For Rangsan "Nick" Ngamhkuntod, a student at Harford Community College, art is the way to happiness.
"I'm not the kind of artist that paints abstract things that are hard to understand," says Nick, 23, who moved from Thailand to Bel Air four years ago. "I say to you, 'What do you want me to paint?' Then I paint it and make you happy."
By most accounts, a mural Nick recently completed for a dining hall at the Perry Point Veterans Hospital is making hospital veterans, staff and visitors happy.
The mural was such a success that the VAhas asked Nick and the students who assisted him to paint another mural, and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace wants one, too.
The completed mural spans an 18-by-20-foot wall in a dining hall for long-term psychiatric patients.
The painting depicts a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers and a bottle of wine. "It's cool and pleasant," Nick said. "When they look at this painting, they should feel calm."
Nick managed a group of five community college art students --Marybel Campbell, Johnathon Anderson, Robyn Mace, Gayle Snee and Kathleen Bencivinni -- who volunteered for the project in January. The group worked several hours a week on the mural and in May finished theproject.
The students are part of an art class taught by Associate Professor Nancy Klapp. Each student received an A for participation.
Klapp says painting the mural was "risky" because most of the students had varied ability and experience.
At first, Klapp says, she recommended that the students paint an abstract mural because it would be harder to see "discrepancies."
But Perry Point administrators objected, saying an abstract work would be unpleasant and ambiguous for the patients, Klapp recalls.
This fall, Klapp said, the students plan to work on the new mural for the hospital and the one for Harford Memorial.
"It's very impressive," said John Pozzi, a volunteer in the hospital public relations office. "I'm no art critic, but it's really neat."
Pozzi said the students contacted the hospital and offered to paint the mural. "They used us as a practice ground," he said. "And we used them to brighten up the place."
The hospitalpaid for the paint -- about $250 -- and the students did the rest.
Nick was chosen because of his 10 years' experience as a professional painter in Thailand.
"At first I didn't want to do it because Idon't like working in a group. I like to work by myself," Nick recalls.
But, at the last minute, the students talked him into it.
"He's an extremely gifted artist and the most experienced of us," saidSnee, one of the volunteers and a Bel Air resident.
Nick said he is glad he changed his mind. In fact, he enjoyed the work so much that he asked HCC officials if he could paint a mural at the school.
College administrators accepted the offer and provided $100 for paint.
Between classes and full-time work as a cook at the Georgetown North Restaurant in Bel Air, Nick spends several hours a day painting the new mural on a wall of the library building by the Teaching and Learning Center.
After two weeks of work, preliminary drawings showthat the mural will depict college life and include drawings of students, Joppa Hall, a teacher helping a student with a computer and other college scenes.
Nick plans to finish the mural in three months.
Once he earns an associate's degree, Nick wants to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
"Getting my bachelor's degree is just my first goal," said Nick, who intends to make art his career. He enjoys oil painting, watercolors, charcoal drawings andsculptures.
He's also interested in teaching either in the UnitedStates or in Thailand. In the United States on a permanent visa, Nick plans to become a citizen.
The son of an American soldier, Nick never met his father. His mother told him his father died in the Vietnam War. He re
calls her giving him a picture of his father and whispering to him his name. But Nick never knew how to spell it.
At a very young age, Nick was adopted by relatives and started studying art in elementary school.
In 1986, he met Lyle Brennen, a teacher at John Carroll High School, who was a tourist in Thailand. A friendship began, with letters and visits, and Brennen offered to bring Nickback to the United States with him.
"I said, 'Yeah, sure,' because I thought he was kidding," Ngamhkuntod recalls.
But Brennen was not joking. Brennen and Nick worked with the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, an American organization that helps children in Asian countries, toget Nick into the United States. The process was difficult.
Nick was entitled to live here because his father was a U.S. citizen, but he had only a photograph to prove his blood connection. It took a year, but he was granted a permanent visa and now lives at Brennen's home.
Since coming here, Nick has learned to speak English and has completed one year at HCC.
Nick has been searching for his father's family.
He said he went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and looked for his father's name but could not find it.
"He could still be alive," he says. "If I could see him, I would die and go to heaven."