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San Jose gardener uses artistic gifts to take a stand against breast cancer

A San Jose gardener who is also a talented abstract painter is using his gifts to help fight breast cancer.

For most of his adult life, Trieu Hai Dao has worked as a landscaper in the South Bay, mowing lawns, pruning shrubs and designing outdoor landscapes for his clients.

But since he was six he has also had a passion for painting. And in the evening, when his garden tools are put away, he comes into his own studio and picks up the brush and canvas.

“It’s good to enjoy life and art. It’s always what I focus on,” Dao said.

Dao fled his native Vietnam in 1986 and survived a dangerous boat ride to Hong Kong. He arrived in the United States penniless.

“I tell my children that we are reborn in the ocean,” Dao said.

He settled in San Jose, took up gardening, married and raised four children. But he never gave up his art.

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His paintings now fill three books. Some of his paintings sell for thousands of dollars, which he often gives back to the community.

Dao has held shows benefiting Ukraine, Florida hurricane victims and Maui fire survivors, all causes he identified with.

But his latest show and fundraiser was inspired by the suffering of just one person; his family friend Cathy Ton Nu.

Nu and Dao share the same small hometown in Vietnam. They fled the country separately, but found each other by chance in San Jose and formed a friendship.

Cathy is a breast cancer survivor undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Her younger sister died of the disease.

“I had a mammogram every six months. Once they found the breast cancer, I was treated for a year and I’m doing better,” Nu said.

Although breast cancer rates are declining among white, non-Hispanic American women, they are increasing among Vietnamese American women, who also lag far behind the national average when it comes to breast cancer screening.

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“It’s about how we engage the community to improve prevention,” said Michael Elliott, who works with the Valley Health Foundation.

Dao’s upcoming show in April will benefit the Foundation’s efforts to increase screenings and upgrade technology in Santa Clara County.

“My friend and people with cancer might feel better if they get treatment and medicine. And if that happens, I will feel better too,” Dao said.

Dao’s contribution can be a small part of a larger effort. But he says he wants to give back to the country and community that took him in when he had nothing.

“I’m lucky. I am still alive and have come to the land of freedom. Now I feel better because I want to help people,” Dao said.

Artists draw inspiration from many sources. As he puts the finishing touches on his latest painting, Dao says his inspiration comes from helping people. Dao’s art exhibit opens April 12 at the Citadel Art Gallery in San Jose.

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Dao has pledged 20% of all proceeds to the Valley Health Foundation.

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