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Sarah Nguyen - multi-media visual artist, educator

Columbia, Missouri / United States

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We are so excited to introduce Sarah Nguyen - a multi-media artist who finds inspiration in stories, traditional folktales, fables, contemporary poems or memorable phrases. She is also a mother of three boys and wife to the writer Phong Nguyen whom she collaborates with on a variety of projects.

Sarah, you are a multi-media artist working primarily with paper. Your work is amazing. Tell us more about your journey into the art world (brief bio/history/backstory)?

I am an artist living and working in rural Missouri. My work has appeared in solo and group exhibits and publications nationally and internationally. I received my BFA in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design and my MFA in Painting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I worked as Art Editor of Pleiades Magazine and Pleiades Press. My husband Phong and I have three sons.

My work starts with a story, a traditional folktale or fable, or a contemporary poem or memorable phrase. The work itself is driven by the images that these stories evoke, and is propelled further by every brush-stroke, mark-making, blade cut, and gesture laid down in the aftermath. The stories and myths of a culture convey a sense of place and a sense of the people who inhabit that place. In this way, visual art that interacts with story enters a narrative sphere where it must encounter the local.

My recent work has focused on family lore, stories about women named in the Old Testament, and stories from Missouri, USA. As a stranger to the Midwest, and specifically to rural Missouri, I have sought to understand my host culture and environment for the decade I have lived here through exploring the folklore, music, and stories of the Ozarks.

You already mentioned that you received BFA in Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and MFA in Painting at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. How has your art practice evolved since then?

After receiving my BFA, I worked as a teacher and illustrator and had a young family of three before pursuing my MFA. I got my MFA primarily with the goal to continue teaching at the university level but what I received was the desire to practice art as my full-time occupation and my practice changed from using art to make money to making art as a way of life.

Your husband is a writer. Do you inspire each other in your work?

Phong and I have collaborated on a variety of projects from commissioned art installations, book covers, illustrated books, and graphic novels. I am very inspired by my husband's writing and enjoy working with him on those particular projects.

An example of one of the projects we have worked on is Break Into Blossom, which is an artistic visual interpretation of his story "Einstein Saves Hiroshima" from his book Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History. In the story, Einstein refuses to sign the letter written by his friend and fellow scientist Leo Szilard which would galvanize support for the Manhattan Project. The project proceeds underfunded, and what would have been a nuclear weapon (the bomb Little Boy) is a dud that, instead of detonating over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, passes through a cherry tree and lands with a thud, rolling and settling, then over the years gathering moss and lichen. The finished piece is a painted, life-size sculpture of Little Boy, surrounded by cherry blossoms from cherry blossom trees (represented in Tyvek hand-cut paper scrolls that hang from the ceiling). Break Into Blossom causes us to reexamine the past and ask "what if?" The aged, moss-covered and undetonated "Little Boy" is a testament to what-might-have-been.

We are all aware of living in a time when brash actors or irresponsible leadership could draw us into actions and policies that we will one day have cause to regret. To think and rethink the actions of our past is an important step towards acting righteously and intentionally in the future.

You are a mother of three boys. What is it like to be the only woman in the household?

I am very lucky to have such respectful and caring children. They are also very creative and love mathematics and languages. Our family has sought to create an environment where love and respect for one another are at the forefront, so I think the negative stereotype of masculine behavior associated with young boys is not something that I had to deal with. I am really grateful to be surrounded by such creative, kind and supportive people.

How did motherhood affect your art practice?

In my experience as a mother, there is no time for oneself, unless you make that time a priority. My husband gave me the best advice as I was juggling going to grad school, teaching, and caring for my three young children, which was "do art first."

Every day, I wake up at five in the morning and work in my studio for two hours. No matter what the day may hold, whether I have time to be in the studio later that day or am catching up on laundry or housework; I have started my day doing artwork.

Motherhood has shown me how to make every moment count, to create in the corners of life. I find that I multitask all the time, embroidering while watching a movie or sketching while my son reads aloud to me. I have found ways to weave my art into my life.

How did you feel about motherhood in the past and how do you feel about it now?

I have been honored to be a mother for eighteen years and have experienced the rollercoaster ride of parenthood and life. I am constantly surprised and impressed by my children. I presumed that I would guide and teach them but, I have been the student and they the teacher.

What is the message behind your art?

My work plays with the idea of art as an ongoing conversation with posterity in which artefacts of the past are painted over, yet traces of the original art remain - and using the cave-dweller as a metaphor for the fundamental human condition: forever shrouded in darkness and uncertainty, yet determined to leave our visions upon the walls of the cave. We are story makers and shadow watchers.

Using folklore as the source of my artistic inspiration I mean to return the viewer temporarily to a state of childhood, dwelling in the senses, immersed in the images of stories, experiencing the primacy of the physical. Whether the viewer, when they turn away from the canvas, paper, or scrolls, seeks mental liberation, or sensory indulgence, is a matter of significance for them. I am less interested in directing their conclusions as I am in revealing them. The desired effect of my work upon the viewer is self-investigation.

What does your art do for you?

Art has always been my therapy. I understand the world through making. Visual art is my language and foundation of communication. Art makes me a better person.

What are your plans for the future (career, parenting etc.)?

My mother always told me that "God laughs when you make plans" and in light of where our world stands presently, I am hesitant to declare a plan beyond tomorrow. That said, I feel very lucky to be able to make art every day and to still show my work during this time and I hope to continue to do so.

What advice do you have for fellow art mums?

For one of the classes that I was teaching, I had a guest artist speak to my class, and when asked how she became a successful artist, her answer was, she had changed her definition of success. As a mother, I have had to constantly adjust my expectations for myself and my life. I also had to rethink what was my definition of success. For now, my definition of success is to see my children grow up and live their best lives and to be able to make art every day. So my advice is to examine your personal definition of success that is what to aim for.

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