MaryAnne Nguyen remembers the exact moment she wanted to be a painter for the rest of her life. She was in a class taught by John Hrehov at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) and had been told she was going to spend a month -- broken into three classes a week, four hours each session -- painting the exact same outside scene. At first, she thought the assignment sounded "absolutely boring," but that's where her grousing ended.
Nguyen chose a spot next to a bend in a river with a tiny island in the middle. As the October days unfolded, she began to realize something special was happening -- enlightenment, to be exact. "I had to live in the painting every day," she explains. "It had to evolve throughout that whole month, and it was just beautiful." At the start of the assignment, leaves were on the trees and just starting to change color. The weather was pleasant and animals were active. Those same elements soon became bare branches, rain and grey skies, and silence as it became time to hibernate. Nguyen speaks about the experience with a reverence that could really inspire a person to find their own scene and pick up a paintbrush.
An oil painter, Nguyen possesses the kind of talent one would expect from a lifelong artist -- not necessarily from someone who took her first painting class in college in 2001. She has a strong connection to nature and the female form, both of which are celebrated in her upcoming exhibition, "Natura," which opens on Friday, June 6, at Primary Gallery. Disturbed by the overtly sexual way women are often portrayed in pop art, as well as worldwide violence aimed at the female population, Nguyen presents paintings of confident women whose collective gaze confronts the viewer. Noting the lasting impact of images and how they become a part of our history, Nguyen aims to make a positive contribution with her work.
Nguyen started drawing when she was very young and lent that skill to painting when she attended school at both IPFW and Herron. Her IPFW instructors, the aforementioned Hrehov and Audrey Ushenko, were "polar opposites in style and technique." With clear admiration in her voice, Nguyen notes, "They taught me so much about painting and I just absolutely fell in love with it. I've been painting pretty much ever since." She studied traditional forms (still life, landscape and portraiture) in her native Fort Wayne before transferring to Herron, quickly finding that the school taught art more conceptually than IPFW. She lauds Herron for being fantastic and says her professors employed outside-the-box concepts, which were beneficial for breaking her out of the classical methods she'd become accustomed to using.
Even though she's been painting for more than a decade, Nguyen is still finding herself as an artist. It's a process that surely won't surprise any creative-minded person who is dedicated to a craft. She feels she's beginning to come into her own, comparing her painting career to the transitional stages an adolescent goes through. Having had her "grunge, goth and preppy phases," Nguyen is thankful to her friends, family and fans for being "super supportive of me and my experimentations."
Her work can provoke strong reactions -- consider the half-female/half-horse figure featured in 2011's Horse. Nguyen found that people were either entirely turned off or turned on by her finished paintings. As one might expect, she didn't want that initial reaction from spectators. "I want to draw people in and let them stew over [the work] instead of being repulsed and walking away immediately," she says, noting that putting work out for the public's consumption is a social experiment -- "you never know how people will react." Nguyen's search for her authentic voice is leading her back to her proverbial roots. She longs to get back outside, free from the confines of her studio, and to sit with objects, landscapes and people. Wanting to "just be better," Nguyen explains, "I feel like I need more information. I still have so much to learn."
When asked about artists whose work she likes, she praises John Singer Sargent as her "utmost favorite portrait artist of all time," quickly followed by figurative artist Lucian Freud, pastel artist Mary Cassatt, and surrealist René Magritte. Nguyen states, "I love a good landscape, a good portrait and good religious imagery," explaining that she grew up with religious iconography. As she speaks of images of Mary, Jesus and the isolation of an object or person in a painting, one can see a version of the Madonna and child in the female subjects featured in Nguyen's 4 Elements series. She continues, "With one simple image, you can get your point across clearer."
Nguyen is an inspiration. It is clear she has been taught well and supported by the community. She speaks about former professors, world-renowned artists and even art supplies with admiration, describing the forgiving nature of oil paint as "a luscious medium ... the clay of painting." It will be exciting to see the next phases in her work as she continues on the path of self-discovery and education outside the classroom.