When Vanny Channal became an artist, he vowed to use only metal pieces and other building materials that were going to be thrown out. He wanted his art and the materials to deliver a message.
“When I’m working with my stuff and using this stuff people call [trash], I want people to see how dirty or filthy your circumstances, you can polish it off, apply your own individuality to it and let the world see you for who you are,” the Rhawnhurst resident said.
He had a revelation to start creating sculptures with metal last September, and has had a busy year since. He specializes in full-sized animal sculptures like reindeer, eagles and snakes, the latter of which was crafted out of padlocks attached together. He’s also worked on miniature airplane models and a metal sheet that has the Philadelphia skyline carved into it. Northeast residents may be familiar with his praying mantis sculpture, newly on display at the Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion.
Channal is wasting no time getting his work displayed and his name out there. He’s a resident artist at the Insectarium, and more of his work will appear in the museum over the next few months. His work was featured at Shitholes: the Exhibition at the Adrienne Theater in Center City this September, where he spoke about his work and backstory in front of City Council.
“I told them I’m Cambodian, my parents are Cambodian refugees, we came from nothing and people told us because we were poor we weren’t going to amount to anything,” he said. “I was there to prove them wrong. I was there to show them we can do whatever we wanted to do.”
Channal is a first-generation American born and raised in Long Beach, California. He said they had nothing when they came over, leaving the family “stranded” on welfare. When he was young, he remembered seeing his dad sleep with his feet pressed against the door so he would wake up if anyone came in.
“My environment consisted of drug abuse, gang violence and racial tension,” he said.
Channal had trouble envisioning a future for himself that wasn’t entrenched in gang violence until he met his future wife, a Philadelphia resident. He left behind the environment of having to carry a gun in his car to get to work safely to move to the East Coast with her.
“I found out what a regular life was supposed to be,” he said. “I found safety, security and stability – the stuff I didn’t have growing up in California.”
After adjusting to those new standards, though, it still wasn’t enough.
“I found out that safety, security and stability is along the same lines of mediocrity,” he said. “I said if I want a life that’s above average, I need to be an above-average person.”
That’s when art entered his life.
Channal works as a welder, where he said he and other tradesmen would throw out unused material all the time. He made a vow to use only materials that were thrown away because that’s the kind of stuff he used growing up.
He started working in the driveway in front of his house. Neighbors and passersby started noticing and offering to give him more materials. Aside from sculptures, he started experimenting with lace metal art, which involves taking a pre-existing metal structure and cutting patterns and designs into it.
He’s upgraded from his driveway to a workshop tucked behind the Insectarium stocked with welding equipment and space. His next project will be a leopard lacewing butterfly, inspired by a bug museum similar to the Insectarium in Cambodia, where his parents grew up.
“The fact that my mom was around this bug growing up, I said I’m gonna do that next,” he said.
After being featured in the Shitholes exhibition, which was a one-day event that featured the work of artists from poor countries, his work was featured in the Huffington Post.
Channal wants his work to represent his loved ones who passed away and the people still living in the communities he came from, and wants it to serve as a reminder that your life is what you build.
“The life that you want is possible for all of us,” he said. ••