By Francis Chung, Pentagram Staff PhotojournalistDecember 28, 2016
"I just want to create," said Thanh D. Nguyen as he chiseled away at the block of ice before him.
Nguyen spends most of his workdays as a supply technician at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's Patton Hall, but he has an additional job function that allows him to express his considerable creative talents.
For over two decades, Nguyen, 64, has been JBM-HH's resident ice sculptor, making decorative carvings that have beautified on-base celebrations and commemorations, first at the NCO Club (now Spates Community Club) and, since 1993, at Patton Hall.
As he worked on his latest piece, a three-foot-tall cherub that will be displayed at Patton Hall's New Years Eve party, Nguyen discussed his artistic endeavors and how they have woven in and out of his remarkable life story.
Entirely self-taught, Nguyen began making sculptures in his native Vietnam. "During the Vietnam War, I was a soldier, so I was making little sculptures, little carvings with the rocks that I pick up from the river, just for hobby" he recalled.
A second lieutenant in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Nguyen says he was imprisoned in a communist reeducation camp for three years after South Vietnam fell to the Viet Cong in 1975.
After his release, he was placed in a village where he engaged in forced labor for a further three years. It was from there that he was able to escape with his wife and two-year-old daughter aboard a small boat, arriving in Malaysia after seven days and nights at sea.
In Kuala Lumpur, Nguyen met a lieutenant colonel from the United States military (he doesn't remember which branch), who helped facilitate his immigration to the U.S. in 1981. After a stint in Boston, Mass., he settled in the National Capital Region.
"So, I'm a refugee here," said Nguyen, now a naturalized American citizen.
Stateside, Nguyen renewed his creative pursuits, making vibrant, impressively-detailed figural sculptures out of concrete which he painted to look like bronze.
"When I went to America, I learned a lot of things that I could not make before because I didn't have time or didn't have a chance," he said. "When you go to a free country, then everything just comes out."
Working as a food-service worker at Alexandria, Va.'s Cameron Station, Nguyen first encountered ice carving while making a delivery to JBM-HH's NCO Club. "The manager there was making ice sculpture," he recollected. Upon learning of Nguyen's sculptural abilities, the manager suggested that Nguyen take a try at it.
"He said, 'okay, next time I'll let you carve,'" Nguyen recalled. "I carved, and then he hired me for good and transferred me to this base to start working."
"I knew how to make sculpture already, now I just adapt in ice to the needs of the business over here," he added.
After two years as an illustrator making signs and ice sculptures at NCO Club, Nguyen moved over to Patton Hall, where he worked as an exhibit maker, producing signage, announcements, and of course, ice sculptures. About two years ago, a reduction in need for those services led to his shift to his current position of supply technician.
At one point, Nguyen was making as many as seven ice sculptures in a single day, but says that in recent years, a decline in demand as well as the physical limitations brought on by age have reduced his output. This year, he completed about seven ice sculptures, mostly for big events like Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Eve.
For the cherub figure that will help ring in the upcoming new year at Patton Hall, Nguyen began by sketching out a rough design on a 40 x 20 x 10 block of ice.
He then used a chainsaw to carve away large chunks of the ice, revealing the rudimentary shape of a figure. Further refinements were made with various chisels, before finer details were added via a drill-like mechanical grinder.
Over the course of two hours, Nguyen skillfully transformed the inert block of ice into a charmingly lifelike depiction of a winged, angelic boy blowing a trumpet.
He notes that his figural sculptures are informed by the studies of human and animal anatomy that he undertook as part of his self-training.
"You already have something in your mind, like the construction of the bones, the muscle, and things like that, so you just want to figure out a way to do it with the attitude of the thing," he remarked. "We have to put the attitude of them inside to make it living. Just like Michelangelo said, just dig it out. You have to imagine what is inside and just dig it out."
Nguyen is planning to retire after one more year at Patton Hall, and he looks forward to devoting more of his time and energies to his artistic passions. He doesn't think ice sculpture will remain his primary interest, preferring to open himself up to new materials and techniques.
"I want to use my time just to create," Nguyen declared. "If I got a piece of wood, then I do something from the wood, a piece of stone, I do something from the stone, or clay, whatever, but I will do something to create."
Nguyen has no ambitions to profit financially from his sculptures, and he makes clear that, for him, art is strictly a passion project.
"I want to create only," he said. "I don't want to do the technical things, or selling, I don't care, but I love to do the art."
For more photos, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jbm-hh/31688542061/.
Pentagram Staff Photojournalist Francis Chung can be reached at email@example.com.