Nghia Nguyen (Henry Nguyen) is from Saigon, Viet Nam. His father was a well known local artist who died when Henry was young. He began government sponsored Summer art classes starting in the first grade. Because of his talent, Henry was selected to go to the University of Saigon where he studied for three years. When he was instructed by the communist sponsored program to paint the farmers and natives as healthy, happy and prosperous people, he refused. Consequently, he was expelled. He was later put in jail for his work.
In 1989 Henry finally escaped from Vietnam and made his way to Malaysia. Once in Malaysia, he lived in a refugee camp for eight years. During this time, he continued to hone his craft by painting for locals, tourists, and corporate clients. In 1997, he arrived in San Diego and in 2000, he moved to Gaffney, South Carolina.
Henry Nguyen is also a sculptor, a sign painter and a graphic art printer, but his passion is painting, and he pursues this at every opportunity. When he paints outside, many people notice him in his wide brim straw hat at his easel as he captures some of his favorite subjects...local landmarks and landscapes.
In many ways Charleston, SC reminds Henry of Viet Nam. The lowlands and marshes, the old architecture, the city itself with people bustling about, the outside cafes and the surrounding waters. Henry was so inspired in his one week-end visit that he said it would take at least ten years for him to satisfy his hunger to paint the Holy City.
about the work: a visit to the studio of Henry Nguyen
"Walking into Henry Nguyen's home is somewhat analogous to a sensory overload. The smell of oil paint floods out of the door with the turn of the knob, stopping you in your tracks as a prompt for the rest of the senses to take over. Once your smell has adjusted, your sight supervenes. Piece upon piece of artwork lines the hallway, walls, tables, and chairs. The eye struggles to decide which painting to focus on, the colors swirling around the room like a collage. Music streams from a cd player tucked in the corner, partially hidden behind a work in progress. Henry scurries from room to room with paintings and wine in hand."
In his bedroom, stacks of books are piled halfway up the wall behind his sleep pallet while sketch books and cups of pens sit at the end in case of inspiration while sleeping. “I study a lot of different artists, but no matter the study, art comes from the way you feel. When an artist works, they have something their own way,” Henry explained, pointing to the miniature library.
And his own way is the path his work has taken. Walking from room to room, it is obvious the changes that he has experienced and the affect it has had on his work. “In my life, so many things have changed. I don’t know where I’ll go later or what will happen in my life.
You have to struggle; my life is always up and down,” Henry recalls about the transitions in his painting. “It’s enchanting because there’s so many ways to do art.”
Scanning the room, a theme begins to emerge in his newer pieces. The buildings and architectural paintings that Henry is known so well for seem scarce. Instead, on an easel, beautiful, nude women command the room. Upon closer observation, it becomes clear that their flawless, curvy figures feature the heads of birds.
Another piece sits in the floor, highlighting a group gathered around a table. All of the bodies are clothed in suits while each head sitting upon the suits are those of varying animals; bulls, pigs, goats, horses. Some of his work is mysterious and ominous while others featuring dancing and music and lightheartedness; it all depends on his recent experiences.
“Arts and music bring to life so much happiness; we have to slow down and enjoy it,” says Henry, referencing his connection to certain pieces.
Many people have begun asking about the transitions in Henry’s work to which he says, “Why do I paint so differently? It’s because I see differently. I see from nature; I see the violence. Your emotion from nature channels the way you paint- the way you feel.”
Much of his inspiration comes straight from the news, from politics and events. “I love culture; we have to keep up with the culture.” And this is what motivates his work. Culture. The constant intake of information surrounding us day by day.
The happy and the sad and the sorrowful and the celebratory. He allows the world and what’s happening in it to wash over him and help him create. “When I feel sad, I paint a sad one,” he says.
With such an array of interest and ideas, he captures his thoughts and feelings in a sketchbook. Multiple books sit in the floor, filled with quick sketches, each their very own piece of art. While peering through page after page of colorful sketch, it becomes clear that his original ideas are sometimes conquered by the culture he follows so intimately.
The beautiful nudes with the bird heads, for instance, are completely normal women within his sketch. He uses the sketchbooks as a reference to transfer his paintings onto his hand-stretched canvases, but from minute to minute he is unsure of what the end result will become.
“So what is the meaning behind fusing human and animal,” I asked. His eyes lit up and he began speaking with raw emotion and passion. “The humans turn crazy and act like animals, but animals are crazy too; they each have both sides. We live on this land with the same life, humans and animals. We’re just smart animals but we’re all from nature.
In the bad, there are still good things, and in the good things, there is still bad; neither animal nor human is perfect.” His work is filled with the struggle between good and bad, human and animal. Politics, arts, emotions overflow from his pieces.
While Henry’s work has taken a new path, he can’t stray from producing the architectural pieces we all know and love. “With buildings, I want to paint the history; it may be gone one day,” he says about his interest in the topic. It amazes me to walk from room to room and see the exceptional talent that lies within one man and the range of emotion, style, method and subject matter that he conveys.
Henry Nguyen is an exceptional artist but an even more exceptional man with an unconventional story and background, providing his inspiration to create and explore. “Painting is my happy,” were his final words as we wrapped up our afternoon. What more can you ask for from an artist than that?
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by Erin Emory - October 2013
used with permission