Edition 42 — Kevin Nguyen
Work That Speaks
As a shy, quiet freshman at Boston Latin Academy, Kevin Nguyen might have struggled to imagine where he is today. Though he filled his notebooks with doodles and leapt at every opportunity to approach school projects artistically, he didn’t imagine his creativity to be something he could pursue professionally. Several years later and with a degree in graphic design, Nguyen is now a member of Artists For Humanity’s inaugural AFH Artists Fellowship cohort–and once again reflecting on the expanding role of art in his life.
When I ask Nguyen to tell me about where he grew up, he chooses not to define home as one specific place. Though he lived in Dorchester, Massachusetts, he speaks with equal affection about Chinatown–where he learned kung fu and lion dance, and Roxbury–where his parent’s jewelry shop is located.
Though it wasn’t always obvious to him, Nguyen now looks back on his adolescence as full of creative inspiration. Growing up in Boston, he was constantly exposed to public art, much of which he later realized was created by his future mentors and AFH co-founders. Pointing out a set of gold necklaces he is wearing from his family’s collection, Nguyen describes his father, a jeweler, as a craftsman and artist in his own right. Whether appreciating neighborhood murals or his father’s work, he was always exposed to what others were creating.
Nguyen first heard about Artists For Humanity during his freshman year through a classmate and AFH teen employee–listening to her talk about learning to draw and paint, he was instantly hooked. As appealing as AFH was, however, it took Nguyen a year to build up the courage to follow a group of friends to one of the organization’s Open Houses, where he was hired. “If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have gone,” he shares looking back–a small decision that would go on to have a lasting impact on his personal and professional life.
Joining AFH, Nguyen saw the wages he received as an “added bonus,” or at least another way of convincing his parents to let him participate. Yet the main draw for him was the opportunity to learn. Beginning in the Painting Studio, Nguyen was taught how to mix colors and create a self-portrait, though he quickly transitioned into the Graphic Design Studio. While he describes his first impression of AFH as “intimidating,” with mentors emphasizing the importance of taking the work seriously, he soon grew comfortable in the hardworking environment.
Looking back on his proudest moment at AFH, Nguyen describes a project commissioned by Zinc, an apartment complex in Greater Boston. Zinc wanted sculptures to decorate their new building, and turned to AFH for help. Nguyen drew up a plan for a 3D piece that would use the sound waves created when the word “zinc” was spoken into a microphone, and convert them into a large-scale metal sculpture. Unfortunately, Kevin’s design fell outside of Zinc’s budget, and another, less expensive option was selected. Nguyen’s design, however, was so appealing to Zinc that they chose to pay AFH more to create a smaller version of the sound waves to be displayed in the apartment’s lobby.
Though Zinc did not execute Nguyen’s initial plan, he was grateful for the results. Beyond the end product itself, the project helped him to realize his love–and knack–for conceptualizing. Alongside his technical skills, he had been growing his ability to research ideas and make creative connections between them.
When it came time to graduate high school and move on from AFH, Nguyen was still unsure of what exactly he wanted to do. While he was curious about science and engineering, he determined that his “interest for art outweighed the rest.” In the end, he decided to attend Lesley University in Cambridge, where he majored in graphic design. Going into art school, he credits AFH for providing him with exposure to Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign–skills that would place him ahead of his classmates in his early courses.
Nguyen’s time at Lesley and post-graduation years were full of obstacles. In school, he missed the diverse environment that had surrounded him at AFH. “I remember when I toured, I didn’t see a single face that looked like mine,” he shares. Struggling to find others he could relate to on a cultural level at Lesley, his art responded by concentrating more heavily on his lived experience and heritage. Despite the university’s drawbacks, Nguyen graduated on time, having realized how much he enjoyed making work that involved his culture and the Asian diaspora, in his words: “work that spoke for people.”
Nguyen completed his degree in May of 2020–a tumultuous time to be moving on to a new chapter. He spent some time as an apprentice in his parent’s jewelry business before starting a retail job at Carhartt, as his interest in fashion grew. In the throes of the pandemic, he experienced lows in his mental health that led him to realize his need for a creative outlet.
“I think during all that darkness, I realized I really am just a creative person…design and art and all that…that’s what I want to do. And I want to use it as a tool to speak for a lot of people.”
“I was starving,” he explains, describing his desire to express himself artistically. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Nguyen’s hunger to create was addressed. Hearing about a new Artists Fellowship Program through his former employer, AFH, he decided to apply on a whim. With brutal honesty in each round of the application process, Nguyen became increasingly aware of how important the fellowship would be in helping him recenter art in his life.
At the time of our interview, Nguyen is about two-thirds of the way through his fellowship experience, and loving it. Teasing details about the body of work he has been creating, he mentions fabricating metal lion heads, and finding inspiration in the four other fellows he has shared the experience with.
“This community is way more than I could’ve asked for…I never thought I would get so much love, so much feedback, so much support…everyone deserves this.”
Though Nguyen is grateful for the opportunity to prioritize his art again as a fellow at AFH, his creativity has found other ways to manifest over the years. Outside of AFH, Nguyen also participates in and coaches university students for lion dancing competitions. While he says that he didn’t think of lion dancing as a creative practice when he began learning at 11 years old, over time he has grown to understand the artistic value of its storytelling elements.
Looking beyond the conclusion of the AFH Artists Fellowship, Nguyen is not positive about what the next few years hold in store. Hearing about his personal and artistic evolution, however, makes his future seem bright. From an introverted teen who took a year to gain the courage to apply to AFH, to an artist confident in his abilities and curious about the unknown–Nguyen’s promising creative journey is gaining momentum–and there is no turning back.
Written by Eliza Whalen.
To learn more about Kevin Nguyen, visit alldumplingnorice.com, or find him on Instagram @alldumplingnorice.
Save the date for AFH’s Open Studio featuring “VOICE5” — the culminating exhibition of the inaugural cohort of the AFH Artists Fellowship on September 26, 2023, from 5–7pm. Find more information here.