Sir Daniel Winn of Winn Slavin Fine Art: “Don’t give up”

First, dream. Then make your dream happen. Be patient. Don’t give up. And lastly, whatever happens, know that you can say that you succeeded by doing the best you could. Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, […]

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First, dream. Then make your dream happen. Be patient. Don’t give up. And lastly, whatever happens, know that you can say that you succeeded by doing the best you could.


Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.

As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sir Daniel K. Winn.

Sir Daniel K. Winn is an .recognized blue-chip artist, fine-art curator, awarded entrepreneur, and highly respected philanthropist. In recognition of his direct support to humanitarian causes, having directly assisted in raising millions of dollars for non-profit aid in the United States and Asia, Winn was honored the prestigious title of “Sir” when knighted in 2018 under the Princely House of Schaumburg-Lippe-Nachod. As a child refugee to the United States from Vietnam, Winn excelled in academics while at the same time supporting his younger sibling, allowing his parents to earn a living. He went on to study medicine; but during his study of reconstructive surgery at UCI medical school, he broke from family expectations and set out to pursue a life in the world of art. He went on to work with a number of artists, elevating them to blue-chip museum caliber, in addition to developing his own artistic philosophy, “Existential Surrealism.” Winn’s work has since been featured at esteemed exhibitions worldwide. Among many other distinctions, he is the Board Chairman of The Academy of Fine Art Foundation, CEO and curator of Masterpiece Publishing, Inc., and Founder of Winn Slavin Fine Art, one of the most prestigious art galleries in Beverly Hills situated on the famed Rodeo Drive.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I was born in South Vietnam and lived there until I was nine years old. My father served in the South Vietnamese army, initially as an interpreter for the U.S. military. When I was very young, he was sent to the front. Because he spoke English, he was spared the trenches and assigned as an interpreter and driver for the lieutenant colonel of his battalion. On one journey, the jeep he was driving hit a landmine. The lieutenant colonel was killed and my father, badly injured, was taken to an army field hospital for a lengthy recovery. Unconscious and without identification, he was classified as missing in action, presumed dead. During this time, my birth mother took up with another man and moved to a city an hour away, where I was severely neglected.

When my paternal grandmother found out about my treatment, she sent my favorite uncle, a South Vietnamese Army Ranger, to reclaim me. I was very young at the time, but I have a distinct memory of my uncle carrying me on his shoulders as dawn was breaking, telling me that I had to be very quiet. Shortly afterward, he returned to the front and died in combat.

I was placed in a Catholic boarding school in Saigon, where most of the students were war orphans. I was an unruly and rebellious child. The nuns at school couldn’t handle me, and they eventually kicked me out of the school.

At that point, I went to live with my grandmother. She was a widow, and while she and my grandfather were quite wealthy when my father was young, they lost everything after the First Indochina War. Ho Chi Minh’s Communist government took the property they owned in the North, and their property in the South was taken by President Diem’s Catholic government because they were Buddhist. She did the best she could to care for me, but she spent all of her time working to make ends meet. I was largely left to fend for myself. I slept wherever I could and ate whatever I could find.

When my father returned from the frontlines, he took a position with the U.S. Navy as an indigenous personnel manager, where he met my stepmother. He brought her to live with us at grandmother’s house. Shortly after, my stepmother had a child of her own. I became something of an albatross to her — a constant reminder that she was my father’s second wife, which was socially unacceptable in traditional Vietnamese culture.

Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the U.S.? Can you tell us the story?

By the time the U.S. military left South Vietnam in 1973, my father was serving as an indigenous personnel manager for the U.S. embassy. On April 29th, 1975, the Ambassador called my father and other high-ranking embassy personnel into his office. They were told to call home, tell their families to pack a single suitcase, pick them up and bring them to the embassy for safety.

We spent the night at the embassy because the runway at Tan Son Nhat, the U.S. Air Base in Saigon, our intended departure point, had been shelled by the North Vietnamese Army. At dawn the following day, we were ushered to the embassy roof, where we boarded a helicopter that took us to the U.S. Air Base in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. That single act changed my life forever and probably saved my father’s life. His association with the U.S. would likely have meant his execution or long-term imprisonment if we had not escaped.

I remember arriving at the airbase and my stepmother telling me that we would get on a big metal bird and fly far, far away. Along with hundreds of other people, we boarded an unpressurized cargo plane headed for Guam. The city of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese that evening.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?

I remember waking up as the cargo plane landed in Guam. We spent several weeks there before boarding a passenger aircraft bound for Marine Corp Air Station El Toro in California. I recall eating nothing but rice and soy sauce while in Guam because the food offered by the American cooks was so foreign to me. When we arrived at El Toro, we were put on a bus to Camp Pendleton, where a refugee camp had been established.

The whole experience was surreal. I was a young boy who had never been far from my home province, never seen even so much as a picture of a helicopter or airplane, much less been on one. I had been ripped away from everything I knew, everything that was familiar to me. It was the most fantastic, phenomenal, and traumatic experience that I’ve ever had.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

There’s not necessarily a particular person. But I am grateful to all the heroes who made it possible for my family, my father, my stepmother, and me, to be able to immigrate to the United States. I’m grateful for the people in the United States who allowed us to come here to have a better life without even knowing who we were. I’m thankful for the heroes in Vietnam who fought for my freedom, and for the people in the United States who embraced me with open arms here in the land of the free.

So how are things going today?

Things have exceeded my expectation of what I saw as the American dream. I think I’ve surpassed it infinitely — beyond my wildest dreams. I’m blessed to be extremely successful, financially secure, well recognized, respected, happy, and surrounded by people who care for me. Mostly, I’m grateful that I can now make a difference in this world, not just in the U.S., but for orphans and orphanages all over the world that really need help. There are kids out there growing up much as I did. If given the same opportunity, they could hopefully achieve their dreams and contribute to making the world and society a better place to live. As I look back on those early years in Vietnam, I realize how surreal my life experience has been. As a child in Vietnam, I was abandoned and neglected, often without food and other basic necessities. As an adult in America, I’m a successful artist and curator able to help provide those same necessities to others in need. I’ve been knighted by the German Princely House of Schaumburg-Lippe-Nachod for my philanthropy, and I’m well recognized in the artistic community — all of which adds to my ability to help others.

Where I am today is so far beyond what my 9-year-old self in Vietnam could have ever imagined, even in his wildest dreams. At heart, though, I’m still that rambunctious, rebellious boy who was rescued by his uncle, wandered from home to home, was kicked out of Catholic school, and got on a big metal bird to fly far, far away.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This is very emotional for me. I feel so many people would give anything to be where I am, and I can understand that, but there was a lot of hard work and hardship and pain to get to where I am. But I’ve been using my success to help others philanthropically. Helping the orphans, the elderly, the less fortunate, the poor — anyone that I can. That’s what I want to do in my lifetime. Because sharing that vision, that joy, and whatever I can do to make that difference, is what I want to be remembered for. I’m also teaching a lot of other artists my philosophy and traveling around the world to museums to get my philosophical concept of Existential Surrealism out there — so that everyone, whether fortunate or less fortunate, can understand a little bit more about their existence, embrace their life, and live the best life they can.

You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?

My answers to that would be more esoteric. I would say education to the public here in the United States that we are the land of the free. Show compassion and love to the world as who we are as US citizens, since we are a melting pot. Show others that we are the number one country in the world that embraces others and that we can change and make a difference to the world both now and in the future. And lastly, have everyone put themselves in “the other’s shoes” and then embrace that we are all human, that we all deserve a better life, and that we all deserve an opportunity to show what we can do for one another to make humanity and the world a better place.

Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

First, dream. Then make your dream happen. Be patient. Don’t give up. And lastly, whatever happens, know that you can say that you succeeded by doing the best you could.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?

I’m optimistic about the United States in the sense that we are the land of the free. We are the standard for the world to look up to. And we wouldn’t be where we are today if we were not great. I’m also optimistic about the children. I see the children now are much more tolerant. They’re much more knowledgeable about the world, because they have so much more access with the new technology and the internet. They’re different from past generations in that they know the world so much better, and it’s so much closer to them than it was for us. And because they have a better understanding, a better knowledge of the world, that can make us even greater. And the other thing I am optimistic about is that we are going in the direction of such a dynamic power in terms of technology. We’re still the leading country in the world, and everybody still looks up to us and respects us regardless of the politics or religion or chaos. I’m still optimistic because the majority of us in the US are so wonderful. As a whole, we bring everyone up — not just the United States, but the world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them.

I would love to have a lunch or dinner with Angelina Jolie. She is a very mysterious person from my generation and I’d love to know more about her. I know she’s very private right now, so I almost see myself in her in that sense — and also with her charitable work in Africa, which I’m doing now as well. But mostly her mysterious persona. As an artist, I’m very private and a lot of people see me as mysterious. There’s a somber or darker side of me as an artist that I see in Angelina. I could almost see us as kindred spirits. I’d love to hear what her thoughts are about life and existence. She’s gone through a lot, from cancer to celebrity status to being very private. I’d love to have a heart-to-heart with her.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

They can follow me on Instagram @sirdanielwinn or Facebook at “Daniel Winn.” Believe it or not, I run my own social media [laughs]. I also have a personal site: sirdanielwinn.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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