Tom Rosen was in Vietnam this week on vacation with his son. The trip was a gift to both men from Rosen’s wife to celebrate their milestone birthdays: Tom’s 60th and son TJ’s 40th.
Rosen expected to marvel at the sights, smells, sounds and tastes. He knew it would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip through history. He looked forward to the statues and temples and ancient things.
What he didn’t expect was to meet the man who created his most cherished possession more than 50 years ago.
The story starts in 1966. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and Rick Kulhanek was a Marine serving in Hue (pronounced ‘way’). His little brother, Tom Rosen, was home in Idaho. Rick carried a school photo of the 8-year-old in his wallet.
Rick, who now lives in Twin Falls, met a street artist in Hue. He handed the man his little brother’s school picture. The artist got to work, bringing young Tom’s blue eyes, striped T-shirt and blonde buzz cut to life on canvas. The artist left a dateline and his elegant signature in the upper left-hand corner.
“When I received it in the mail, I was dumbfounded,” Rosen wrote in a Facebook post this week. “It was by far the nicest gift I had ever received. Even with my crazy life, I’ve been able to preserve and keep it. It will always be treasured because my brother, in the midst of a terrible war, had thought about me, his little brother.”
Going to Vietnam
The painting was a slice of Vietnam for Rosen, and it sparked his curiosity. He heard stories about the country from his three brothers who served in the war, and he was “kind of obsessed” with eventually seeing it for himself, he told the Statesman via Facebook on Wednesday.
This month, he finally realized that dream. He and TJ arrived last weekend in Ho Chi Minh City. They toured around a bit to Da Nang and the town of Hoi An. They visited three temples of three different religions.
Finally, they made it to Hue. They asked the front desk staff at their hotel if there were any art districts in the area.
“We showed them the painting, and they expressed it would be nearly impossible to find the artist, as 52 years had passed,” Rosen wrote on Facebook. “They said we should ask at a place called Hope Center, and ordered us a cab.”
Searching for Kim? Not quite.
They arrived at Hope Center and discovered that it wasn’t an art district, but it was definitely a home for artists.
The Hope Center is a vocational training school for disabled and disadvantaged adults. The students make art, crafts and clothing that are sold to support the school.
The center’s English-language interpreter, Thuy, gave them a tour of the school. Thuy didn’t know the artist Rosen was looking for, but she offered to share the painting with a Facebook group. Maybe someone there would know?
“TJ and I had two hours to kill before our cab returned, so we walked in this old section of Hue ...” Rosen wrote. “During our walk, Thuy messaged us and said she had news.”
The center’s director had recognized the painter’s signature. It didn’t say “Kim,” as Rosen had always thought. It was “Rin.” And he was very well known. He’d made the news for using his beard to paint in 2006, Thuy told the Statesman.
Thuy’s friend agreed, saying her father had recognized Rin’s painting.
“She did not show the picture with the signature yet but just ask [her] dad, ‘Who was the most famous artist for portrait in 1960s?’ Then he said, ‘Just only Mr. Rin!’” Thuy said in an interview.
Unfortunately, the director said, Rosen was too late: Rin had died a few years ago.
Finding the artist’s home
The Rosens and Thuy decided to try going to Rin’s family home anyway. Maybe they could meet his children.
When they got to the neighborhood, Thuy approached a neighbor. They talked for a bit, and Thuy hollered to Tom and TJ: “He’s not dead!”
“A few minutes later, I was introduced to his daughter ... and then to the artist himself,” Rosen wrote. “I was dumbfounded.”
The man is now 82 years old, Rosen said. “We exchanged pleasantries and gifts. I expressed my gratitude for his talent and all it meant to me.”
Rin, who was 29 when he first painted Rosen’s portrait, said he’d like to do a second one.
“A quest that seemed impossible to me turned out in a very perfect way,” Rosen wrote. “I can’t thank my son enough for insisting that we try.”
There are about a half-million people in Hue. “TJ, Thuy, the hotel staff, I found him in two hours. How is that even possible?” he wrote.
Rosen says the center, whose faculty helped connect him with Rin, is facing some uncertainty with its building and is worried it may not have a place for the school in the future. He created a GoFundMe account at https://www.gofundme.com/hope-center-teaching-disadvantaged-skills-for-work.
Thuy said she’s not sure why the hotel staff sent Rosen to the center. But she’s glad they did, because it led to the reunion that made Rosen’s vacation.
“I’m really, really happy to see his happy face,” Thuy said. “It must be destiny.”