'I Have Nothing To Lose' - Rockford Artist Is Living His Dream Full-Time
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and WNIJ is putting the spotlight on a Rockford artist who stuck with his passion, despite many obstacles.
Bounsay Pipathsouk crafts images while sitting on a porcelain, water-filled object. It’s not typical, but his toilet just happens to be one of the fixtures in his creative space. He said his bathroom is the perfect studio because its window lets in amazing light.
“And it's so bright in there. It's not big,” he added. “I'm not so proud of that -- to work in the bathtub [and] sit on my toilet seat, but you have to do whatever you have [to do].”
This Laotian charcoal artist discovered his love for drawing at eight years old. He said the only art supplies his family could afford back then were paper and pencil. His teacher told him that a pencil was just as good as any other drawing utensil, so Pipathsouk stuck with it.
Back at home, he was known as the teenager who loved to draw. One day an older woman died, and the family needed a big picture to give to the funeral home. They asked him to sketch one because they needed it quickly, so he used a 1-by-2 photo to produce an 8-by-10 image. His payment for that first job was a bag of candy.
Pipathsouk said his father didn’t support his craft, but that didn’t stop his pencil from kissing paper.
“We have to listen to our dad,” he said. “So, I just don't do it around him. [I] just secretly did it on my own,” he said.
He continued to draw things like trees, flowers and other types of scenery. Then he discovered that people would pay him not just candy, but money to draw their loved ones. He remembers when a friend commissioned him.
“‘Can you do my mom? My mom would pay you for it.’ I say ‘Really? Seriously?’ ‘Yes. Give it to me.’ ‘Where's your mom's picture?’” he recalled. “And the minute he gave it to me, I drew a beautiful pencil sketch drawing.”
He said he received a big tip for it which kept him going.
But this type of work didn’t last long. Around 1975, his neighbors started to disappear.
“And pretty soon the whole entire neighborhood [was] empty,” Pipathsouk shared. “We don't know why they left the country because that’s all we [is] that we have less food. And less people, no business.”
Basic items like aspirin were unobtainable. Therefore, many of his friends decided to leave during the Laotian Civil War – a conflict between three political parties leaving Laos to be the most bombed country in history.
A neighbor, who owned a bookstore, told him he was leaving offered books to Pipathsouk with the condition that he also took the dog. Pipathsouk agreed, but about 15 months later there was no food for the dog and the four-legged creature died. He explained that the family ate vegetables, but they knew things would last too long.
He said that’s when his family realized they could be next and decided to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. He was around 25 years old then. He made money for his family and others by selling his drawings.
“I spend 10 cents for a piece of paper. I can make $10 even $20 when the drawings finished. So, I gave away I would say 80 to 90% of my money," he said.
Three years later, his family moved to the United States, and he had to figure out a way to feed them. He said he set up a table at a Rockford park and drew people and even pets. But when the holidays passed, the demand dwindled.
He found work at an upholstery shop where his sister worked as a seamstress.
“They say, ‘Have you seen this kind of work before?’ I say ‘No, but I want to try. It doesn’t look that difficult to begin with,”’ he recalled saying. “I say, ‘Can I try? They say ‘Oh, sure.’”
His work was so good that they couldn’t distinguish things made by those who’d worked there for over 20 years. He ended up owning his own shop and had three children to support. So, this work became his priority and he decided to tuck his pencil away.
His wife Pealuan said she supported whatever decision he made but he said he had to make that choice.
“I don't have the luxury to do my business and do my dream at the same time,” he explained. “It doesn't work out that way. So, I just do my business then, that’s it.”
But he once again sharpened his writing tool after a teacher noticed his 10-year-old son’s artistic ability.
“The teacher said, ‘Well, do you have artist in the family or what? Who is it? I say, ‘hey, that's me.’ My son kind of looked at me that funny.”
He had to prove a point, and said he spent time drawing with his son that whole weekend.
Pipathsouk is retired from the upholstery business. These days he focuses on drawing famous people.
They’ve included Princess Diana, Beyonce, Kobe Bryant and even Martin Luther King Jr. He said drawing well-known people advertises his skills because people can compare his art to the real thing.
“So, I had to say ‘Yeah I’m best I did a good job on him,’” he said. “Now I don't have to say as anything. You tell me. So that's why I have to pick a big name, a big celebrity so people can tell I do the best job in the market.”
Pipathsouk said making money isn’t his main ambition right now. His upholstery business helped him support his three children, and now they can support him and his wife.
"So, to this point of my life, I have nothing to lose. Just do as many as I can regardless [of] making money or not." he explained. "That's to this point. So that's what we try to do. And then you get invited to show up your work. That's even better."
He recently shared his charcoal drawings during Rockford's spring ArtScene.
Pipathsouk has been approached to draw everyday people but said he’s had to put those requests on hold while he pursues an important opportunity: he was told his work could be displayed in a downstate museum if he creates 100 images.
He is only halfway there, which means his family bathroom will be occupied for a while. But the small space does not hinder Pipathsouk. He is just happy to still be able to create.
And he encourages others, wherever they are, to find their passions and to stick with with them.
- Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.