Heavy Metal Mettle

Artistic themes don’t get any weightier than the ones Kiet Le confronts in his work. Mortality, spirituality, religion, love, pain and truth permeate the contours of his sculptures, demanding the room’s attention and challenging the viewer’s perspective.

Which is why Le, a first-year student in the master of fine arts program, prefers bronze.

“It’s cold. It allows you to convey deep, painful emotions,” Le says. “Bronze invades your space, and it makes you feel almost uncomfortable to be in its vicinity.”

Le, who was raised Catholic, has been exploring theological topics with his art since his time as a gunner’s mate in the U.S Navy from 2004–09. While stationed in East Asia, he witnessed unspeakable tragedy during humanitarian missions after tsunamis and mudslides ravaged the region. The experience shook his faith.

Le’s bronze sculpture sits on display in his studio.
Torment, a 15-inch bronze sculpture, is one of several pieces to be featured at Le’s first solo show during Columbia’s First Friday event Aug. 2, at Dogwood Artist Workspace in the North Village Arts District. Photo by Michael Cali

“I returned with a different outlook,” says Le, whose first solo show is Aug. 2 at Dogwood Artist Workspace in Columbia. “I’m not against the idea of a god or deity. I’m simply trying to find the answers. I’m trying to balance communication and poetry.”

Le presented two of his bronze sculptures — Torment and Endure — at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum in April. Each work stands about 15 inches and depicts a figure writhing against unseen forces while traversing a treacherous path.

As Le moved into his master’s program this spring, his mentor, Jim Calvin, entreated his pupil to fully dedicate himself to his inner message.

“Kiet is concerned about the effect his work has on the audience, which is a very good thing,” says Calvin, associate professor of visual studies and a sculptor himself. “But as he starts his MFA program, it’s all about the artist. Our conversations in the studio revolve around, ‘What are you trying to say? How have you chosen to say it? And, is that the most effective methodology that you could have chosen?’ ”

Art reflects artist in the perpetual motion of Le’s work. Born in Louisiana to Vietnamese-immigrant parents — his father is a mechanic and his mother a manicurist — Le lived in the poor part of Orange County, California, before moving to Liberty, Missouri. After a brief stint in community college, he enlisted in the Navy to take advantage of the GI Bill.

Le crafts his latest sculpture in his studio.
Le works on his latest piece, Learn In Silence (working title), in plastilina, a non-hardening clay material. The sculpture depicts a female figure being crushed and suffocated by her own beliefs. Photo by Michael Cali

“I try not to focus on my family’s culture with my art because that would be too easy,” says Le, who painted and sketched at a younger age but didn’t start sculpting until arriving at Mizzou.  “My forefathers have already done that. If it carried over, that would be fantastic. But I try not to depend on it.”

Le’s most recent sculpture, The Stilt Fisherman, illustrates the poverty he witnessed in Sri Lanka and the families there who fish for sustenance. On a deeper level, Le says, the piece grapples with the politics of the religious right versus global ecology. They are themes that reveal themselves in subtle gestures and lines echoing classic religious works, topics he felt comfortable exploring at Mizzou.

“It was hard sharing some of my beliefs with my professors, but they assured me it’s all about processing your ideas here,” Le says. “That’s the best part about the Mizzou art department. They allow you to be yourself. There’s absolutely no judgement.

“It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s what it’s all about.”