His drawings are grand. His tools are simple. Htoo Doh reveals the strength and subtleties of the human spirit in drawings that are executed with such high accuracy they are often mistaken for photographs. With a tuft of cotton, an eraser, a soft brush and a bit of charcoal, Doh captures a life from which he was forced to flee. Portraits depicting Burmese elders with creped, wrinkled faces framed by strands of tribal beads conjure stories of survival and struggle. A contrasting piece shows a young child with a porcelain complexion and a tear falling down her cheek, speaking in a silent yet powerful voice that calls for help, as if she witnessed her own, frightening future in a looking glass.
The life Doh left behind in Burma was quite different from the daily grind that many of us in northeast Indiana have grown to consider blasé. Doh was born in Burma, now Myanmar. As a child he witnessed war crimes in the streets.
“Everyday life was under gunfire. We lived in a war zone,” said Doh. “I once caught malaria and almost died. We went out for medicine one night, and the Burmese army arrested me. They wanted me to become a porter and carry a machine gun.” The Burmese soldiers kept his father but released Doh. “If I went with them I would have died,” says Doh. “My malaria got so bad. My stomach hurt so bad. I know if I would have gone with them I would have died. I needed medicine.”
Doh is Karenni. He belongs to an ethnic group that has been engaged in a war of resistance against Burmese forces since 1948. During our interview, Doh seemed reluctant to divulge the details of what he had seen, as if he were embarrassed to have witnessed such ugly brutality. He quickly brushed over the topic with a matter-of-fact description, using the same tone many of us use to speak about our list of daily errands. “In Burma, [the] military shoot or arrest you or rape women. At any age. It didn’t matter. People were treated like they were meaningless. Like they were animals,” said Doh. “The Karenni call it ethnic cleansing or secret genocide.”
Doh left his family and fled to Thailand, a bordering country, when he was 14. He was homeless and alone from 1999 to 2002. He tried to enter a refugee camp in Thailand but was soon cast away because he didn’t have official refugee papers. During those years, Doh did his best to survive. He helped other people in need and asked for a place to sleep in return. Because he didn’t speak Thai, it was impossible for him to find a proper job. He relied on his own resources and managed to keep himself alive until he reached the magic age of 18. At that age, one no longer has to rely on an adult to apply for refugee papers. With proper documentation, Doh entered a refugee camp that offered free education to those who wanted to participate. He lived in the camp in one of about 6,000 huts that consisted of nothing more than grass roofs pitched over dirt floors.
In 2004 Doh started drawing. He was 20 years old when he met an artist named Saw Kennedy. Kennedy also lived in a bamboo house with no walls. “There were no windows or doors, only posts that held up a roof. The kitchen was very basic and it was outside.” Doh and Kennedy met at a New Year’s celebration where Kennedy was showing his artwork. “He was the best artist I ever met,” said Doh.
Doh was fascinated by Kennedy’s work and technique. He watched him closely, and they soon developed a close bond. Doh studied and drew alongside his mentor. He eventually moved in with Kennedy, his wife and their son, Junior. Doh connected with drawing very quickly. He drew with incredible detail right away. His skill level was so high that Kennedy signed his established name to Doh’s work so the pieces could bring in a higher price at the market. Doh was proud to represent Kennedy and also dedicated to refining his craft. He learned to pay close attention to minute detail. After studying for four years with Kennedy, Doh finally earned the right to sign and sell his own work. “I never signed my own drawings until 2008,” he said.
Kennedy and Doh parted ways when Kennedy was forced to move to the United States after he was listed as a threat to the Burmese government for drawing portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar resistance leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Drawings such as these are illegal in Myanmar. Kennedy was quickly accepted by his new home near Seattle, Washington where he was invited to show four pieces of his work at the Seattle Center just two weeks after he arrived in the United States.
Doh eventually made his way to the United States as well. His wife was chosen from a list of refugees to settle in Fort Wayne. One month later, Doh was offered a place to live in Pennsylvania where he attended Montgomery County Community College and studied to earn his criminal justice degree. He recently moved to Fort Wayne to reunite with his wife and hopes to earn a position as a police officer.
Doh’s work as an artist is just as impressive as his mentor’s but, unfortunately, not as appreciated. His talent is still undiscovered. Doh represented himself with one portrait in a recent Wunderkammer show, but he was shyly discreet at the event. Doh explained to me, “I thought no one liked my work. I was embarrassed.” I, on the other hand, witnessed people at the show stepping close to the frame and remarking in surprise, “That’s a drawing!” after first assuming the piece was a photograph.
Perhaps his work was too good. Perhaps most viewers casually walked past thinking the piece was captured with the tap of a finger on a camera rather than with hours of work with a brush and a small pile of powdered charcoal.
Part of this confusion may stem from the fact that Doh draws from photographs. He uses photos of Burmese dressed in traditional costumes as reference to capture his culture. He wants to preserve his heritage and share his traditions with the rest of the world.
Doh’s skill level places him on the same shelf as highly successful artists. His humble personality doesn’t allow him to agree with praise. Doh considers himself a hobbiest. “I see myself as someone who loves art. I do not see myself as an artist. I believe every artist has his own style. It doesn’t matter what type of art. I respect everyone. I can feel the art.”
Doh doesn’t see the creation of art as part of his future. He loves to draw, but can’t see how the practice can help him earn a living. Doh is anxious to work as a police officer, but with no immediate prospects of a new academy class being hired, Doh funnels his skills into working as an interpreter. Like most refugees, he is focused on earning enough money to support a meager lifestyle. He works hard and finds little time to draw, but is open to doing portrait work on commission. Doh doesn’t realize the potential that is held in his brush. “Most of my art I just give away to people. Once I threw a lot of my portraits away and a lady picked them out of the garbage,” he said.
Doh is a man of great talent who carries with him the story of a full life. As a young man who has already overcome great obstacles, one can’t help but wonder how the future chapters in his life will read. Perhaps the pages will be wordless, with his story captured by detailed smudges and highlights rendered in charcoal directed by years of practice, patience and passion.
by Heather Miller
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Art on Broadway — Tours of 5 downtown venues featuring art from Alexandra Hall, Julie Wall, Peter Lupkin, Daniel Dienelt, Knotodday, Kay Gregg, Terry Ratliff and St. Monci, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Broadway Street, Fort Wayne, free, 417-5925
Beer, Bourbon, Bacon Festival — Unlimited beer sampling from national and regional craft breweries, fine bourbon sampling and bacon inspired treats, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, March 25 (5-9 p.m. VIP), Marquis and Three Rivers Ballrooms, Hotel Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, $35-$75, 484-0411
An Evening with Author Tom Frank — Author of What’s the Matter with Kansas talks about his new book; hors d’oeuvres, lecture and book signing included in admission, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, CS3 Hideaway, Fort Wayne, $15 plus donation, 602-1008
Puttin’ on the Ritz —Active 20-30 club fundraiser with live music from Chris Worth and Company, gourmet edibles, wine and beer, live and silent auctions; black tie optional, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, $50-$90, 450-2844
Shipshewana on the Road — Food, craft and primitives show and sale, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $4, 483-1111
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Big Dick and the Penetrators — Classic rock at Navy Club, Ship 245, New Haven, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 493-4044
Brat Pack — Rat Pack/variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at Vinnie's Bar, Decatur, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 729-2225
Ellsworth Sharp — Neofolk at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 745-3369
FBC Band w/Sheba — Variety/Music and Memories benefit at C2G Music Hall, Fort Wayne , 8 p.m., $7-$15, 426-6434
Fireball Matinee — Rock at Hideaway Lounge, Bluffton, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 824-0455
Fleshwounds — Rock at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 488-3344
Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — Funk at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., cover, 483-1311
Fu5ion — Variety at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $3, (260) 387-5063
The Illegals — Rock at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 422-5896
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at Alley Sports Bar, Pro Bowl West, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-4421
Johnny Freakin' Xcitor — Country rock at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
The Orange Opera w/Mickyle James — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., $5, 267-5303
Prime Suspects — Variety at American Legion Post 499, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 483-1368
Quincy and the Q-Tet feat. Phil Potts — Rock/variety at Downtown Eatery & Spirits, Warsaw, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, (574) 267-6000
Second Nature — Pop at Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Shannon Persinger Quartet — Jazz/variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at American Legion Post 148, Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., no cover, 423-4751
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Ambitious Blondes Karaoke — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Beat Karaoke & DJ — Variety at American Legion Post 296, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m. , no cover, 456-2988
Bucca Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Corner Pocket Tavern, Fremont, 10 p.m., no cover, 495-9255
Classic City Karaoke w/Tobin — Karaoke at Toad's Tavern, Monroeville, 10 p.m., no cover, 623-6226
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., , 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 557-1563
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-4748
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Live DJ — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Pike's Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-6200
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at Kville Pub, Kendallville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 348-1677
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The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman’s seminal drama about bigotry perpetuated against the LGBT community and how easily a lie can spread, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
Getting Sara Married — Comedy about an unmarried lawyer in need of a husband (according to her aunt), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Saturday, March 25, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
One Foot in the Gravy — Howard Kingkade’s comedy and winner of Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 422-4226
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22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
An Artful Spring — Works by Gwen Gutwein, Patricia Weiss, Austin Cartwright and more, Tuesday-Saturday thru March 31, Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Decatur Sculpture Tour — 31 original sculptures and 15 permanent exhibits on display, walking tour maps available, thru April 1, Decatur, free, 724-2605
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Entropy — Daniel Swartz solo exhibition explores relationship between death and mourning through combinations of mythology, mathematics, multi-dimensional physics and pop culture, Monday-Saturday thru April 1, Jennifer Ford Art, Fort Wayne, 740-1309
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Garden Party — Garden-themed works in a variety of mediums from over 30 local artists, Monday-Saturday thru March 31, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Generations: A View of Who Was Who — Works by Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence and other African-American artists, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
A Mary Poppins Garden Party — Child-oriented garden exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 1, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Moments in Time: Reflecting on the Human Spirit — Elizabeth Opalenik photographs from her recent Amish series A Journey Home and her Reflecting on the Edge exhibition, daily thru March 26, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
RAW. Untamed. Unashamed. Visions of Freedom. — Abstract romanticist works in acrylics and epoxy from Kristy Jahn, Fridays and Saturday-Thursday by appointment thru March 25, The Gallery at Pranayoga, Fort Wayne, 423-9642
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Wabash County Schools Exhibition — Works by high school art students, daily thru April 16, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102