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Repaint History Call For Art Fund Recipient: Michelle Nguyen
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Repaint History Call For Art Fund Recipient: Michelle Nguyen

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Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Michelle Nguyen. I was born in Toronto, ON, but currently reside in Vancouver, BC. I work primarily with oil paint and clay. I am the oldest child of two refugees of the Vietnam War. In addition to making art, I love running, carnivorous plants, nice sake, and Top Chef.

Michelle Nguyen
Image courtesy of the artist
How would you describe your artistic practice? 
I have been death-obsessed for most of my life, and this fixation has bled into most of the work I make. A lot of what I do is motivated by the desire to encourage my viewers to think and talk openly about human mortality.

I believe that contemporary Western society has created a culture of death denial that is detrimental to the emotional and spiritual well being of the individual and the communities to which they belong to. One only has to look to our flawed healthcare systems to see these effects, especially in the realms of mental health, geriatric and palliative care that have also been further strained by the current pandemic. That being said, I firmly believe that death care is an extension of health care. 

Michelle Nguyen

Image courtesy of the artist

Personally, I have been able to find some comfort and hope in the idea of my own inevitable demise—if death is the only assured thing in life, then everything else is open to an endless array of possibilities. I often reflect on a particular quote from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes, “More realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”

My practice finds inspiration from vanitas paintings, which serves as reminders to the viewer of their mortality. My paintings are lush, and vibrant with colour despite their macabre subject matter. I look to normalize grief and trauma in my work. References to intergenerational trauma, historical erasure, and ecological grief are also referenced throughout. I believe that in order to heal, one must hold space for mourning. 

I believe that not acknowledging one’s personal grievances and trauma puts us at risk of further inflicting harm on those around us and ourselves. I am hopeful that a better future is possible, but in order to create effective change, we need acknowledge our grievances and all we have lost. We need to understand that to heal, we must hold space for mourning. 

Tell us about an encounter with art that has shaped your practice.

There was an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario when I was in high school entitled Shary Boyle: Flesh and Blood. The show really blew me away, especially her grotesque clay sculptures and their delicate porcelain lace draped attire. I’ve been obsessed with her ever since.

Michelle Nguyen

Four Course Bacchanal, Oil on Canvas, Image courtesy of the artist
What has your experience been in terms of mentorship and a sense of community in the art world, particularly among women artists?

So far, I unfortunately haven’t had many female mentors in regards to my art practice. I did have the pleasure of briefly assisting the wildly talented ceramicist Maggie Boyd through a couple of her production cycles. I learned a whole lot from her though in that short time.

Michelle Nguyen

Hunger Makes Me, Oil on Canvas, Image courtesy of the artist
What challenges have you faced throughout your career as an artist?

My family members were very skeptical of my artistic ambitions at the beginning, which led to a lot of self doubt and low esteem.   

Michelle Nguyen

Water Feature Bell Jar, Oil on Canvas, Image courtesy of the artist
What advice would you give to artists beginning their career?

Learn how to articulate and discuss your art. For a while, I was under the impression that I shouldn’t have to contextualize or explain my work. Nowadays, I believe that it adds another extra later of nuance to the work by allowing the audience to engage with it in a different way.

What would you change about the art world if you could?

I would have museums around the world return any stolen or looted artifacts back their countries and nations of origin as a form of reparations.  

How will the Repaint History fund support your career?

Studio rent. Nothing too sexy. This city is expensive as heck!

Michelle Nguyen

Image courtesy of the artist
Are there any new projects you are currently working on?

I am currently working on a couple paintings for a group show in London in the spring of 2022. It’s going to be my first time showing outside of Canada, so I’m pretty excited about it! I will also be working on a ceramic installation piece in the new year. It’s still in the early planning stages but I’m hoping to have it in production by early summer.  

If you could own one artwork in the world, what would it be? 

I would be happy with any Cy Twombly painting from the 1990s or 2000s as long as it’s massive and imposing. 

Who are your favourite women artists right now?

Shery Boyle, Caitlin Cherry, Dominique Fung, Nadya Isabella, Hannah Levy, Julie Moon, Jennifer Rubell, Ambera Wellmann, Queleasha Wood