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