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Daily Inspiration: Meet Vanny Channal

Today we’d like to introduce you to Vanny Channal. 

Hi Vanny, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
My parents are Cambodian Refugees, they survived the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, came to the United States in 1983, and gave birth to me in Long Beach, California in 1984. I can honestly say that my entire life up till now, there are only two things that ever captivated my full devotion. The first was being a part of one of the largest Cambodian gangs in California. The second thing was art. 

I started gang bangin’ at 14 years old. The reason I became a gang member is because I felt so little about myself that I needed a reason to justify my own existence. Growing up, I was such a weak-minded person, I allowed the world to make me believe that my own existence didn’t matter. As a gang member, I lived a destructive lifestyle. Destructive towards myself and towards my community. 

The first major transition in my adult life happened when I left Long Beach, California and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2010. I found my way to the East Coast thanks to my wife, she was my girlfriend at that time and she is the first person to show me that there is more to living than the life of a gang member. She allowed me the option of leaving the destructive life I had in California and starting over. The move to Philly was major but it wasn’t as significant as the length of my employment at the Philadelphia Zoo. I started working at the Zoo in September of 2011. At the Philadelphia Zoo, I became exposed to a degree of kindness, sincerity, and endearment that I’ve never experienced before. For the first time in my life, I was judged for my character and not by my appearance or the pigmentation of my skin. The Philadelphia Zoo was my introduction to society outside of the life that I knew in California.

In 2013, as an employee of the Philadelphia Zoo, I taught myself how to work with metal and became the first-ever Welder Fabricator that the Zoo had on staff. My career as an artist began in 2015 but I did not become “an artist” until September of 2017. When I first thought about doing art, I went out to seek approval from other people to see if I could go after my dreams. And EVERYONE! EVERYONE doubted me! People laughed at me! And these were people that I cared about, people that I respected. But the reason my dreams were delayed for those two years was my fault. Because inside me, I was still that weak-minded person and I allowed other people to dictate how my life turned out. I allowed them to tell me what was possible for me. 

In the Summer of 2017, when I was all alone, when I didn’t have voices clouding my own judgment when I didn’t have anyone around to distract me, that was when I created my first animal sculpture. It was a stork made from random construction materials (scrap metal) and is currently installed at the Philadelphia Zoo in front of the condor exhibit. September of 2017, when I completed that “Steel Stork”, that is when I decided for myself that I will become an artist. 

In the Summer of 2021, I made the toughest decision I ever made in my life. I left my position at the Philadelphia Zoo to become a sculptural artist in Denver, Colorado full time. My biggest accomplishment thus far is definitely the events that led up to my departure from the Zoo. Before I left, I built a 7-foot-tall giraffe made from random scrap metals donated to me from each of the Zoo’s staff. My intention with that was to take items from each of their personal lives and collectively combine them to produce the sculpture. The sculpture installation was a symbol of our resurrection after Covid, it was a symbol of unification, and it is also how we leave our footprints in the sands of time to tell future generations that we were here. Upon my exit, the Zoo decided to name the sculpture after me and retired my call sign, “M8”. 

Today, I opened up my own custom artwork and metal fabrication shop in Brighton, Colorado. The title of my business is Steel ‘N’ Pacific. Steel ‘N’ Pacific because “steel” is the avenue that I am using. And “pacific” because, the Pacific Ocean is a representation of how vast, how monumental the things I want to accomplish within my lifetime. Primarily, custom metal artwork will be my driving force, but I will also take on welding fabrication jobs as well. With my hands and your imagination, let’s create something is my slogan. In Philadelphia, I’m known as “The Metal Guy”, so I hope that that transpires over here in Colorado in the same fashion. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
NOTHING! Nothing about this whole journey has been smooth. The most difficult thing I face daily is self-doubt and believing that the future I want for myself is possible for me. When we begin to move towards something that we care about or something that expresses our own individuality it is a major investment. And to put that much of your life into something that is uncertain is terrifying. But I feel that there are two conflicting sides to human nature. The side that plays it safe and the side that goes and does it anyway. And as I did it, slowly at first, I began to develop character, self-worth, determination, persistence… all these qualities that made me a stronger individual. Even though I developed these qualities I still have to battle with two conflicting sides. The side that is filled with self-doubt and the side that deserves it. And every day when self-doubt stands up to speak, the side that deserves it tells him to sit back down because he deserves to be here. I overcome self-doubt by simply putting in the work. If I mess up, if I make a mistake, if it doesn’t work out, I do it again and again and again. I do it until I get it right. And with that, I developed this “until” attitude that seems to work very well for me. Not only in art but in all aspects of life. 

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I am a metal sculptor, I specialize in working with scrap metal, and I am known for my large-scale figurative animal sculptures. I’ve created a 6-foot-tall praying mantis, an eagle made entirely of nails, and a larger-than-life-size metal ox (Kou-prey) which is the national animal of Cambodia, just to name a few. I’ve exhibited at the 2018 Global Conservation Gala, at the prestigious University of Penn’s Morris Arboretum, and an international art exhibition at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theater. I’ve been featured on 6ABC’s Localish, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Chestnut Hill Local. In 2019, I was awarded Regional’s Best Sculpture Artist amongst contestants from the states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia. 

I am most proud of my resilience, persistence, and determination. In any aspect of life, the ability to start something new, to stay when things become difficult, and to acknowledge your own mistakes and correct what needs to be corrected so you can continue to move forward is the hardest thing to do. And I’ve done that! I did it with my art, I did it when the world told me that I was not good enough, I did that with life! When I did that as an individual, I gained a sense of satisfaction that I’ve never experienced before. But when I began to gain recognition from the rest of the world, from my peers, from the people of my community, that kind of accomplishment can never be measured. 

What separate my work from everyone else is the message. The message behind my work can be interpreted on multiple levels and it would all be valid. Some may look at it and think of creativity. Others may see sustainability and conservation. Some might just see it as something fun to look at. But eternally my mission is to change perspective. I want people to see the story behind the materials I use, to see something that was deemed worthless at one point but now is a part of something more valuable because we allowed it to live up to its full potential. And ultimately, I want people to have a greater appreciation or value towards life, towards the things we are surrounded by, and towards themselves. Because we all have the possibility to shine, but before we can do that, we have to be able to see it within ourselves first. 

Currently I am focused on rebuilding, reevaluating, and rectifying all of the mistakes I made over the past year. July 2021 is when I moved to Brighton, Colorado to open up my metal shop. When I first came out here, I thought I was able to take on everything as far as running a successful business. By everything I mean all the administrative, marketing, logistics, taxes, then there is the time I need to actually make the product or provide the service I was trying to sell. Both as an artist and a shop owner. I found out pretty quickly that I was dead wrong. Trying to do all of that alone took a major toll on my physical and mental health. I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week so I had no time for my wife and kids. I began to neglect my health and I had zero time to work on Art. All of my time was dedicated to making a profit and clearing overhead, mortgage, standards of living etc… I was begging for any type of work just to make money and it destroyed me. When our primary objective is revenue, it becomes a suppressant to the person that we can become. When my main focus was strictly money, it devalued or demoralized my self worth. I began to hate my everyday life! And when I got to that point is when I STOPPED!!! 
I said no… If I am not enjoying the things that I am doing then why am I doing it??? When I came to that realization in November of 2021, I pushed everything to the side and I began doing art again. And that’s when it came back to me… The joy, the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, that is when I remembered why I wanted to open up my own shop in the first place. And when I began to reevaluate the situation I was in, that is when I realized my mistakes. Prior to leasing a space that I can’t afford and having my business being my only source of income, there are a lot of “should of”. 
  1. I should’ve had a team before I started because the work exceeded the amount of time in a day. In my case it was at least.  
  2. I should have had at least five contracts lined up.
  3. I should have learned the things I needed to learn first because it was too expensive for me to learn when I had overhead. 
  4. I should have built a network, a community in an area that I am very new to.
  5. I should have been more clear on what I wanted and tried it out first before I invested everything I have into something I thought I wanted.

All those mistakes and more I am rectifying by starting from scratch. As of January 1st, 2022, I’ve ended my lease (no overhead), I moved all of my equipment to my home garage so I can set up shop there. The focus of my shop will be art, I will do fabrication work as well but I will not chase it the way I have been doing these past months. The sculptures I have in my inventory are for sale, I will be taking them to competitions and public displays throughout the region to see if I can gain attention/business that way. Once my shop is all set up I will start a YouTube channel teaching people the fundamentals and process of how I create my sculptures. Sometime down the line once I check off all the things I should have done I will consider opening up a commercial shop again. And that is only if I am ready, know the direction I want my business to go in the next two years, and have a solid plan already in motion. Other than that it is just work space. In the meantime to get back on my feet, I will look for full-time work just so I can have something steady while I am learning and relearning all the tools I need to move my art career forward.

My life as an artist will never stop. Creating art is my dream! My sculptures are what defines my individuality. It is what makes me who I am and I will never put that aside. If I was rich with all the money in the world, after the vacations, the fancy things, creating metal sculptures is what I would be doing. If I was poor, living in a foreign country, if I had nothing… Creating metal sculptures is what I will be doing. That is how I know that wherever I am at, whatever I am doing, the life of an artist, of a metal sculptor is the life for me. This is my DREAM!!! And dreams are never easy but it is always worth giving it your all.

Are there any apps, books, podcasts, blogs, or other resources you think our readers should check out?
For books, I love, love, love autobiographies. I love hearing the stories of difficulties and the endurance an individual must have to overcome them. Those stories inspire me to get up and continue to write my story. It helps me focus on overcoming all the obstacles that come my way. 

I don’t follow podcasts or blogs at all, but I always need a daily dose of motivational tapes. Jim Rohn is my go-to master motivator, Les Brown, Zig Zigglier, they are the teachers who gave me the tools I needed to jump-start my career as an artist. 

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