His hand was rubbing his goatee lost in thoughtless, while his mind was analyzing the vandalism and searching out weak points in the composition.

“I like it.” He said when the graff-dude finally relented 1.5 hours later. “Yeah, it’s pretty good. I like the new colors. The middle there.” Pointing. “I’ll work on it tomorrow.” and then he sighed.

**

The first time we tried to do an interview, Vil talked about this body of work like it would be the last thing he would ever do. The pressure of presenting this body of work to the public at English Kills was welling up in him and gushed at any given outlet.

The people who came by in the dwindling months were mostly Chris and myself. It was near the beginning of August now and the pieces were stacking up.

He had just made two fresh works on panels. In the center of one he wrote ‘The End.’

“That’s the last piece for the show. I’m not making anything new. From here on out I’m going to be working on what I’ve made. I’m doing an English Vils pop-up in Brownsville in a couple of weeks. My work is done. It’s down to the editing.”

**

It’s the day before Labor Day. Most of the pieces that Vil made over summer hang on makeshift shelves in his studio.

“I want to make you dinner.” He says.

We are in his kitchen. He is grilling Brussels sprouts, ginger, red onions, and carrots on a George Foreman grill. He makes Udon noodles. He slices the ends off of a package of Andouille sausages and then gingerly breaks green basil leaves off of their stems.

“Chinatown is the place to grocery shop.” he says during knife work. “You don’t have to be a chef, or make extravagant meals every night. You just need something simple that has greens, proteins, and sustains you.”

It’s obvious to me now, watching him in this element, that he is a person who works in devastatingly simple rhythms. I can recall the brush strokes as vividly as the ginger being sliced in front of me.

He works in two square feet of space to make this meal because that’s all he needs. It becomes clear how and why he lives as he does. It’s simply all he needs.

The memory from June comes back, What do you do? Are you alive?

And from later in that night when he is telling me to make my hardships my source of strength. The things that are in us are our strengths and weaknesses. We have to fashion them into what we need.

The knife and the paint brush are only tools when they are in use.

“You don’t cut up the basil, or add it to the noodles too soon or it will cook the leaves and you don’t get the full flavor. You have to add them last. That’s the good stuff.”

He hands me the bowl once he finishes the presentation.

“Stir it up before you eat it. Get those flavors moving around.”

He sits outside on a fire escape while I eat. I look up at the paintings and into the bowl of food.

When I join him later, we watch the cloud patterns, play music, watch the cops down the block, drink tallboys, and talk about the summer.

It had been full of life.

**

It’s the Thursday before the opening. I get a phone call. It’s Chris, “Hey Vil is sleeping, he hung the show last night. Do you want to come by tonight and check it out?”

I do. The work and cumulative effect is such a different affair in the gallery lights. Especially after dark.

We stand in the vast back room of the show space. Our cigarettes somewhere between being lit and being smoked. Left and right are the works. The entire summer and everything it encapsulated in nineteen paintings.

I think of the journey that led here. No pictures or words are needed now. Tonight, I don’t even know what the name of the show will be*. Standing in the midst of the work in silence is my final leg of the journey. The doors will open in two days and something significant will have changed into something new.

*“Latmanikham & Thongsy” September 13 – October 12, 2014

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