Vanessa Nguyễn - Artist Spotlight

Vanessa Nguyễn - Artist Spotlight

Every two months, Artbean collaborates with talented artists, showcasing their work in installations and selling the unique merchandise they create through our collaborations. You will see their works showcased on our exhibition wall, sold on our shelves, and even reflected in the offerings on our menu.  Artbean is now proud to exhibit the exceptional work of artist Vanessa Nguyn.  Highly skilled in risograph artistry, design, and all things Vietnamese cooking, Vanessa’s vibrant energy is reflected in their artwork and unique merchandise.  Read on to learn more about Vanessa.  We know you’ll do so with a smile, and perhaps a bit of inspo to sip on some bold Vietnamese coffee in the process!

The Origins

Artist Vanessa Nguyn is a proud resident of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  Listening to them talk about their neighborhood is rife with such palpable love, you may just want to hop on the next train to check it out for yourself.  “I love the sense of community I get in Sunset Park; and, the proximity to the foods I was raised eating,” they shared.  “I’ve lived in other parts of Brooklyn; and I’d have cravings for the food I was raised with.  Those living situations didn’t last because I’d have to travel for groceries.”

Vanessa working at their desk in their studio

While access to food undoubtedly has deeper significance than convenience, for Nguyn, it meant representation.  “When you're raised somewhere where people look like you, well, when you move out of that, there’s a sense of isolation you feel.  But there’s a sense of community you feel when that’s not the case.”  And, it’s a sense of community Sunset Park continues to provide, as it remains where they still call home and an indelible inspiration behind their art.

The Installation

Ăn Chơi, which translates to “Eat for Fun” in Vietnamese, is Nguyn’s installation at Artbean--and an aptly named one at that.  The vibrancy of their color choices is a sensory awakening.  One glance at Ăn Chơi and you can’t not have more fun in its presence.  “Think about those times being out drinking and gossiping with your friends over a few bottles of Heineken; and, you’re just eating for fun while you’re doing so.”  While Nguyn asserts that “Ăn Chơi is just a phrase,” it’s one woven through every aspect of their show, from their inspiration to the execution of each piece.  Even the colors showcase Nguyn’s keen awareness of color psychology.

In describing the eight risograph prints on display at Artbean, Nguyn is particularly ecstatic sharing about “the cheeky little character playing with the food.  That character is a theme throughout the show.  In my most popular piece, Fish Sauce Baby, this character is riding a bottle of fish sauce, just enjoying the food and having fun!”  I mean, yes. We couldn’t agree more.  Fish sauce is always the vehicle of a good time.

Vanessa standing in front of her An Choi exhibition

There’s no shortage of exciting merch available at Ăn Chơi--all reflective of Nguyn’s artistry--both on print and beyond.  A passionate cook, Ăn Chơi also features Nguyn’s cookbook titled “Ăn Chung: Loving in Vietnamese”, featuring twelve Vietnamese recipes and what they represent.  Taste obviously has an indelible connection to our memory, a reality in which Nguyn is clearly well aware.  “The cookbook is filled with these twelve recipes, paired with stories of the times in my life where I’ve shared those dishes with my loved ones.  And these stories range from happy to sad--from the last meal my grandma made me before she died to the last meal I shared with my ex partner before we parted ways.”

Vanessa's cookbook opened up to a soup recipe

In another minor twist of juxtaposition, Nguyn also designed their own take on a Vietnamese phin filter, Phin Ca Phe.  Unlike the darkness of the roast typically brewed in a silver phin, Nguyn’s Phin Ca Phe is a luminous bright pink.  You can even put your new phin filter to use by grabbing a bag of Ăn Chơi Vietnamese Coffee where Nguyn’s brightly designed label matches the profile of the beans contained within it.  These rare single-origin Arabica beans are bold--both in flavor and in the character of their region of origin--Quang Tri, Vietnam.  Quang Tri remains one of the country’s poorest regions due to the ongoing impact of the Vietnam War; and, the introduction of coffee farming has provided the area with much-needed economic relief.  In recent years, the quality of the coffee has become top-grade, processed using yellow honey--thus resulting in a darker, higher-bodied, and slightly sweeter roast.  With Ăn Chơi Vietnamese Coffee, you’ll be brewing more than a cup of coffee, you’ll be participating in true community. 

Side by side custom phin and Vietnamese coffee bundle

You can find more of Nguyn’s merch at Artbean, including an assortment of eight risograph prints that go with the theme of Ăn Chung, which translates to “eat together.”  Ăn Chơi will undoubtedly inspire you to do just that--to eat together with your loved ones.  Here, food is not a vehicle of judgment or scrutiny, as it often becomes.  It is a space where food is at the crux of so much happiness and connection.

The Process & The Inspiration

“One thing that is really prominent in my work is cultural identity, staying true to oneself and authenticity,” Nguyn states with certainty.  “Growing up and being raised in a first generation immigrant household, how that translates into all of the other parts of my life is literally something I carry with me to this day,”  they shared matter-of-factly.  For Nguyn, it was clear they were referring to the carriage of a thread in the fabric of their identity--not a burden.  “I’ve even thought, am I thinking about this, my identity, too much?  But, I got to a point where I realized, no, I need to talk about this.” 

And, in the face of some of their most emotionally trying moments, owning their story has provided immense comfort for Nguyn.  “My grandmother was the closest connection I had to my culture; and, I mean that literally.  She didn’t speak English; and, she was the only person with whom I felt comfortable speaking Vietnamese.”  A source of unconditional love, Nguyen describes their relationship with their grandmother as one that felt “straight out of a sitcom.  She’d drop something on the floor; and, I’d pick it up, observing her do her thing in the kitchen.  And, she’d just share these little pearls of wisdom with me.”  Sadly, their grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; and suddenly the relationship Nguyn relied upon so much shifted on a whole new axis.  Eventually, Nguyn shared, “She forgot me and all the recipes she cooked.  So, in turn I learned how to cook Vietnamese food in order to feed her both physically and spiritually.  This truly started my love for Vietnamese food.”  For Nguyn, cooking wasn’t a chore or just another task.  “I realized all of the labor and love that went into it.”  How empowering it is, after all, to reclaim some of your most difficult memories and transform them into something positive. 

Close up photo of Vanessa smiling with their grandmother

One can’t help but be in awe of the command Nguyn has over their self-identity and the actionable ways they exercise it.  “For part of my teens, I went to a predominantly white school.  So, I was already the outcast, and I leaned into that by really becoming that ‘weird’ artsy kid.”  For Nguyn, part of this identity meant a love of Ghibli films.  “They’re a series of animated films, all with a young adolescent female protagonist rising above a challenge--with the message of staying true to oneself.  In one of the movies, a girl loses her powers because she stops believing in herself; but, as she becomes more confident, her powers come back.”  The idea of ‘weirdness’ aside, this seems more of a powerful parable--one with such profound meaning for Nguyn, they even share the tattoo they have on their arm representing this particular Ghibli film (Kiki’s Delivery Service).  The tattoo is surely a visual reminder of something palpable enough to sense in just minutes talking to Nguyn.  If they were the star of this film, their superpower would be a self-awareness far too powerful to be lost.

The Artistic Training

Nguyn’s artistic training has been a journey, one they share with characteristic self-reflection.  “I have always had an interest in the arts, so, I ultimately went to school for graphic design.”  But for Nguyn, this wasn’t a straightforward path, though they wanted it to be.  “I really wanted to go to art school.  But, if you were raised in a first generation household, this is a cardinal sin.  So, my first college experience was a semester at pharmacy school which I flunked out of.  I went to a community college where I took any art class I could,” Nguyn shared.  “I finally graduated from my third and final college at SUNY Purchase where I majored in graphic design.”  Graphic Design continues to be their full-time career during traditional office hours.  In addition, they’ve shared their artistic talents through an Artist Residency at the School of Visual Arts’ RisoLAB during the Summer of 2022. Nguyn’s career path is at the crux of Ăn Chơi: doing what makes you happy is the ultimate recipe of fun because you can live as authentically yourself.

Vanessa standing in front of their peers at the print lab showcasing one of their latest prints

The Median & Identity

“I really just want my viewers to look at my art and feel warmth,”  Nguyn says with a smile.  Spoiler alert: you can’t help but feel this just by talking to them--a feeling that translates directly into their art.  And to achieve this, Nguyn focuses on “cheeky, silly, and fun themes--all with bright fluorescent colors that sometimes don’t match.  For example, I’ll take soup broth and draw it in hot pink.”  To attain the vibrancy of the colors they use, Nguyn relies on a risograph machine, a printer that uses soy-based ink to only print two colors at a time.  The result?  Colors that are brighter than any commercial ink-jet printer, which really is a perfect reflection of Nguyn’s own luminosity. 

The Wisdom

When reflecting upon the advice they’d give to their younger selves and other artists, Nguyn readily shares, “there’s going to be a lot of opportunities that are going to scare you.  And, you’re just going to have to do it afraid because that’s better than not doing it at all.  Listen to your gut--no connection is worth disrespect.”  Nguyn paused and took a beat.  “Nine times out of ten, if not ten times out of ten, it’s going to be so worth it.  You’ll find out you’re more capable than the limitations you give yourself.”

Vanessa picnicing for fun in Sunset Park

Ăn Chơi is filled with themes rooted in the authenticity Nguyn lives by; but, in their art, “I’m not just staying true to myself, I am staying true to my grandmother.  She just wanted me to be happy.  And, how else can you be happy if you’re not true to yourself?”

And therein lies the wisdom at the root of Ăn Chơi--one that’s both profound and universal.

- Written by Courtney Adams, @ahhcoocoo

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