Nguyen

Cottage Grove artist Uyen-Thi “T” Nguyen wasn’t the sort of person to stay in one place for very long – that is, before she landed in Cottage Grove. 

She and her family decided to move here to enroll her kids in Blue Mountain School. When the school closed, other qualities of the community served to keep her here.  

“It’s beautiful here and people are nice. While Cottage Grove isn’t as ethnically diverse as other places I’ve lived, which is something I missed, it is a very special place. People from all walks of life get along respectfully, even if they don’t always agree, there is crossover in how they engage and interact with one another,” Nguyen said.

Her feelings for the uniqueness and realization of how special Cottage Grove is deepened through the eight years that she and her partner created and ran “Delight,” a magic game and gift business. 

“The people we met and interacted with at Delight made me love this place even more,” she said. The gatherings of young people who came to play magic and fantasy games were very inspiring. So was being a part of the downtown scene and participating in last Friday Downtown Art Walk.”

Art was something that Nguyen had a strong connection to. Nguyen is formally trained as a visual artist, having studied at the Moorpark College Art Center of Design in Pasadena, and Academy of Art in San Francisco, where she received awards and scholarships. Her career path took many turns in various industries, teaching her new things each step of the way.  

During her time operating Delight she was never far removed from art. Nguyen served on local nonprofit boards and volunteered for arts organizations. She also taught art at after-school programs and offered summer art classes at Delight.  

Part of a painting by Cottage Grove artist Uyen-Thi Nguyen.

A couple of years ago the call to focus more on art, in particular painting, caused her to reassess her role as a successful business owner. She and her partner made arrangements to sell their business to friends, entrusting them to continue the special place that had been created on Main Street. And despite the challenges of a Covid world, Delight plays on!

In the process of easing her transition from business to art, Nguyen changed her role in participating in the Downtown Art Walk. In lieu of hosting artists in her store, she took her art on the road (or at least down the road), displaying her paintings at Imagine it Framed, Apple Pie Antiques and other local businesses during the monthly Art Walk. As a neighbor, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about this unknown aspect of one living so close by. It was also wonderful to see the talent and depth shown in Nguyen’s art, a serendipitous pleasure.

On April 1 of this year, no joke, Nguyen began a demanding 100-day portrait challenge on Facebook. That meant posting a new portrait every day for roughly a third of the year. It sounds grueling even to post something simple, like an inspirational quote, for a total of 100 days running, but to actually create an original piece of art each day reflecting a human personage is unquestionably daunting.  

In her first post, Nguyen requested friends send her photos to use as models for the coming portraits, and her friends responded by sending her over 100 photos for her consideration. A fair number of those ended up becoming the portrait of the day. Other portraits were family members, and included at least one self-portrait.

As the posts appeared each day, Nguyen showed what she was capable of, posting a palette of charcoal, watercolors, pencil drawings, digital art, pastels, combinations of mediums, and her forte, oil paints. Myself, following the challenge, was eager to see what she would post each day.

The 100 ended on July 11, and instead of being the end of the road it had sparked the idea for a new project. The experience of creating visages of fellow Grovians gave Nguyen the idea of creating a representative depiction of the community that she had become a part of. She applied for a grant through the Lane Arts Council to do an art project that would seek to capture the essence of where she lived. She called the idea “A portrait of Cottage Grove.”

The Lane Arts Council is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1976. Its mission has been to create a strong art presence in the community through in-school arts education programs, special programs such as Art Walks, Fiesta Cultural, and – as it applies to this story – support to local artists and arts organizations.   

This year, together with Banner Bank, the City of Eugene, and individual donors, the Lane Arts Council is awarding, for the first time, individual artist grants to support its artistic endeavors. The council chooses 10 community art projects and six individual artists to award grants to, including Nguyen.

There was a virtual awards ceremony held on Aug. 18 in the view of coronavirus restrictions, but it did not dampen the mood of the excited artists. It is rare to receive support for your efforts, especially financial aid. While many people enjoy art, not that many are willing to pay for it.

“A portrait of Cottage Grove,” as explained by the artist, “is my vision to do a portrait of a city through its people. A city is not solely its architecture, landscapes, or residences. The heart of any city lies in its communities. I plan to create a collection of 60 or more oil paintings and drawings that try to capture the essence of Cottage Grove through its people and some select landscapes that typify the area.”

For subjects, Nguyen is relying on volunteers. Once they agree to participate, she spends one to two hours interviewing and getting to know them, taking still photos, videos and also making sketches of them. 

“It is really neat to get to know people, to discover the things that really matter to them. As I develop their portrait I try and include as much of what I learned about them into their pose, the setting, color palette and overall feel of the painting. What really comes across to me is that people are unique. We are not the result of a cookie-cutter,” Nguyen said. 

“With so many divisions, it’s refreshing to learn that in the bigger picture people are truly individual. I want to celebrate that uniqueness and explore ways to perceive a community of one-of-a kind folks. I want to represent Cottage Grove accurately in its demographics, include the cultures, occupations, genders and ages jostling together.”

Describing the process in more detail Nguyen talks of her artistic method. “Every portrait is unique. Some are getting pretty weird. I am not interested in any one style, but am trying to capture each person in whatever way resonates with their individuality. The challenge is to visually fit their story to the person in the painting. It is exhilarating to create something new each time, but it puts a huge workload on myself.”

Coronavirus has, like for many, added a few hurdles for the project to try to scale. 

“The process is very private anyway for people to open up to me and reveal themselves. Now there is the concern about engaging socially and exposing yourself to others with the fear of the virus, so it has added an obstacle to getting subjects for the project. In particular I would like to engage with parts of the Latino community that are here in Cottage Grove,” Nguyen said.

The process is still ongoing and evolving as it goes. 

“As I am reviewing conversations with the people involved I am asking questions: How do we see each other, as generalizations? We are not boxes and we tend to resist the trend to compartmentalize us. I want to explore society from the individual out, through a microcosm, and how together each of us contributes to the whole. But I am still figuring out how to write that narrative,” Nguyen said.

Once the project is complete she hopes its design will allow it to be open for viewers and readers to interpret. 

Part of a painting by award-winning artist Uyen-Thi Nguyen.

“Art is universal, we all live in communities, so no matter where this collection is displayed, or who reads the book, it will be people looking at people. There will be multiple layers and hopefully it will bring some joy and spark some self-reflection to those who see it,” Nguyen said.

There are several planned public expositions of “A Portrait of Cottage Grove.” In the spring and summer of 2021, there will be a multiple-space exhibition. Nguyen’s paintings will be displayed in Eugene, at the Library, New Zone Gallery, and other locations. Another planned display will happen at the Springfield City Hall Gallery. There will be a Cottage Grove exhibition at Opal Center for Arts and Education, Bohemia Mining Museum and hopefully a couple of other public spaces. You may have seen some of Nguyen’s art at the Axe and Fiddle, where she hung an exhibit in August.

Further plans include publishing the work in an art book. Nguyen is looking into self-publishing the book but also exploring working with local book publishers. Regardless, the book will be a snapshot of an ever-changing vibrant community, capturing inhabitants not with photographic exactness, but through the artist’s eye.

There are still spaces available to participate in “A Portrait of Cottage Grove.” Or maybe you know someone who is a part of the fabric of the town and should be included in the mix. You can reach out to the artist in these ways: her website, utnpaintings.com; her Facebook page, Art by UTN – A Portrait of Cottage Grove, or by email, [email protected]  

It is exciting to think what the distillation of the essence of our town will end up looking like through the brush and palette of Uyen-Thi Nguyen, but judging by what I have seen so far it will be a true work of art!

Email: [email protected]