Rithsouvanh Souryasack has always been able to count on his own two hands.
They helped him as a student coming of age in Laos during and after the turmoil of the Vietnam War and, later, saw him through stints as a dishwasher and a cook after he came as a refugee to California in the early 1980s. For nearly two decades, they’ve helped him earn a living on the assembly line at Freightliner in Gaffney.
They’ve also been the tools that have allowed him to take blank space on canvas and brick and give it life through painting.
Souryasack is the talent behind a series of murals at Spartanburg District 3’s Cannons Elementary School.
“It’s something I love, that I’ve always loved,” Souryasack said. “I’d rather be creative, make something, than nearly anything else.”
A turbulent time
Souryasack said he can trace the roots of his craft back to his home country of Laos, where he received his early art training in the 1970s. He wanted to act and sing but his godfather, a Buddhist monk, asked him to help him design a temple.
“So I started art training,” Souryasack said.
That education continued through the turbulent years after the Communist Party came to power in Laos in the latter half of the decade, Souryasack said.
Still, his practice culminated in an opportunity to take all he’d learned and teach others how to express themselves through art.
“I finished my own training in 1980 and had the chance to become an art teacher,” Souryasack said. “I was able to do that for two or three semesters.”
He said his work impressed local officials enough that he was initially offered the chance to continue honing his skills in the Soviet Union. It was an opportunity he said could have represented a big break for him.
That all came to a halt, he said, when his parents, fearful of the new regime, left the country.
He settled on coming to the United States at the age of 26 in 1982, and he wasn’t alone. From all corners of Laos, men, women, and children sought refuge in the United States following the Communist takeover of the country.
In 1980, there were less than 48,000 Laotian Americans living in the United States. By the end of the decade, that number had more than tripled, climbing to more than 147,000 people.
He said the thought of learning English never seemed daunting — he’d learned to speak French in school — and he quickly found work in California, first as a dishwasher and later as a cook.
“I then went to college in California and learned I could teach drafting by hand,” Souryasack said.
He said his knowledge of English sometimes limited his work prospects, but his art always sustained his soul.
“Even with everything else going on, I’d get so caught up in what I was painting that I’d forget to eat,” Souryasack said. “It’s a powerful experience.”
Souryasack said he made a move to the Upstate in 1997, and a year later, answered a call for volunteer help at nearby Cannons Elementary School. In 1998, he started the murals that still cover the walls of the school’s media center.
He’d drop by the school for an hour in the mornings and sometimes work on weekends or holidays piecing together a cohesive story throughout the room.
“Imagine a jet that starts over here and flies across the world,” Souryasack said.
He said he found the school’s walls to be a natural canvas and said the designs he brought to life made sense for his elementary age audience.
Along the school’s walls, Souryasack brought to life locations like Egypt’s pyramids, famous European landmarks and The Great Wall of China. The Liberty Bell and the White House also called the school’s walls home, along with nature scenes from South America and Africa.
Cannons offered him an opportunity to work as a substitute art teacher as well before his day job at Freightliner put him on first shift.
He said creative pursuits like singing and songwriting, and art, offer him a creative outlet that allows him to focus his energy on anything but life’s day-to-day concerns. He’s sold paintings along the way and even helped loved ones recreate images from damaged photos.
“But really, it just makes me happy,” Souryasack said. “You focus on this and forget about everything else.”
The life of a refugee, especially those who do not speak English, is often one of hardship, Souryasack said.
“I told my wife we have to work harder, longer and do more because we are refugees,” Souryasack said. “And so you do.”
He is nearing retirement at Freightliner and still believes he has much to give. He’s hoping to open his own art studio, or perhaps return to teaching art within the school system or elsewhere in the Upstate.
“My mom always asked me, 'You’ve gone to school for art and drafting, why are you working as a mechanic or a dishwasher or a cook,' ” Souryasack said. “I always said, ‘Mom I can do that stuff when I retire.’ So I think that’s the dream.”