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Interdisciplinary Artist Christine Nguyen Reaches for the Stars

Artist Christine Nguyen draws inspiration from nature and the cosmos.
Artist Christine Nguyen draws inspiration from nature and the cosmos.
Courtesy of Christine Nguyen
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A relative newcomer to Colorado, artist Christine Nguyen arrived from California with a résumé that boasts an international reach and a mixed-media practice as big as the cosmos that inspires her. Nguyen applies her skills and a respect for nature and science to photo-based, large-scale public artworks and installations, incorporating unusual natural materials, from salt crystals to meteorite dust. Other works involve elaborately cut and folded surfaces, spray paint, cyanotypes, glass and ceramic elements or dried plant matter, sometimes all mixed together.

Learn more about the mixture of science and the cosmic unknown that drives Nguyen as an artist.

Christine Nguyen, “At First Light and Its Strange Powers,” 2014, salt crystals, glass, copper tape, solder, collected vegetation, minerals, crystals, rocks, cyanotype, gelatin silver with salt crystals, spray paint on paper, meteorite dust on unprocessed photo paper, and cyanotype on unprocessed photo paper.EXPAND
Christine Nguyen, “At First Light and Its Strange Powers,” 2014, salt crystals, glass, copper tape, solder, collected vegetation, minerals, crystals, rocks, cyanotype, gelatin silver with salt crystals, spray paint on paper, meteorite dust on unprocessed photo paper, and cyanotype on unprocessed photo paper.
Courtesy of Christine Nguyen

Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse? 

Christine Nguyen: The mysterious unknown found in nature and in the cosmos, and my husband and our pups.

Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?

Carl Sagan, the American astronomer and writer. He co-wrote and narrated the PBS TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which covered a wide range of scientific subjects, including the origin of life and a perspective on humans' place on Earth. He also wrote Pale Blue Dot, a sequel to Cosmos, taking us on a journey through space and time.

Vija Celamins, a Latvian American visual artist who is known for drawings of natural phenomena, including the ocean, spider webs, star fields and rocks, as well as photographs of the desert, night sky and natural environment.

Italo Calvino, the Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels who wrote some of my favorites, such as Cosmicomics, The Baron in the Trees and t zero. Cosmicomics is a collection of stories based on scientific and mathematical ideas developed into characters who travel in space and through multi-dimensions.

I thought it would be interesting to listen to these three in conversation, since they all come from different fields yet share a similar thread in common with appreciating the sciences and discovering and learning about the world we live in.

Christine Nguyen, “Comet Neowise,” 2020, archival pigment inks on Entrada Moab paper with salt crystals.
Christine Nguyen, “Comet Neowise,” 2020, archival pigment inks on Entrada Moab paper with salt crystals.
Courtesy of Christine Nguyen

What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?

I am still new to this creative community, but I love how friendly, open and accessible people are here. I’m still learning about galleries, local artists, art venues and organizations, and I’m thrilled about how active the art community is here. It’s pretty exciting to be in a new place and slowly learn about it. I can’t comment on the “worst,” as I’m still getting to know the Denver metro area.

How about globally?

What I love about my field is the wide range of artists and creative expressions from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. It ranges from various mediums, forms, scale and interests similar to nature itself. It’s always great when I discover a new visual artist and hear about that other artist’s practice. The worst thing is not having a platform for artists to connect with everyone somehow — a place to share experiences and give. There are resources for artists, which is helpful, but I wish there was more support to connect globally.

Christine Nguyen, “Desert Double Mountain Star,” 2020, cut and folded watercolor paper, tape, book-binding tape and glue; spray paint on watercolor paper with salt crystals using rocks, dirt, branches, sagebrush and grasses.EXPAND
Christine Nguyen, “Desert Double Mountain Star,” 2020, cut and folded watercolor paper, tape, book-binding tape and glue; spray paint on watercolor paper with salt crystals using rocks, dirt, branches, sagebrush and grasses.
Christine Nguyen, David B. Smith Gallery

What led you to develop such an expansive practice as an artist?

Born and raised in California, I’ve always been a maker and a nature collector since I was a child. My father was a commercial fisherman when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time on his boat seeing the various things he pulled from the sea. When I was twelve, he gave me his Canon AE-1 SLR camera, and I spent a lot of time photographing my sisters, animals, objects, nature and the environment around me. California’s diverse terrain, with the ocean, desert and mountains, has been inspiring for my practice and is where my love for nature began. I studied art in high school and throughout college in Southern California.

My art practice ranges from 2-D to 3-D, using various mediums such as drawing, painting, photography, installation and sculpture. I love drawing and painting on Mylar and working with alternative photographic processes such as cyanotypes and creating large installation murals of photo-based painting works, as well as creating immersive installations, growing salt crystals, and working in ceramics, glass and metal.

For more than two decades, I have been an exhibiting artist in Southern California, and nationally and internationally in museums and art galleries, with more recent exhibitions in Colorado at David B. Smith Gallery in Denver and Telluride Gallery in Telluride. In the past eight years, I have been involved in public art, translating my work into sustainable permanent materials for exteriors/interiors in public spaces.

My work draws upon the imagery of nature, the sciences and the cosmos, but it is not limited to a conventional reading of these realms. It imagines that the depths of the ocean reach into outer space, that through an organic prism, vision can fluctuate between the micro- and macroscopic. My practice is devoted to experimenting in various mediums and my interest in the natural world and its curiosities while appreciating nature in difficult times.

My goal is to make work that is positive and welcoming to viewers, the way being in nature feels. This body of mixed-media works has allowed me to continuously know more about the world we live in while sharing my vision. I’ve been drawn to nineteenth-century naturalists like biologist, philosopher, physician and artist Ernst Haeckel; botanist and photographer Anna Atkins; and cosmologist, astrologer and occult philosopher Robert Fludd, who believed that every plant in the world had its own equivalent star in the firmament — which I saw as meaning that every plant has a corresponding star in the cosmos, which connects the microcosmic earth and the macrocosmic celestial space.

What’s your dream project?

I have many ideas but have one that I’ve been thinking about lately. I would love to create a glass installation using my photo-based paintings or cyanotypes translated into that medium. It would be great if it was a permanent art piece somewhere that was accessible for all types of people to view and experience. It would be part of my ongoing meditative vision that evokes a sense of wonder while appreciating nature and our natural environment.

Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?

I love the nature in Colorado. The mountains are close by, and there’s so much nature to explore here. It’s the first time I’ve experienced seasons, and the sun is always out, which makes snow days even more beautiful here. I lived in California my whole life up until now, so living in Colorado is exciting and adventurous. It’s a big change for me moving from Los Angeles and its diversity, museums and galleries. I do miss my friends, family, year-round access to plants, vegetation and the ocean for artwork, but it’s a new adventure and inspiration in Colorado!

Christine Nguyen, “Portals of Light From the Mountain and Night Sky,” 2016, spray paint on folded paper, glass solder, painted ceramics.EXPAND
Christine Nguyen, “Portals of Light From the Mountain and Night Sky,” 2016, spray paint on folded paper, glass solder, painted ceramics.
Courtesy of Christine Nguyen

Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?

Non-arts, but in the creative field I would say Preserve (a new startup pet-treat company in Denver) and the Miss B’s Vietnamese food truck.

I’ve only met a handful of creatives thus far and love them all.

What's on your agenda now and in the coming year?

I’ll be making new works that I have in progress and will be continuing working on a public-art project that has been ongoing for years in Federal Way, Washington, through Sound Transit in Seattle. I hope I’ll be getting a grant or two that I have applied for to start on some new projects, too. Other than that, I’m not sure what 2021 has in store, but I’m looking forward to creating.

Christine Nguyen, “Stars and Constellations II & I,” 2020, cyanotype and salt crystals on watercolor paper.
Christine Nguyen, “Stars and Constellations II & I,” 2020, cyanotype and salt crystals on watercolor paper.
Courtesy of Christine Nguyen

Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?

Obaware (Kazu & Yuka Oba), Trine Bumiller, Nick Geurts and Ryan Elmendorf, Nathan Koral, Marsha Mack, Juntae TeeJay Hwang, Sammy Seung-Min Lee, Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Mami Yamamoto, Spelunk Studio, Hollis & Lana, David B. Smith Gallery, Leon Gallery and PlatteForum.

Follow Christine Nguyen and her work online at her website and on Instagram.

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