We had the good fortune of connecting with Cathy Nguyen and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cathy, why did you pursue a creative career?
I was a hardworking student when I was young–dedicated, studious, and competitive, even. I did very well in school, and it became like a sport for me to train my “muscles” for. I repressed any urge to take art classes even though, deep down, I felt an unexplainable curiosity about them. I dedicated my time and energy to excelling in more “practical” courses like math, sciences, and honors/AP courses so that I could create an impressive profile on my college applications. It seemed, and still seems, like that is what most colleges and universities look for. In high school, however, I began to read a lot of literature, and learned how to express my thoughts, arguments, and analysis through words, realizing that I actually enjoyed reading and writing. I realized how much more nuanced and complex words could be compared to numbers, so English quickly became my favorite class because it allowed me to think more freely and subjectively. When I was forced to take a photography class in high school because it fit my schedule at the time, it seemed like a dam had broken because it was the first time where I felt like the power to learn and explore didn’t come from a textbook or lecture, but from my own engagement with the world. Photography exposed me to the freedom of exploring the world through a lens of curiosity, and it was such a breath of fresh air to what I had been taught in most classes. I realized I could not operate in a binary way of left-brain versus right-brain, and that I felt an inexplicable need to express myself creatively. Even though I excelled in academic subjects like math and science, I felt like I was forcing myself to find an identity in these places, to excel in these arenas so that I could “excel” in life because society tends to stress the need for occupations like scientists, engineers, lawyers, and doctors. When I started college, I was automatically enrolled in a design class my first semester to fulfill a fine art requirement, and it seemed like the same dam that burst in high school was now flooding with full-force. I realized that design, particularly graphic design, allowed me to wed my interests in verbal and visual modes of thinking so I decided to pursue design studies as an undergraduate, and once I finished college, I was soon determined to pursue a MFA. Even though pursuing a MFA in graphic design is not required for most design positions, I felt an innate desire to not just be employed in this field, but to think critically, expansively, and progressively about the field in ways that would later down the road inspire me to teach myself. Every creative has a special journey, and I feel compelled to witness and support that as a professional designer and educator in design.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Curious about the palpable tensions of communication, my personal artwork explores visual poetics that intersect creative writing, typographic experiments, and intermedia print processes. My early work in artist’s books stemmed from my interest in experimental literature, and how the material form of a book can expand, or challenge, what the book’s contents hold. During graduate school, I became invested in letterpress printing and digital fabrication tools to design my own moveable type and printing plates, which allowed me to bridge old and new technologies. This also allowed me to embrace an improvisational approach to designing and printing, which I try to uphold in my approach to artmaking. Since I no longer have as much space or resources as I had in grad school, I am currently trying to find ways to explore printmaking with accessible, and recyclable materials. After years of developing design solutions for clients with clear and professional messaging, I became curious about imperfect human communication–the words, thoughts, and gestures we actually withhold when we communicate, and what their material forms and formats can look like. Contemplating how to reclaim and materialize this fragile language, my art prints often address communicative breakdown—moments in-between words when we pause, hesitate, or even repress what we mean to say. This is often explored through improvisational and experimental printing gestures, such as overprinting, layering of textures, and collisions of imagery and space. I also often utilize and repurpose writing technologies, such as traditional letterpress, scanners, and typewriters in my process to explore fragmentations, hesitations, and collapses of communication. I am curious about shaping these difficult, and often unseen or immaterial, experiences into a palpable and textural existence. Graduate school from 2015 to 2019 was a very difficult and tumultuous time for me–and nobody ever plans on pursuing a terminal degree amidst chaos. I can be a perfectionist sometimes with an unhealthy tendency to exude emotional togetherness and productivity, so having to confront unprecedented familial and relationship issues during these years as a young adult was very challenging and emotional. I tried very hard to compartmentalize aspects of my life from each other (i.e. school, work, relationships, family) but quickly realized that life can be truly too messy sometimes to expect rigid boundaries from myself. I learned it’s okay to fail, to be sad or unproductive, because to be human is to open yourself to challenging experiences that help us face the world with a curious mind, bold heart, and passionate spirit.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
As a San Diego native, I have a pretty biased opinion about how unique this city is. I would show any friend of mine coastal areas of San Diego, especially Sunset Cliffs and Torrey Pines, because of how beautiful they are, and they’re also wonderful places to have a scenic, short hike. North Park would also be a great place to walk around for coffee and grab a bite, and to peruse wonderful local bookshops like Verbatim Books. Kate Sessions Park and Balboa Park are lovely places to walk around and have scenic picnics. I would also show them some small Vietnamese businesses in City Heights like A Chau, where they can experience the best Banh Mi and eggrolls.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
It is so difficult to pinpoint one specific person that has helped me on my journey, so I would like to give a shoutout to several individuals who have served as mentors for me during my academic studies: Saba Oskoui, Michele Burgess, Bill Kelly, Arzu Ozkal, Patricia Cue, and Susan Merritt. All of these individuals have inspired me to push my creativity and thinking to deeper levels, and to pursue design in a way that is unique to me.