Meet June's URL Resident Artist: Vy Ngo
Vy Ngo's creative life — or rather, her life more generally — is defined by dualities.
A pediatrician by day, the self-taught, first generation American born Vietnamese artist enters creative zen mode at night, allowing emotional instinct to guide her through painting.
Further, her work is bisected by two modalities — a series of expressive, colorful and cultural portraits, each one individual in itself, and a breadth of abstract pieces that connect with the viewer on a gut level.
More than just an outlet for expressing the creative side of her identity, Ngo's artwork is the flipside to her pediatric work — a way of studying human culture, identity and experience where medicine allows her to study human physicality and health. And while medicine is her "quote unquote day job," her two passions and two careers intersect — each one bringing a needed perspective to the other in a way that makes her feel whole.
Below, she discusses how her work both painting and helping people interact to give her two different ways to connect with human rawness and vulnerability.
You can currently view her work at the People's Gallery 2017 exhibit at Austin City Hall; Strangers from Home at the Asian American Resource Center through June 24; and at Kiki Nass Boutique through August 10.
How do you know you're an artist (besides the obvious)?
Becoming an artist is more about how you get there and how that defines you from that point on. For me, it wasn't like I knew I wanted to become an artist early on in life. But I was always creative — I drew a lot, obsessively and was very active in art class because it was a way for me to balance out my academics. It was like my escape and the place I felt most like myself. When it got to the point where I was trying to decide what career I wanted to pursue, it was between design, architecture and medicine. Of course, practicality wise, medicine seemed like the better choice. I also enjoyed working with kids since I was young, so being a pediatrician was just a natural choice for me at the time. I dedicated myself onto that path, which is a very, very long arduous course within itself. Which as a result, put my creative side on the breaks for over 20 years. Once I was established in my professional career and had a family, I started to realize that there was a part of me that was missing and that side of me was wanting to come out. It felt like if I continued to suffocate the creative side of me any further, I wasn’t sure how I would be emotionally — I felt like there was this big hole. It just came to a head for me. Of course, as soon as I tapped into that place, it was like I was an artist my entire life and I'd just been absorbing my life’s inspirations, observations and interactions. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and it's become a defining part of my life. It's more that I found myself again as an artist and now I'm on this journey of defining myself even further through my work.
It sounds like it really functions for you as an outlet, as well as a part of your identity.
It is an outlet, but it's not just that. I'm starting to see the interactions between all the different parts of my life. When working with people and taking care of them in their most vulnerable time of need or the most precious parts of their lives, there is a rawness to it and a humanity that I'm able to express in my creative work. Then my creative work feeds into my medical profession as well by helping me get in touch with my own vulnerability allowing me to connect with people in a deeper way. So I feel like it's not necessarily just an outlet. It was maybe initially, but now it's become a part of how I process all the different aspects of my life, with my kids, with my career, with my art. It's interchangeable at this point.
Do you see expressing that rawness and humanity in your portraits as a way of connection with the human experience?
Human interaction and people and culture have always fascinated me. I'm a first-generation American born Vietnamese artist. Growing up in a small rural town where you were kind of like the outsider and looked different from everyone around you, you're thrust into that. You can't ignore it and you can't help but be intrigued by what makes everyone different — what life paths people choose, what makes them who they are. With me being in the healthcare industry, human interaction is such a crucial part in understanding people. I've always been intrigued by people, their faces and the stories that they tell and I think that's why portraits for me is such a real place of connection. To be able to portray the emotions of a person and their life experience through creation of art is the most intimate form of connection as well as expression.
Though your portraits are all by you, and all have the same style generally, they also all have their own unique bent to them. Does each person's distinct story require a different way of expressing it?
Of course. I love that you can tell the portraits and work are all mine yet still distinctive. I want to put my creative stamp on each piece while still giving each portrait their own individual story. The colors, the emotions, the composition— it's all very personal to that person, that face or that culture.
Are these people that you know? Where are you sourcing the subjects of your portraits from?
Some of my portraits are of people that I know and some of them are strangers. For example, my recent series Strangers from Home is based on Vietnam and the cultural identification I have with the people there, as well as my disconnection with them being a first-generation American citizen. I consider my work “cultural portraits” because I am trying to express them as reflections of different cultural identities, histories, and experiences. I want to understand their story as well as express my own personal views of the world through their eyes.
Hearing that, I understand more why you call yourself a creative anthropologist. With your work, you seem to be tapping into the culture of people's stories and how that informs the identity you present of them.
Yeah, absolutely. In my “day job”, I had to learn and study the human body, genetics, human physiology and how they relate to disease or health and their environment and their diet — all those things that are very scientific. But as an artist, I'm taking all those studies one step further and studying the human psyche and our relationships with each other, our history, and our upbringing. I see our identities within our cultures and within our society. Having two different passions in life makes me feel whole because I feel like I'm studying the human experience on all levels.
In addition to these portraits, you also have abstract work, which again, you can tell is in your style, but is different from your portraiture. How does it tie in to the portraiture? What's the connection?
When I was younger, I drew portraits a lot. The human face was always something that was natural for me to work with. Abstract work is something I've always admired because you can get lost in it and because it becomes such an internal conversation. With abstract work, I'm engulfing myself in my own internal journey and I have let go. With portrait work, there's some control because you know where you want to go and what you want the portrait to look like. With abstract pieces, you have no idea where it's going to end up. You have a general idea of what you want to convey, the emotionality, the palette and the movement, but the part of abstract painting that I'm drawn to is the process itself. Finding myself along the way, bringing up more questions within myself and ultimately making decisions that aren't necessarily guided. It's truly trusting the process and the journey. It's amazing because with portraits, people can connect with them because you're looking at someone face to face — it's like a human conversation. With my "abstract memories”, for the viewer or artist, it's a dialogue of spirituality, psychology or emotionality that's not tangible. It's very personal because it triggers something inside of them. It may not necessarily be my intention with the painting, but that's what they're feeling. So to me abstract work is an even deeper human connection and it's nice to have that balance. You know, with me having two different passions and two different careers, it just makes sense — I live in this duality all the time.