Inspiring grads: Bu Reh

Bu Reh will be graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education from the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts.
Bu Reh will be graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education from the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts.

As a young boy, born into the ethnic minority group known as the Karenni, Bu Reh and his family fled Burma — now known as Myanmar — to escape civil war and military unrest.

“We fled our home country by walking for weeks into the wilderness, hoping the Burma military wouldn’t catch us, and we lived in a Thai refugee camp for 15 years,” Reh said.

After arriving in Chicago at age 12, knowing nothing more of English than the English alphabet, Reh is graduating from the University of Illinois Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art Education degree from the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts (CADA).

He has been student teaching at Nicholas Senn High School, a Chicago Public School, with support from a program called Grow Your Own Teachers Illinois (GYO), which works to diversify the teaching profession in the state. GYO provides financial support and mentorship to aspiring teachers who have a desire to become leaders and educators in their local communities.

As a young boy, Reh discovered that art was a way to express his feelings and share his story. But growing up in a refugee camp, he had very limited access to art supplies and would draw on chalkboards and in the sand when he ran out of pencils and paper. In his art practice, he uses wide-ranging materials — oil paints, charcoal, acrylics, collages and watercolors — and through his art, he continues to speak about his upbringing.

Bu Reh, 2019 collage
Bu Reh’s Collage, “Journey to America.” In 2020, this collage appeared as the front cover for UIC’s Fwd: Museums Journal 2020.

“In my artwork, I tend to speak about where I came from in Burma/Myanmar, and my early childhood in Thai, which was defined by conflict and war, and the issues many people of color who live in the United States are currently facing, such as racism and discrimination,” Reh said.

The reason he has chosen these topics is the same reason he has wanted to be an educator: “to speak up for those who don’t have the same opportunities as me.” His art, whether it be his paintings, drawings or sculptures, is a means for him to communicate and recount his life story and a way to release his emotions and stress.

“Everybody has a unique story, and for me, making art is the ability to capture moments in my life — the things I saw that I can’t overlook — and place those into art,” Reh said. “I was forced to leave my extended family in Burma, so my art has come to represent what it is like to live in a dangerous place where there’s no future.”

Karyn Sandlos, an associate professor who oversees the BFAAE program called Reh “an artist and a creative person who does not shy away from challenges.”

“Bu’s ability to make art from anything will serve him very well in his role as an art teacher in the public education system, where resources are often scarce. Bu is also genuinely curious about other people, which is essential to becoming an educator,” Sandlos said.

He credits the Grow Your Own program with providing him with financial, academic, social and emotional support. In addition, as a first-generation college student, he gives thanks to the UIC CHANCE Program for helping him get closer to achieving his dream of becoming an educator. He is thankful for CHANCE, and in particular Lindsay Marshall, for helping him with his academic writing, interviews, résumé and letters of recommendation, as well as emotional support.

“The CHANCE Program has provided me with someone I can rely on and trust,” Reh said. “I have wanted to become an educator for a long time, and I am getting closer to achieving that goal every day by attending UIC and majoring in art education.”

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