Interview with Thu Vu: There and Back Again (Vietnam – Chicago – Vietnam)

Thu Vu, a Vietnamese artist, studied art in Hanoi before coming to Chicago to attend graduate school at the SAIC. Chicago helped to change her world view about art and creating art on many levels. She is now back in Vietnam, where she is trying to push the envelope with her magical “doodling.”

Thu Vu Working
Courtesy of the Artist


ArtStyle: What type of training and development did you have in Vietnam before coming to Chicago?

Thu Vu (TV): I received my BFA at Hanoi Fine Arts College (formerly Indochina Art College), one of the most well-known art schools in Vietnam, following a French system of art education. The BFA program (1994-1999) focused mainly on the techniques of lacquer painting, silk painting, oil, and pastel, using a very realistic style with representational themes, such as landscapes, figures, portraits, and every day life activities. The focus was on materials and techniques and not so much on ideas. I did mostly landscapes and still life using oil pastels on paper as my favorite medium.

ArtStyle: How did you think an artist had to make art?

TV: In Vietnam, I know a lot of people thought of making art meant you had to stay in your studio from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. painting or sculpting. I think art making covers a wide range of activities. I could make art in my bedroom, in my studio, in a waiting room for a friend at a restaurant, or simply going to an art opening as a support to that process of making art. I try not to think about making art because then I would end up making nothing. For me, making art is a process of playing, experimenting, and exploring. Of course, it is hard work at times, but it is a process of having fun.

Thu Vu Blue and Black
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: What did you think of American art when you first saw it? Did you have any previous exposure to art in the U.S.?

TV: Art history was considered a weak department in my art school in Hanoi and in the curriculum. We rarely had information about new art, especially art from the U.S. and some other parts of the world, such as Africa and Latin American. My knowledge of world art history was very limited, especially modern and contemporary art.

The first time I was exposed to art from the U.S. was my trip to Maine in 1998. It was also my first time traveling out of Vietnam. In an exchange student program organized by the Indochina Arts Partnership, I studied printmaking at Maine College for one semester. I met artists in Portland and art students at the college and saw how they worked.

That experience was a door opening for me to explore new ways of working. In terms of materials, I fell in love with lithography and etching because the complex processes really challenged me and allowed me to open up to new visual ideas.

Thu Vu Browns
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: What was it like?

TV: I had to say my first impression was that I was shocked and thought contemporary American art was kind of difficult to “digest.” With the Vietnamese art training background, I was living in the world of 19th French Impressionist paintings, Russian socialist painting, and traditional Vietnamese paintings. So all the years at Hanoi Fine Arts College trained my eyes to focus on a “peaceful” kind of art form, such as French realistic paintings, Impressionist paintings of Monet, Manet, and Cézanne, and the later art periods of Picasso, Matisse, and de Kooning. I was used to thinking about art as a product of the past and something that was proven to be already successful. Contemporary art was like eating strange food for me at that time.

So, I first felt strange to see how all the artists, faculty, as well as art students in Maine worked. I must say what was new to me was the way they saw things and the way they perceived their own work. Their ideas and concepts were strongly focused and technique played a role as a tool to present their ideas. For example, the first time I saw one of the art students do a series of silkscreens with text, I thought to myself, “You call this art? No way.” But then later, I became so interested in the art that I began to appreciate this new art form. I learned to put away all of my previous expectations of what art should look like and my own personal judgment of the artist and the art work.

Thu Vu Stage
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: How did Chicago change your art style the most?

TV: Chicago changed my way of seeing art, working, and appreciating art. In terms of influencing my style, I see the abstraction in my representational paintings and see the representational style in my abstract paintings. Studying art in Chicago helped me develop an independent and critical way of thinking about art.

Thu Vu Symphony
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: Could you talk about the influences upon you and your work? How did they alter your art making?

TV: Since I lived with my parents all my life and mostly shared the living space with my family, my first fascination about Chicago was the time, space, and all the freedom I had for myself. In Chicago, I had my own space, studio, and way of living life. In grad school, every student had his or her own private studio and the entrance was covered with a curtain to allow for privacy. My paintings at that time captured the individuality of each space, each corner of the house, each messy studio, where the individual characters of the owners were reflected in the way things were arranged — furniture, messy desk, funky couch, twisting staircase, narrow bedroom, or colorful kitchen. I used to sneak into a lot of my friends' studios when they were not there to sketch their spaces. At the same time, I was very interested in working with personal interior spaces from different multiple angles, creating a feeling of dizziness.

At the same time, I got a chance to work with Professor Barbara Rossi, who helped me explore another path of my own work — doodling. I loved doodling and making marks. From the nonsense lines from nowhere, I created different kinds of spaces with different qualities of mark making — dots, strokes, and lines –- showing movement. At that time, I was also strongly influenced by Raoul Dufy, a French artist who used a lot of doodle lines and mark making, combined with interior space.

In my last two years in Chicago, my painting focused on the theme of the interior of the theater. I went to the Chicago symphony a lot and it was a great resource and an influence on my work, as well as my own interest in classical music. I started to work on a larger scale with a big brush and with intense color, dizzying angles of Symphony Hall viewed from different seats, and ambiguous space from multiple perspectives.

Thu Vu Reds
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: Now that you're back in Vietnam, could you talk a little bit about your art, style, and process and how it's changed from your time in Chicago?

TV: One of the things that has stayed with me after Chicago is my doodling. I have been abandoning it off and on as I often had the idea that I need to be a serious painter making paintings of something. But then, each time I was stuck, I doodled to find a way out mentally. The doodling all a sudden knocks the back of my head and reminds me that I need to have fun in my own art making, that I need to let my own work lead me, and that I need to remain open, and when that happens, it is so inspiring. In my own doodling, I see the possibilities keep opening up in before my eyes.

I am doing a lot of doodling these days, not only on paper, but 3D doodles, experimenting with different paper materials and creating space through holes with layers of papers. I also use different lighting. I am more interested in 3D works these days and want to do more installation work with my doodles.

Thu Vu 3D
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: How do you see your work continuing?

TV: I want to keep pushing my doodling further in the sense of building the 3D space — a giant space where you could walk into my doodles or small boxes with tiny spaces. All I can say is that I will have to let my work lead me and see what happens.

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