EMMA ROUTLEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Uyen Thi “T” Nguyen will be taking her portraits of Cottage Grove people into Eugene and Springfield.

If you have visited historic downtown this month, you have no doubt noticed art hanging in local businesses, 10 of them to be exact. This would not be unusual if these shops were all art galleries or gift boutiques. But when fine art portraits start popping up at Rainy Peak Bicycles or Buster’s Bottle Shop, you have to figure something is up.

It is.

Local artist Uyen Thi “T” Nguyen has hung her year-long project, “A Garden of People,” in the town that inspired it. You will just have today and tomorrow’s Art Walk to view the exhibit before the paintings head north to Eugene for a window-front display curated by the City of Eugene Cultural Services.

Last November I wrote about the awarding of a grant to Nguyen to portray Cottage Grove in a series of paintings through the Lane Arts Council. She was one of five artists given financial support to further their artistic mission. In Nguyen’s case, a personal challenge to paint 100 portraits in the same number of days inspired her to try to capture the essence of Cottage Grove by painting a representative sample of its residents and sharing some of their stories.

That grant yielded two wonderful outcomes. The first is the collection of paintings now hanging downtown, and the other is a book based around those portraits and the process the artist went through in preparing for each painting in “A Garden of People – A Portrait of Cottage Grove.”

What Nguyen learned from her subjects’ stories, interviews, and answers to her questions affected their final portrait. “The colors, mood, and what I included in the background all serve to show more of the person than just their physical appearance,” Nguyen said.

In the book you will find, besides the beautiful renditions of local citizens, snippets of conversations, intimate anecdotes, and observations culled from the time Nguyen spent with her subjects. However, those words don’t appear next to the portrait of who said them. “I showed the transcripts to my subjects to be respectful of what they were comfortable with sharing. I waited until I had all the material before assembling the quotes as a way to explore our definition of society. This book is a collage of those pieces. The quotes are anonymous because many are deeply personal and to reveal who said what didn’t seem right in a small town.” 

“Some of these quotes appear randomly along with paintings that have no connection to the words in the windows. In the book, the stories will weave a picture, one that is arranged as art – to allow the viewer to see for themselves what they get from it – to cultivate self-reflection, and perhaps inspire a new perception of society. With the world turned upside-down from Covid, politics, and societal needs and deficiencies, I wanted to explore what it means to live together. We are all changed, the whole world. Perhaps we can come out of this thing like a butterfly, metamorphosed, different.

Describing the process of incorporating what she discovered about the town she has chosen to call home into “A Garden of People,” Nguyen recounted first examining other books by local authors, including Opal Whiteley’s Diary. Another book that had an impact on her vision was one of the lesser-known works by John Steinbeck, “America and Americans,” 1966, his last work, which paired his observations of our country and its people with pictures from 40 leading photographers. Other picture books showing small towns and parts of Oregon helped Nguyen formulate what became her garden of paintings into its book form.

To help pay for the publishing of the book Nguyen launched a crowd-sourcing fundraiser through Kickstarter, a public benefit corporation whose stated purpose is “help bring creative projects to life.” Besides art, Kickstarter has funded theatre works, music, cartoons, video games, films, food projects, and other creative endeavors to the tune of billions of dollars. As a sign of the support Nguyen has in the community, her book publishing goal was fully funded within four days and went on to raise 181% of the original amount Nguyen hoped to generate. Donors at different levels will be receiving a copy of the book and other rewards, depending on the level of giving, such as prints of selected portraits or even a portrait commission of their own choosing. “I was overwhelmed with the support and just thrilled with such an awesome response!” Nguyen exclaimed.

Nguyen will be at this July’s last Friday Art Walk from 6-8 p.m. holding court at the Opal Center, which houses the largest display of her paintings along Main Street. She will have a proof copy of her illustrated book for interested patrons to view. It is close to being in its final form. Version 7 is in the beta readers’ hands or inboxes for a final review, and then it’s off to the presses.

The artist encourages those who may be interested in having this collection of 40 portraits and words from the community to consider pre-ordering their copy. Most copies that will be printed are already spoken for and she will be printing only a limited number of extras over what have been ordered or pledged. Since she is self-publishing the book, an accurate number of desired copies would be very desirable. At least for the first edition. If there is interest she is considering putting out a second edition.

In preparing the book for publishing she had help from Summer Young-Jelinek, a member of the Springfield Arts Commission. Young-Jelinek served in an editor’s role and gave valuable guidance in preparing the book. Feedback from volunteer readers also proved to be invaluable. “Color is really important for an art book so I have been very particular about that, making sure the portraits look the best they can,” Nguyen said.

The skill of the artist makes it obvious who’s visages are looking back at you from behind stores’ glass windows. I have recognized many I know well and others who I have certainly seen before but haven’t had a chance to meet. The paintings got a lot of views from the crowds that descended on downtown for this year’s Bohemia Mining Days. The exhibition was listed in the “Bohemia Nugget” festival guide as a special attraction.

Business owners where her art now hangs have reported that people are coming in and talking about the art and are excited that they know the person(s) pictured. And that was one of the goals all along, to stimulate community conversation and celebration through art. “So a customer at my uncle’s store came by and showed me a picture he took of the bike shop. It was my pic. It’s pretty cool they recognized me,” reported a now locally famous subject. 

This storefront installation was an unplanned result of Covid-induced closures. Originally the intention was to install a showing at the The Galleria at the Smith in Eugene in what would have been the first individual artist show at the new venue on the UO campus before moving to the Springfield City Hall Gallery and lastly back to the Cottage Grove Library and Bohemia Gold Mining Museum for the locals, but the pandemic scrapped all of those plans. Now the next installation of “A Garden of People” will be hung in downtown Eugene as part of its Visual Arts Week starting with the first Friday Art Walk, Aug. 6. Besides Nguyen the two other visual art grant recipients will take part in the exhibit spread out between 856 Willamette and the Eugene Public Library. That exhibit will hang until Sept. 6. Nguyen will also participate in an Art Talk Monday, Aug. 9 at 5:30 p.m., a virtual event on Facebook. 

Although homegrown in the Grove, Nguyen’s “A Garden of People” will be spreading its message far beyond our area as the exhibits and books share what’s so special about this town as captured through Nguyen’s eyes and paint brushes.  

To pre-order your own copy, learn more about Nguyen and her art, or to see more of her work check out her website: utnpaintings.com.

Email: [email protected]