By Anya Shukla
I wish to dedicate this article to the strong women in the arts that kept me going. To my all-girls family (they don’t do art, but one plays a little bit of piano), Ms. Was, and other wonderful artists/teachers that put faith in me. - Huong Nguyen
“I can show you some, if you want.” Huong Nguyen moves offscreen. I hear a rustling noise. She comes back holding several sheets of white paper. “They’re so cute!” she says, excitedly holding the pages to the camera. “This sounds so cheesy, but I carry these with me at school. During lunch, I just open them and read them,” she adds. Houses and trees, drawn with colorful markers, fill each sheet. Each month, Nguyen receives several of these adorable pictures from orphanages.
In 2019, Nguyen co-founded a state chapter of Paper Bridges, a nonprofit which sends letters to orphanages around the world; her chapter mails notes to children in the United States, Mexico, and Vietnam. She admits the group is small, but even so, they now send about 50-60 letters per month.
“I just feel really happy doing this,” Nguyen paused, emotional. “I know that the kids actually enjoy my notes, so that’s what keeps me pushing.” Last year, she received a heart-wrenching letter from a blind girl who experienced Nguyen’s artwork by touching it with her hand. “She sent me a picture,” Nguyen said, “She was just smiling. And that was really empowering to me.”
Nguyen moved to California from Vietnam in 4th grade, and from California to North Carolina in 8th grade. “There was a long time where I didn’t feel like I belonged, she said. “I started making drawings, started to branch out… and that’s when I found my true calling for art.”
Nevertheless, her move to North Carolina wasn’t easy. In 8th grade, her middle school faced a national scandal when several classmates created a racist, viral video. “That was really shocking to me,” Nguyen said. “I shut down completely. I even didn’t show my art to other people because I was afraid: what if the next victim might be me?”
But on the last day of middle school, her art teacher, Ms. Was, noticed a drawing inside Nguyen’s sketchbook. Ms. Was pushed Nguyen and a fellow classmate to stay after school to make the piece: a black, white, and tan head alongside a quote—“I’m not going to spend my life being a color”—which spoke to the importance of racial diversity. Three years later, the piece still hangs in the school.
Because of Ms. Was, Nguyen has now re-embraced art... with a slightly unconventional twist. Both a self-proclaimed art history and web design nerd, Nguyen advocates for STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art, and math—education. “Science is all about defining the unknown, and art is all about embracing the unknown,” she said. “I don’t think they’re the same. But it would be really cool to combine them.”
However, Nguyen experiences several barriers to the arts, including a lack of funding for art classes at her high school. She also lacks many artistically inclined peers. Nguyen was the only one from her school who submitted pieces to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards (for context, at my high school, nine students won a Regional Scholastic Award) and received a Gold Key and Honorable Mention for her work in architectural design and painting. “Nobody told me what competitions to do. But I actually need the money. I actually need the support,” she said. Nevertheless, at the Scholastic showcase event, “it was so inspiring to see other people’s artwork and how they appreciated mine.”
Because of Ms. Was, Nguyen wants to inspire students like herself. “I like advocating through my art about racial identity, for people who are low-income,” she said. “I want to be a model for the next generation: people of color can create simple things that carry an impact.” To that end, Nguyen fights against the idea of Asians as a monolith: “Asians are very diverse. We don’t just eat noodles, study, get straight As, like math. We actually do art.”
Nguyen works to combat these stereotypes by serving as an artistic role model for her peers. Back in eighth grade, Nguyen said, she didn’t think she was a strong artist. But because of Ms. Was, she kept pursuing art. “Now, that’s my mission: to support other young artists so they become bridges of their own. To help make this world a better place.”
Images courtesy of Huong Nguyen.