• Interviews

Sir Daniel Winn: A Tough Life from Vietnam to America and Success in Art and Film

At the 8th Asian World Film Festival (AWFF) held last year, the newly designed Snow Leopard trophies created by Vietnamese-American artist and master sculptor Sir Daniel Winn were on display before the awards night.

They were impressive works of art that were presented to the AWFF winners for best film, best actor and best actress, along with special jury, audience and distinction awards.

The multi-talented artist, curator, philanthropist, and now filmmaker of the short Creation, has been making waves in the art scene and beyond.

Born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam where he lived until 1975 when his family escaped to California during the Fall of Saigon, Winn did not have an easy childhood. Abandoned, unloved, rejected, and growing up in the streets for a while, Winn experienced a hard life as a kid.

Giving up medical school at the University of California, Irvine to pursue an art career, Winn today is toasted by society as an exemplary artist, art curator, and respected philanthropist.

In 2018, he was knighted by German Prince Waldemar of Schaumburg-Lippe in recognition of his philanthropic work.


We interviewed Winn via Zoom. Below are excerpts of our conversation.

Congratulations on your recent short film screening and private unveiling in Beverly Hills. Can you tell us the significance of this event?

We just recently had my exhibition of “Light Matter” at Winn Slavin Fine Art on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, which is the second part of my Quantum Mechanics series.

In addition, we had our award-winning short film Creation screened at the Culver Theater. The short film conveys the philosophy of my work which I’ve coined Existential Surrealism. My goal for the film was to have the viewers grasp a better understanding of my philosophy.

It was important for me to share my vision, not just through my paintings and sculptures of “Light Matter,” but also through film. This visual language gives a better insight artistically into my mind and soul of how I perceive the meaning of life and creation.

Creation won in best cinematography at the Venice Shorts Film Festival and best long format short at the Experimental Dance and Music Festival. Do you plan to submit it to other film festivals?

I believe that the director Angel E. Vera has submitted to several prominent festivals. So far, we’ve been doing well, submitting only to a few and getting officially selected, nominated, and also winning some accolades.

We’re very honored that festival judges, the audience, and critics are able to understand my artwork through the large screen. The film is not a documentary but more of an artistic essay interpreting what my work represents. It’s very profound. It’s very deep. And there’s a lot of symbolism.

I was part of the film as the main protagonist and was heavily involved in the post-production as well, making sure that the imagery, symbolism, music, sound, and every second of the short film was what I envisioned. I want to make sure that the short film has the same quality of artistic input and philosophy of my vision.

Who are your inspirations in art?

Inspiration imitates life through art, and art through life.

My whole life from childhood to adulthood has been very surreal and tumultuous — and at times a fairytale that is still being written. My inspiration is based on my childhood to [the] present time, but mostly I am inspired by people around me. Everyone that has impacted my life, my emotions, and my daily activities are subjects in my artworks.

I am also inspired by my dreams. Whether it’s reality or a dream, I have epiphanies regularly and incorporate them into three-dimensional sculptures or two-dimensional artworks on canvas so that I can immortalize and share my experience with viewers.


Additionally, since I have no children, I want to leave something profound as a legacy to carry on my memory. I believe that through my artwork of sculptures and paintings, and now in the form of performance art, I will leave something behind that may give some viewers a better understanding of their existence and [the] meaning of life. 

You mentioned your life and interesting childhood. You have a very inspiring immigrant story coming from Vietnam and escaping to California after the fall of Saigon. Can you talk more about that and the challenges you and your family experienced?

Currently, an award-winning director and screenwriter are in production on a feature movie based on my life from childhood escaping Vietnam and ultimately overcoming challenges to become a successful artist in the US. It will be a powerful, uplifting drama of struggle to triumph that many can relate to in their life.

I don’t want to give away too much since the movie will go much more into the details. But I am very excited and anticipate the release of this movie in 2025 during the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

In a way, art has saved you. Can you talk about the role of art in your life? I know you gave up medicine for art.

As a child, I’d always had an innate ability to create both paintings and sculptures while living in the street. I would create sculptures from dirt on the ground when it rained. That was my fondest childhood memory. I’ve always had the desire to create art and I wanted to make an impact in the world during my lifetime.

My parents always wanted me to become either a doctor or an engineer. I was not a fan of being an engineer, so being a doctor was my only other option. But after five years in college going to pre-med, I had an epiphany that I wanted to do something more. As an artist, I felt that my work could heal people emotionally and intellectually, rather than just physically. I felt that as a doctor, I could possibly help a very limited number of people, but as an artist, I could help many more. I decided then to give up my medical profession and start my career in the arts.

You have galleries in Beverly Hills, Vietnam, and Shanghai. Where did you get your drive to open your first gallery?

I was driven by my passion for creating art. As an adult in my 20s, I had struggled and lived in my car for several years. I was working at an art supply store to get an employee discount for supplies so I could create. Once I’d saved enough money, I moved into an art studio in Laguna Beach, which became my first gallery. The gallery was very successful.

One of the most challenging aspects of being an artist was also learning to be a businessman. Artists are more right-brained while business people are typically more left-brained. I had to learn to be left-brained to merge my artistic side with the business side. I have been very blessed with great art patrons and amazing supporters in my life who have carried me to the level of these international galleries.


What challenges did you encounter as an Asian male coming to America and starting your own business?

It was initially difficult to acclimate to America as an Asian. There were prejudices that stemmed from ignorance because of the unknown and being different.

My goal was to hopefully share with the world through my art the message that we’re all the same. Even though our skin colors are different, we are all human.

Now you are a philanthropist contributing over $2 million to charities of various kinds. Can you talk about the charities that are very close to your heart and why?

I’m supportive of many charities. I gravitate toward the orphanages because I lived through that. I understand what it is to be an orphan. I want to make a difference in the orphanages so that those orphans feel wanted, feel taken care of, and so that there’s somebody out there who cares.

You were also knighted by German Prince Waldemar of Schaumburg-Lippe in recognition of your philanthropic work. What feelings did you go through when you found out about it?

Because of my charitable work, I was recognized by Prince Waldemar of Schaumburg-Lippe and knighted as “Sir.” The title is helpful in enlisting others to philanthropic causes. It was a surreal experience. I felt like it was a dream. I’d never expected that ever in my lifetime.

Did being knighted change your outlook on life?

I’m still the same person. It is just a title. It’s no different from being called Mister or Sir. But I’ve found this title to be beneficial when I want to go to other countries for philanthropic reasons. Having the title “Sir” accelerates red tape and speeds up the philanthropic process.

How do you feel about the Asian World Film Festival commissioning you to create these beautiful trophies?

It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I considered that to be the equivalent of creating the Oscars for the Academy Awards.

When Georges Chamchoum, the president of the Asian World Film Festival, approached me with the board to create the Snow Leopard, I was very honored. Then from the Snow Leopard, it branched out to four, five, and now six different awards, including the Bruce Lee Award.

To me, to be able to create all these awards feels very uplifting. I feel so proud that deserving people are receiving something that I put my heart and soul into.

What is next for you?

At this point in time, I feel I’m going in the right direction regarding what I need to do. There’s a universal blessing given to me to communicate and leave something behind that is important and has a positive influence. But it might be too soon to say where my journey will take me. I feel I’m on the right track, but also still a work in progress with missions to accomplish.

My goal is to take my art to the next level. I’m also exploring multiple movie productions based on my background and artistic talent. I feel blessed to have award-winning directors and producers working with me. I’d love to see my philosophy of Existential Surrealism become a household word so that people can understand and embrace their own existence. I want to accomplish my goals of making a difference in this world and so I approach each and every day as if it is my last.