A glimpse into Vietnam

Tim Magaw

At the Open Space Gallery in Kent, one local artist is hoping to help the community understand a confusing war

John Kluth holds up a painting by visiting artist Robert Wood in front of Kluth’s own mural-size painting. Heather Stawicki | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: Ron Soltys

Frederick John Kluth, wearing an Adidas sweatsuit splashed with white paint, points to the maritime sunset scene of coastal Vietnam in a nearby painting, which is washed with orange and red colors. Two huts sit in the shadows of large palm trees, and the sun peaks through the parting clouds.

The small painting hangs on the wall of a small naturally lit room in Kent’s Open Space Gallery on North Mantua Street, which is crowded with artifacts from Southeast Asia.

But the backdrop of the scenic artwork is somewhat deceiving as the chaos brewing in Vietnam at the time was far greater than what the piece would suggest.

“I don’t think the Vietnamese were very happy with the war,” he said. “I think they wanted to forget it. That’s why the pastoral scenery is an attempt to recover to more peaceful times — that’s what the art’s telling me.”

An American soldier purchased the painting in Vietnam, rolled it up and brought it back. When the veteran died a few years ago, the painting was discovered still rolled up and was sold to Kluth, a local artist and owner of the gallery.

Because of the shootings on May 4, 1970, that left four Kent State students dead and nine wounded, Kluth believes Kent is the perfect place for paintings and other Vietnamese artifacts such as these, which is why he has made the exhibit a fixture at the local gallery.

“Understanding the people of Vietnam helps you understand the war in Vietnam,” said Kluth, intently closing his eyes as he softly spoke. “And the nature of the war helps you understand why there were protesters here.”

Kluth said he has always been a patron of flea markets and had been acquiring many Asian artifacts. As he purchased more, he questioned the origin of several of the pieces. He said it suddenly occurred to him that many of the pieces were “bring backs” from the Vietnam War, which he said helps in understanding the Vietnamese people.

On the back of one painting, it says “purchased in Saigon, 1968.” Another is dated 1970.

“If you’re going to have a war in Vietnam, you’re going to have to think of about the people of Vietnam and what they thought about it and whether our being there helped them or hurt them,” Kluth said with his voice occasionally cracking.

Outside of the small room crammed with artifacts is an open space with paintings and various story cloths. Kluth points toward the pieces, which detail the history of the Hmong, an ethnic group from Southeast Asia that has maintained its identity for more than 4,500 years.

On one blue cloth, small stitched figures of armed Viet Cong soldiers advance on the Hmong villagers. An elaborately crafted plane attacks the fleeing men and women. The Hmong became refugees in Thailand and eventually sought asylum in the United States where many still produce these types of cloths, Kluth added.

A three-foot-long wooden boat loaded with 11 small figurines and a golden anchor rests on the shelf among the sea of Asian artifacts. Kluth said the boat is a model of a Vietnamese sampan, which many Vietnamese who refused to go under communist rule used to flee the country after the Americans left.

One of the pieces Kluth said is the most interesting is a wide-eyed, ornate wooden statue of a female he purchased at a gallery New York City. The statue is coated in gold-leaf with shades of blue on its eyelids and a splash of red on the lips.

“She has some mysteries associated with her,” Kluth said, adding that she has some Vietnamese script on the base and doesn’t look very new. If it’s older than 1850, only one religious culture used the script — Catholicism.

Kluth said there are a lot of materials for students to think about in the gallery. Some collectors who are interested in oriental objects have taken a liking to the materials, and some people just enjoy the exotic nature of the Open Space’s international art.

Some of the pieces in the gallery are for sale, such as some of the jewelry, including a silver Hmong bracelet with a $30 price tag. Some of the smaller pieces are priced as low as a few dollars. But some of the more esteemed pieces, such as the gold-leafed statue, Kluth said could net a few thousand dollars.

Nathan Dile, an artist who is curating an art show for sometime in mid-January at Open Space, said the gallery is a desirable space and Kluth has some interesting pieces in his Vietnamese collection.

“There is some fantastic art there, and he does have a lot of good pieces,” Dile said, adding that Kluth is working on putting together a collection of Vietnamese hats. “He’s actually got good pieces that were shown in museums in Europe. It should bring a lot of prestige to the gallery, but it’s not New York. If it was in the Metropolitan, it’d be a different story.”

In an adjacent room, roughly the same size as the small space congested with Vietnamese artifacts, is a quaint art studio filled with natural light where Kluth and other artists work on their own creations. Resting on a small table is a piece that another local artist, Bob Wood, had been working on the night before. It’s a painting of a lynching, splashed with watercolors.

“While John’s focusing on that immoral war, I’m focusing on another immoral part of history,” said Wood about a recent series of artwork he’s working on about the racial injustices of America’s past.

Wood adjusts his round glasses and strokes his foot-long white beard while staring down his day-old creation.

“People don’t want to be reminded of Vietnam or May 4, either,” Wood said, referring to the fact that some people may be put off by his artwork and Kluth’s Vietnamese collection. “In a sense, we’re taking a risk.”

Kluth said when people mention that they’re from Kent, the Kent State shootings immediately come to mind.

“But when they come to Kent, is there an effort to educate them about what happened? No. For the people of Kent, the May 4 incident is an embarrassment,” he said.

As Kluth explains the importance of some of his pieces in understanding the Vietnam War, he points to a man in a gold Chevrolet Astro Van out the window who is peering into the wide windows of the gallery. He said people coming over the Crain Avenue bridge have to look at the gallery, and he hopes it will help them understand Kent is tied to Vietnam.

“I think dealing with this stuff helps it get personal,” he said.

Contact news editor Tim Magaw at [email protected].