Cambodian refugee follows dream by making art in Big Country


SWEETWATER, Texas - From Cambodia to Sweetwater, it's been a long journey for one West Texas photographer.

Toro Vaun is a Cambodian refugee who escaped genocide, and is now creating art right here in the Big Country.

In Sweetwater Vaun is known as the donut man, but he's getting ready to show off his creativity at an art show later this month.

"I don't want to be [a] starving artist, so I opened a donut shop," Vaun said.

He makes his dough by selling donuts, but his passion is photography and painting.

"I don't think I could create it anywhere but from Ballinger to San Angelo to Abilene to Coleman," Vaun said.

But before he made it to West Texas, Toro's life was not picture perfect. He was born in Cambodia, survived genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge regime in the '70s, and spent 11 years in refugee camps along the Thai border.

"I'm very lucky to survive," Vaun said.

During that time, he'd find peace in the jungle. Toro eventually made it to America at the age of 15. After living in several cities, various jobs led him to West Texas where he said he's able to reconnect with nature.

"I've been in landscape and lake and rivers, and small tree, cactus and the dust," Vaun said. "It's just wind and dust -- to me, it's just beauty."

Melanie Hicks is the executive director of the Pioneer City-County Museum, where Vaun's art show will be held. She said showcasing Vaun's work recognizes the issue of refugees.

"Toro is an immigrant and is a refugee immigrant and is welcomed by our community," Hicks said. "And so I thought that was really a nice way to represent and honor what is going on globally, but in a more local and intimate scale."

While the donut shop takes up Vaun's time in the mornings, his afternoons are spent following his dream.

"It's contentment when I capture something that's beautiful that this landscape of West Texas provides me, and that to me is it's happiness," Vaun said. "It's freedom."

Vaun's art show is called Beneath the Western Sky and will feature his still photography and paintings.

It will be held from 5:30 - 8:30 p.m. Apr. 20 at the Pioneer City-County Museum in Sweetwater.

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