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Phung Huynh: Painting the town

Story by Cassandra Nava, Managing Editor

Phung Huynh poses in her Pasadena home studio. (Jeremy Ruiz/Valley Star)

After 14 years as a full timer, and about eight years adjuncting, the full time Valley College art professor wipes her paintbrush clean of Valley, though Monarch pride remains a vital hue on her palette. Huynh will continue inspiring students at Cal State LA next fall, with an emphasis on being able to focus on her one true passion.


“I’m moving out of the house, but I’m still part of the family!” exclaimed Huynh.


Huynh’s unwavering passion to produce and learn about her craft fueled her decision to transition to the university scene. Moreover, she will have more freedom — inside and outside of the classroom. Rather than teach a range of eight to 11 classes per semester, the artist will have a maximum of three classes, with 24 students each — as opposed to the 40 student limit at Valley.


Prior to landing at Valley, Huynh was jumping around the city; teaching at art centers, USC and East LA college for about eight years. But with no solid roots planted, the need for a full-time job grew. Being embedded within the community is a core principle to Huynh, and investing into those around her is one way she hopes to create change. But with the nature of community college being transient — with students constantly shifting and transferring — she was further prompted to move to Cal State.


“Learning to sew and knit from my grandmother was really my introduction to art,” said the professor. “One day my older brother bought me a watercolor set. I just loved creating, it made me feel empowered. And I remember feeling that way with my teachers when I went to school, and I always remembered, ‘I want to give this back one day too.’”


Though Huynh’s time at Valley is coming to an end, remnants of her presence linger on, permeating throughout Los Angeles.


Most students learn about her public, local creations by accident, most notably while boarding the Metro G “orange” Line.

Valley College art professor Phung Huynh's work "California Poppies" is on display at the Lauren Canyon Metro Station. (Savannah Greenly/Valley Star)

“One of my students said, ‘Oh my gosh, I took the orange line and got off at Laurel Canyon and saw these paintings that look very much like your style, there were these cherubs.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s mine!’” exclaimed Huynh.


Her creations are scattered around the city. Passersby see the vibrant colors and shapes of her work before reading her name in the fine print.


The Vietnam native carefully weaves the stories of her community into the art she creates. A myriad of mediums make up her never-ending portfolio, but her pride comes in highlighting stories of the typically unheard — most recently immigrants and women of color.

 

THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE


The professor extracts motivation from her family’s history and shared immigrant struggles. Huynh’s father fled war-torn Cambodia on a bike, eventually landing in Vietnam where he would meet his future wife. The Huynh family escaped Vietnam on a boat, landed in another refugee camp — this time in Thailand, escaped again and finally resettled in Michigan. Five-year-old Huynh would eventually relocate with her family to the diverse city of Los Angeles, which she would later come to call home.


Huynh takes nothing for granted. Her parents’ experiences not only remind her of what is important, but inspire her works. The Vietnam native frequently turns to her “ancestor altar,” to honor her lineage. The physical reminder for gratefulness sits atop the fireplace in her studio where photographs of her parents, grandparents and uncle watch over her.


“This capitalist consumer culture doesn’t honor the land that we live on, and ancestor worship and honoring ancestry is really important to my values,” said Huynh. “So when things get rough I think, ‘how did my family do this?’”

 

SOBREVIVIR


The City of Angels, and the large Mexican and Mexican-American group within it, shape the lens through which Huynh creates her art. Growing up in Mexican immigrant communities played a large part in her assimilation process, so when an opportunity to create a public art installation outside Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center came up in 2019, Huynh chose to honor the group of women that shaped her.


The activist took a year-long sabbatical from teaching to pursue this project. “Sobrevivir,” which translates to “Survival,” sheds light on forced sterilizations that were performed on non-English speaking Mexican immigrant women in the 1960s and ‘70s.


A 21-foot-diameter steel disk is etched with roses and prayer hands akin to our Lady of Guadalupe, in a copper color that when seen as a whole, mimics the look of traditional Mexican engraved leather pieces.


The disk on the floor is lit from below, so the etchings are visible at night. Surrounding the round area are benches and quotes from the mothers on the surrounding wall. One quote reads, “If you speak English, they treat you one way. If you don’t speak English, they treat you another way.” The other quote, displayed in Spanish reads, “Yo, por dentro, siento mucha tristeza. Se me acabó la canción,” which translates to, “I feel so much sadness inside. I have lost the ability to sing.”


Despite being an invaluable piece of art and history for the city — especially for the hospital to recognize — Huynh debated even creating the piece. She did not want to apply for the position, and felt that this is a story for a Latinx artist to share.


When the piece was being set up, Huynh overlooked the process. During this time, a white woman in scrubs who Huynh presumed to be a nurse, displayed physical signs of discomfort at the quotes displayed along the wall. The woman told the artist that the quote about language will further divide people. It was at that moment that Huynh was glad that she, as a Vietnamese and Cambodian woman, was the one creating this work.


“It would be terrible for any Latinx artist to pour their heart out and be retraumatized, I’m happy to take one for the team,” said the artist.


There are a plethora of reasons why the proud Angeleno calls this the most important piece she’ll ever create. She experienced a connection to its meaning as a mother, a woman of color, an immigrant and overall someone who cares about women’s rights.


“I want to honor these moms who were going through this at the same time my family was coming to the United States,” said Huynh. “My mom is the same age as these moms who were forcibly sterilized. And these moms had no language access, they were punished under a racist medical system for being immigrant women, for being brown women and for being seen as “draining the system.” If a white woman, who’s English speaking, came in, she wouldn't be handed papers to be sterilized.”

 

TAKE THE LEAP


The 45-year-old’s belt sags heavy with titles; full-time art professor, artist, activist, board member to non-profit organization La Mas and solo mother of two. The modern renaissance woman is motivated by her cultural experiences, along with those who surround her. She manages to juggle everyday responsibilities with the paramount task of creating works of art in and for her community.


“I could have laundry going, then hop into my garage — that I converted into my studio and where I make my work,” said Huynh. “It’s always been that way since [my sons] were little, I don't know how I did it. I would put the kids to bed and make art until two in the morning and then wake up at 5 a.m. That's why sometimes students don't know. We’re humans too; an artist isn't someone who has a fancy studio, we’re part of the community.”


According to the professor, the only way to grow as an educator is to continue doing the research and honing the craft. For her, creating is just as important as teaching.


Huynh hopes to inspire her students. Her successes with her public art pieces, working as a creative strategist for the Office of Immigrant Affairs and being represented by Luis de Jesus gallery help inform her students of the ins and outs of the artist ecosystem.


To the students who may fear diving into the art world head on — where there is little to no job security (especially for beginners) Huynh wants to remind them that this city is a great place to take the leap.


Though the valued art professor hangs up her coat at Valley, students have reminders of her persistence in the art sprinkled around the city. As melancholy Monarchs bid farewell to Huynh, her leaving acts as a bittersweet reminder of the steps one must take in furthering their craft.

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