VUTHY KUON: Author, Artist & Motivator
Vuthy "Woody" Kuon has spoken to and motivated nearly a million students and adults since 1996. He is as an author, illustrator, speaker and currently has over 100 books published. Having been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS & FOX television, his speeches and workshops are most known for it's energy and humor, going on the belief that people retain most when they are entertained.
In Cambodia, his father made and sold machetes, only to gamble the money away. His mother was then forced to find creative ways to help provide food and save money like raising baby piglets to growing her own successful donut shop in America. Her influence inspired him to become a "little entrepreneur" starting in elementary school (selling artwork, hand-made hacky sacks, and Snickers bars) and ultimately become a successful publisher and speaker.
"Artist inspired by frugal childhood, creative family"
by Rebecca Rose (originally published in the Harker Heights Herald | July 14, 2011)
"Yee-haw! It twisted and bucked, flinging Mikey around, and with one final bolt, threw him straight to the ground!"
On Wednesday morning, at the Harker Heights Library, rows of children sat silently listening to the tale of "Mikey and Monster Vacuum." They were captivated by the animated speaker.
The speaker was Vuthy Kuon, a children's book author and illustrator. Kuon has illustrated numerous children's books, ranging from "Humpty Dumpty After the Fall," to the adventures of "Mikey and the Monster Vacuum," the story he read Wednesday.
Kuon's own story begins thousands of miles across the sea in Cambodia. Born in Phnom Penh to Chinese parents, the artist's early memories are of a war-torn country and the refugee camps his family called home.
In the mid-1970s, Cambodia saw the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Under Pol Pot's reign, the Khmer Rouge killed more than 2 million people from 1975 to 1979 — four long years marked by torture and genocide. Civil rights were abolished, schools were closed and children were removed from their homes and placed into work camps.
Millions were murdered by Khmer Rouge soldiers, starved to death or died working in forced labor camps. The devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge stands as one of the worst genocides in global history.
In 1975, when Pol Pot's forces numbered almost a million, Kuon's family fled their homeland, escaping to a refugee camp in Thailand.
"We were very poor," Kuon said. "We couldn't afford toys, books or food for that matter."
A life in poverty inspired everyone in his family to become more creative, he said.
"My mother had all these different ways of trying to make money and save money," he said. "She knew the war was coming, so she started saving soap. Detergent became valuable after the war began.
"I had to invent games and other ways to keep myself entertained," Kuon said his siblings would make toys out of things they found in the camps, including rubber bands, chopsticks and Styrofoam cups.
"My brothers would get rubber bands, make them into toys, jump ropes, shoot at things, rubber balls."
The family eventually moved to the United States, relocating to Houston, where Kuon grew up.
Kuon traced the first signs of his talent back to an early memory of a drawing he did of his family that his mother kept in a photo album.
"I had a neighbor who gave me a box of different sizes of card stock. I would take them and draw cartoons.
"I used to make my own books," he said. "We couldn't really afford to buy them, so I would just make them. I had my own little library of tiny shelves of books, all alphabetized. Those were valuable to me."
Kuon said he got his artistic ability from his father, who loved to oil paint, but his mother's do-it-yourself savvy influenced his entrepreneurial side.
He started drawing his own comic books, featuring a mohawked dog named "Max," inspired by Mr. T, a star on the 1980s hit television show "The A-Team."
"My friends liked them so much, they would buy them from me," he said. "I made my own lunch money that way."
Dabbling in arts and crafts to make money eventually led the teenager to a spot at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, one of the country's top art schools.
Today, his work reflects a style that is both whimsical and gritty — bright, bold colors touched with a graffiti-edged sense of realness that children and older readers can relate to.
"Most of my inspiration comes from comic books," he said. "I loved books with pictures, like comic books, because with English as my second language, reading comprehension was not my strong suit.
"As I matured as an artist, the braver I got, the more willing I was to do what I really love. The older I got, the younger my work looked."
Kuon said it's crucial to keep arts in public schools at a time when funding is being slashed.
"What I see in public schools, everything is so focused on memorization, tricks or gimmicks, designed to get the highest on a test. That's not true learning.
"Art doesn't just focus on the craft," he said. "It teaches another way of thinking."
Inspired by a teacher, author now helps HISD students get published (JULY 31, 2013)
by HISD Communications
In this week’s "I am HISD," which features district students, graduates, and employees, writer Vuthy “Woody” Kuon talks about when he started believing in himself, what his teaching philosophy is, and how he is helping HISD students become published authors, too.
You attended White Elementary, Sharpstown Middle, and Bellaire High schools. What are your most inspiring memories from those campuses?
When I got to America, I was three years old. I started kindergarten and didn’t speak the language, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. My grades weren’t good; a whole bunch of checks and minuses. I started acting up as well. We moved to the Sharpstown area and I started going to Ed White Elementary School in the second grade. My teacher asked me to read a book called “Pug” and I was sure I was going to get criticized because I wasn’t great with punctuation. I just decided to do it as quick as I could and sit down. Instead of criticizing me, my teacher encouraged me and said, ‘Wow, you’re a very fast reader,” and put me in the Blue Bird group. From then on, a light bulb went off in my head that I’m not stupid. I’m a good reader and I started believing in myself.
How do you get students hooked? How do you relate your story to your teaching and public speaking?
I used to be a teacher as well. I taught art and photography at a private school in Fort Worth. I love teaching. My teachers inspired me. I love figuring out ways to inspire other kids as well. I know how important that is in a child’s life. My thing is, I always try to focus on the basics and fundamentals first. Then, I also teach advanced, unique concepts, and things that can be fun to get the kids to think on a higher, professional level as well. Then they can fill in the blanks in between.
What would you tell people hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I would tell them that it’s very important to learn from other people. Be nice to their teachers, because teachers have a wealth of knowledge that they can share with them. And if you’re nice to people, then people are more willing to share with you. Work on yourself. Work on your attitude and the way you treat people. Work on your likability. If you’re likeable, people will want to help you. And if you’ve got a lot of people helping you, you accelerate your growth that much faster.
Use your resources like libraries and bookstores. Learn from the people who’ve done it, and then try to use your brain and figure out how to do it better. I try to figure out what works and then I try to make it work even better. In this country, you have so many opportunities to make a lot of money in a short period of time. Successful people, that’s what they do. They know how to maximize their time so that, not only can they make more money, but they also have free time for family, fun, coaching…doing the things that you really enjoy doing.
Kids should look more into the future. Not just thinking about themselves in the here and now, but what kind of hard work they need to do, the preparation. Try they plan out their lives a little bit when they’re young. They can really make out a good game plan for success in the future.
You’ve written, illustrated and/or published at least 30 books and published another 75 written by children (including HISD students), as a part of Every Child An Author. What are you working on now?
My latest venture is called “Every Child An Author.” It’s a project where we try to encourage kids to love writing, books and reading, by helping them become published authors themselves. We actually work with schools and they’ll pick a grade level. Each grade level will have their book professionally published, a professionally illustrated cover, professionally designed, and an ISBN number. It’s going to look very professional. I try to encourage the kids. They can still be kids and do good work. They don’t just have to have a book that’s a bare book that they would do very kid-like, unprofessional drawings on and that’s all they can do. We can actually spend the time and resources and make a very professional book that they can be very proud of so they can link their names and associate their names with quality. They get the chance to have the author experience and have hundreds of people lining up for their autograph.