Quyen Truong on ‘Art-Smart’ — Art, Education, and Social Justice

Here diaCRITICS reprints Quyen Truong’s guest blog post on being Art-Smart, her contribution on the role of art in one artist’s life. As she explains, “For many years, art was the one place where I felt completely free to do whatever I please.” This freedom was even more necessarily, in light of the constraining realities of daily life in an immigrant family. Truong continues, “So many factors felt outside of my control — my family socio-economic circumstances, our beleaguered finances, my mother’s moodiness, and my complete inability to do anything to change any aspect of our access to means.”

Graced with Truong’s expressive and energetic paintings, this essay is a carefully considered exploration on the relationship between art, social justice, and education for one Vietnamese American visual artist. diaCRITICS is always looking for these types of reflections from established and emerging artists of Vietnamese descent.

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"Vietnamese Dancers"


I became interested in art because for a long time, drawing and painting were the primary mediums through which I felt most comfortable communicating. This was especially true when my family first moved to the United States from Vietnam, when I was seven years old.I always excelled at drawing; the ability to impress my classmates by ably emulating a Disney cartoon character with pencil and paper held a special magic for me, and enabled me to make new friends. As a shy bookworm, I yearned to connect with my peers, but felt a lot of trepidation articulating my thoughts. I worried about making a fool of myself. My artwork enabled me to feel represented in a subtle but impactful manner.As I grew up, my ability to create art distinguished me from my peers. It made me feel powerful and special, unique and sophisticated, and most importantly, it allowed me to create different (imagined) realities than the one in which my immigrant family existed. In my artwork. I dwelled in imaginary worlds, full of strong-willed princesses who rode on magnificent steeds and saved their princes from roaring dragons. I also enjoyed re-creating my favorite cartoons: Tintin, Superwoman, Batman, the Smurfs, Asterix and Obelix, Garfield, and of course, my all-time favorite, Calvin and Hobbes.

'Resplendent Flight' by Quyen Truong


Art not only led me into books and imaginary worlds, it exposed me to new communities and helped me explore worlds beyond my neighborhood. In high school, I participated in a Hartford-based summer arts program called “Neighborhood Studios.” Funded by the efforts of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the program was the brainchild of Faithlyn Johnson, who modeled the program after Gallery 37 in Chicago. Neighborhood Studios employed local artists and aspiring teen artists to learn about and create art in a variety of disciplines. The program afforded me the opportunity to indulge in my passion, and be paid for my efforts. For the first time, my interest in fine arts was legitimized. The idea that I could earn money towards my family’s income by doing what I love completely altered my world view. In addition, meeting adults who made a living with their craft, and developing friendships with other artistic teens exposed me to a completely different kind of community altogether. In all, the experience helped me understand the kind of network I need to support my dream. Finally, the fact that we created murals to beautify the city of Hartford heralded a burgeoning interest in using my artwork to leave a positive mark upon “our” city. Neighborhood Studios sparked my long-term interest and investment in community-development and teen arts programs.

Since then, I’ve worked for various teen arts programs, studied museum education via a fellowship at the Rhode Island School of Design, helped start an arts enterprise program for teens in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and, after college, worked for Artists For Humanity in Boston for almost 6 years. Currently, I am considering ways to build a network of youth arts/business programs that can work in tandem with public schools to offer teens appropriate (wrap-around) multi-tiered mentorship and educational support. The end goal is to offer teens meaningful opportunities to make intentional, informed choices in regards to their lives, for the benefit of our local communities.

"Nightmare" by Quyen Truong


What does my journey have to do with art and social justice, or about being “art-smart”? I think art is its own form of social justice. I read somewhere that teens self-actualize by testing relationships around them (Nakkula and Toshalis?). In tandem with teachers, mentors, family members, and friends, our young people intensely engage is the all-consuming process of identity-formation. How we choose to respond to that energy inherently shapes the spaces around which these teens mold the core of who they become. We all, to a large extent, for better or for worse, affect those who surround us on a daily basis. It’s easy to follow the herd, to do as we are told, to respect authority and inhibit natural impulses and step in line. And it’s easy to be a rebel, indulge in our id, rail against the patriarchy/norm/authority, and be completely subversive. What’s difficult is finding a happy medium, so that we challenge ourselves and others around us to expand our worldviews in a peaceful, compassionate manner, replete with mutual respect.

Art creates the spaces in which we can safely explore associative thought processes, lead us on journeys towards new modes of understanding (of ourselves and the world in which we operate), and engage us in topics we never expected to find interesting. Art led me from Calvin and Hobbes, to creating murals for Hartford, to building a teen arts enterprise program in Woonsocket, to becoming an educator and a social entrepreneur at Artists For Humanity, to Harvard Graduate School of Education, and now to addressing homelessness in Central Massachusetts… Oh, the places we’ll go!

Dr. Seuss once wrote,

“You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains, and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.”

This poem exemplifies how I feel about art – for many years, art was the one place where I felt completely free to do whatever I please. So many factors felt outside of my control – my family socio-economic circumstances, our beleaguered finances, my mother’s moodiness, and my complete inability to do anything to change any aspect of our access to means. The frustration gnawed at me as I lay awake at night, listening to the snores of my parents and younger brother in our one-bedroom basement apartment.Art gave me a direction. It paved the way for my journey. The power of complete control over the composition, color, mark-making, subject matter and texture of a two-dimensional image would take my mind off my adult worries, and occupy my childhood self for hours. Looking at a blank canvas to envision what it can become created both trepidation and excitement, both a desire to play and an interest in manipulating the material to express exactly how I felt. The blank canvas became a medium through which I could self-direct my life during my teenage years. Nonetheless, I continued to keep Dr. Seuss’ words in mind, as I continued on my path towards self-actualization:

“So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with you left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will indeed!”

Howard Gardner touts the idea that multiple intelligences exist to describe our individual strengths, and that we must acknowledge each of our unique students’ strength in the realm of formal public education. He says: “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do… Ultimately, we must synthesize our understandings for ourselves. (Gardner, 1999)

The ability to organize people, to empathize, to reflect in a thoughtful manner – these types of intelligences are not necessarily valued in a school setting where there is too much of a focus on testing. The ability to gorge on information and to efficiently regurgitate it back does not equate to being “smart,” much less art-smart. Being art-smart is about becoming an independent thinker, through whatever form of intelligence best fits our particular needs, interests, modes of learning, and communication tactics. Being art-smart is about seeing the journey for what it is – and not focusing on the destination. Being art-smart is about being mindful, cantankerous, cultivated, cautious, and curious. Being art-smart is being okay with the concept that “whatever will be, will be.”

Que sera, sera, indeed!

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