Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Quyen Truong

I became interested in art because for a long time, drawing and painting were the primary mediums through which I felt most comfortable communicating. This was especially true when my family first moved to the United States from Vietnam, when I was seven years old. I always excelled at drawing; the ability to impress my classmates by ably emulating a Disney cartoon character with pencil and paper held a special magic for me, and enabled me to make new friends. As a shy bookworm, I yearned to connect with my peers, but felt a lot of trepidation articulating my thoughts. I worried about making a fool of myself. My artwork enabled me to feel represented in a subtle but impactful manner. As I grew up, my ability to create art distinguished me from my peers. It made me feel powerful and special, unique and sophisticated, and most importantly, it allowed me to create different (imagined) realities than the one in which my immigrant family existed. In my artwork, I dwelled in imaginary worlds, full of strong-willed princesses who rode on magnificent steeds and saved their princes from roaring dragons. I also enjoyed re-creating my favorite cartoons: Tintin, Batman, Asterix and Obelix, Garfield, and of course, my all-time favorite, Calvin and Hobbes.

 Art not only led me into books and imaginary worlds, it exposed me to new communities and helped me venture beyond my neighborhood.  In high school, I participated in a Hartford-based summer arts program called “Neighborhood Studios.” Funded by the efforts of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the program was the brainchild of Faithlyn Johnson, who modeled the program after Gallery 37 in Chicago. Neighborhood Studios employed local artists and aspiring teen artists to learn about and create art in a variety of disciplines. The program afforded me the opportunity to indulge in my passion, and be paid for my efforts. For the first time, my interest in fine arts was legitimized. The idea that I could earn money towards my family’s income by doing what I love completely altered my world view. In addition, meeting adults who made a living with their craft, and developing friendships with other artistic teens exposed me to a completely different kind of community altogether. In all, the experience helped me understand the kind of network I need to support my dream. Finally, the fact that we created murals to beautify the city of Hartford heralded a burgeoning interest in using my artwork to leave a positive mark upon “our” city. Neighborhood Studios sparked my long-term interest and investment in community-development and teen arts programs.

 Since then I’ve worked for various teen arts programs, studied museum education via a fellowship at the Rhode Island School of Design, and, after college, worked for Artists For Humanity in Boston.  

 What does my journey have to do with art and social justice, or being “art-smart”?  Art is a form of social justice. Teens self-actualize by testing relationships around them. In tandem with teachers, mentors, family members, and friends, young people intensely engage in the consuming process of identity-formation. How we respond to that energy (of youth molding their core understandings of who they are) shapes the nature and quantity of dimensions of self that people are willing to explore consciously. We all, to a large extent, for better or for worse, affect those who surround us on a daily basis. It’s easy to follow the herd, to do as we are told, to respect authority and inhibit natural impulses and step in line. And it’s easy to be a rebel, indulge in our id, rail against the patriarchy/norm/authority, and be completely subversive. What’s difficult is finding a happy medium, so that we challenge ourselves and others around us to expand our world views in a peaceful, compassionate manner, replete with mutual respect.

 Art creates spaces in which we can safely explore associative thought processes, journey toward new modes of understanding (of ourselves and the world in which we operate), and engage in topics we never expected to find interesting. Art led me from Calvin and Hobbes, to creating murals for Hartford, to building a teen arts enterprise program in Woonsocket, to becoming an educator and a social entrepreneur at Artists For Humanity – to currently cultivating an identity as an independent artist.

 Dr. Seuss wrote, “You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go. You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains, and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.”

 This poem exemplifies how I feel about art – for many years, art was the one place where I felt free to do what pleased me.  Many factors felt outside of my control – my family socio-economic circumstances, our beleaguered finances, my mother’s moodiness, and my inability to change any aspect of our access to means. The frustration gnawed at me as I lay awake at night, listening to the snores of my parents and younger brother in our one-bedroom basement apartment. Art gave me a direction. It paved the way for my journey. The power of complete control over the composition, color, mark-making, subject matter and texture of a two-dimensional image - would take my mind off my worries and occupy my childhood self for hours. Looking at a blank canvas to envision what it can become elicits excitement - both a desire to play and a tense urge to precisely manipulate the material in order to express exactly how I feel. The blank canvas becomes a medium through which I can self-direct my life.  I keep Dr. Seuss’ words in mind, as I continue on my path towards self-actualization:

“So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left. And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed!”

Howard Gardner touts the existence of multiple intelligences as both a means of illuminating individual strengths and evidence that every student has the capacity to cultivate unique strengths and expand their capabilities.  He says: “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do… Ultimately, we must synthesize our understandings for ourselves. (Gardner, 1999)

 The ability to organize people, to empathize, to reflect in a thoughtful manner – these types of intelligences are not necessarily valued in a school setting where there is too much of a focus on testing. The ability to gorge on information and to efficiently regurgitate it is not the most valuable form of intelligence.  Being art-smart is about crafting the skill of expansive, fluid, and ever evolving independent thinking - through whatever form best fits our particular needs, interests, modes of learning, and communication tactics. Being art-smart is about seeing the journey for what it is – and not focusing on the destination. Being art-smart is about being mindful, cantankerous, cultivated, cautious, and curious. Being art-smart is being okay with the concept that “whatever will be, will be.”  Maybe even being okay with not being okay.  And appreciating states of being as transient growth opportunities rather than avoiding self-exploration.

Born in Vietnam and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, Quyen Truong earned her Bachelor's of Arts in Visual Arts at Brown University. She is an artist-educator based in Connecticut. Her past exhibitions include solo shows at Providence College's Hunt-Cavanagh Gallery, the Arlington Center for the Arts, the Cambridge Multicultural Center, and the Bell Gallery at Brown University.

As a teaching artist and a youth mentor, Quyen is particularly interested in the ways in which art can create spaces for meaningful discourse. The paintings she created to elucidate her father's seven years of imprisonment in Vietnamese Re-Education Camps have been integrated into the Choices Program at Brown University as part of a national curricula to teach students about unintended consequences of war (http://www.choices.edu/resources/supplemental_vietnam_camps_lesson.php).

Quyen is also passionate about grassroots advocacy, community organizing, and healthy communities. Currently she works as the Review & Evaluation Coordinator with the North Central Regional Mental Health Board to ensure that citizens are involved in determining and monitoring the mental health services provided by the State of Connecticut.

In her spare time, Quyen enjoys trail running, swimming, and cycling.

 Quyen’s fine arts website is at www.quyentruong.com

Find Quyen’s latest artwork on Facebook at www.facebook.com/quyentruongart



Friday, April 25, 2014

From Darkness To Light

Hillary Bryant


The first yoga class I ever took was in an inpatient treatment program in New Jersey about ten years ago. I was intrigued, but it definitely wasn’t love at first pose.  From age thirteen to nineteen I was severely depressed. 

Including outpatient, inpatient and residential – I was treated a total of thirteen times. My inner angst first manifested as an eating disorder, followed by self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse and finally suicidal thoughts and actions. I spent more time in hospitals and the offices of health care professionals than I did in high school or college.

When I had a free moment away from my rigorous treatment schedule, my dad and I would attend yoga classes at a studio nearby. I was envious of yoga students who radiated peace and tranquility. No matter what I did to prevent it, a dark cloud followed me onto the mat.

I often left classes prematurely because I couldn’t stop obsessing and worrying. I’d close my eyes and look away so no one could see that I was fighting back tears. The negative voices in my head were always louder than the instructor’s. I gave up on trying to quiet the voices, on trying to be in the present.

The idea of treating my body like a temple was laughable when it seemed like the only thing I knew how to do was abuse it. By the time I ended high school and prepared to go off to college my life was spiraling downward towards irreparable misery.

After five suicide attempts I found myself in a series of different treatment programs for about six months. When I finally returned home I knew that something inside me was beginning to change. My undeniable lust for death had subsided and my days were getting a little easier. I was learning that I’d rather live than die. I learned that I could not run from my demons, only face them head on.

I returned to my mat in hopes of healing myself from all of the pain and suffering I’d known for so long. Yet, I had no idea how much it would change my life when I was finally able to let it in. Yoga has reunited my mind and my body, formerly two separate entities, each miserable in their own right. More importantly, it made my body a place where I could stand to be.

I have left behind all of my self-mutilating habits since returning to yoga. I can now look in the mirror and see myself, see my scars, and accept all of it with a greater sense of understanding, and a little bit of love. I believe that time healed my external wounds, but it was yoga that healed me internally.

Energetically, yoga classes made me feel lighter. All of a sudden the weight of my burdens didn’t seem so impossible to bear. No matter how bad of a day I had, I knew I could walk into a class and leave feeling better. It was hard to believe that there was a place out there where I could go that was guaranteed to make me feel better about myself and my situation. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

Yoga opened my eyes to the fact that things didn’t always have to be so dark. If you attend yoga classes at studios, you’ll commonly see the teachers and the students end the class by taking their hands to their hearts and bowing to one another. “Namaste,” they’ll say. Roughly translated this means, “the light in me honors the light within you”. Each time I practice, it becomes easier to accept the darkness within me, as well as the light.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Emotionally Charged Boston Marathon

Linda Lentini


Running holds enormous healing power for me.  I build my day around my run.  In the winter months I pray for a day above twenty degrees so I can run outdoors.  The refreshing feeling of running outside and freeing my mind brings me peace. Mindful running allows me to prepare for being present in my day.  Fifteen years ago, when I started running, I smoked cigarettes, was forty pounds heavier, and in really poor health. Making the choice to run instead of smoke was a life changing event that I will always cherish.   Running has brought physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits to my life.

In 2012 I ran a Boston Marathon qualifier and beat my qualifying time by 9 minutes to qualify for the 2014 Boston Marathon.  My family and I decided to make this a family event and we were all excited to plan the trip.  On April 15, 2013 we watched the race on TV and tried to scout out places my family could wait to watch me finish the following year.  What we saw as we watched people cross the finish line will forever stay in my mind and heart.  

The extent to which runners push themselves to cross the finish line in a marathon – is a product of immense sacrifice and dedication of time and effort in the months or years leading up to the race.  A profound and almost palpable sense of satisfaction and accomplishment occurs when one crosses the finish line.  All of the hours of training have led to this sense of accomplishment you feel when seeing and crossing the beautiful finish line.  This wonderful moment was stolen from many who ran the Boston Marathon in 2013 and for many who watched in horror.  

Our safety was compromised, our lives were changed, and our world appeared scary.  As a runner it hurt me in another way.  The bombing at the Boston Marathon threatens the one place in the world where I consistently feel free and safe.  Based on my times, if I had been running in the 2013 race, I most likely would have been crossing the finish line at the time of the explosions – with my family standing nearby to catch a glimpse of me.  It is a huge deal to question whether or not I can ever again feel completely safe and free while running a race.

Would the experience of participating in races be infiltrated by an air of dangerousness?  Would registering for races involve thinking about the possibility of losing my life?  My peaceful world of running was ruined?  I cried with my family as we watched so many lives changed in a matter of minutes.

I have witnessed increased Police protection, new policies for bag checks, and new guidelines for spectators.  Some races have prohibited spectators from congregating in the finish line area.  People cheering me on during the race and especially at the end make my day.  They give me strength.  I have run several races since the Boston Marathon bombing and have gained healing strength after each one.  As a community we have spent the last year rebuilding our safe place. 
The healing power of running for me is so precious that I will always fight to keep its gifts in my life.  Some days my run is a chore because of family, work or training requirements.  On those days I try to remain grateful that I am still able to run.  People lost that gift last year.  Our lives are filled with choices about how we focus our energy.  It is sometimes easy to take quick fixes.  Even when quick fixes and easy options are there, it is important to make a choice to heal with time and purpose.  My process of healing through running will be with me for a long time so I will invest the time and energy to keep it safe.  

It is April 17th and the Boston Marathon is less than four days away.  I will be running in the race.  I am running the race to heal and get my free place back, for all of the people and families that lost lives, for all the people that can no longer run because of last year, and for the running community.  It will be a gift to meet people who are running, cheering us on and families that support all of the people around the race.  It is an honor for me to be able to run this year and I feel stronger than ever before.