In the aftermath of personal tragedy, senior studio art major Jenny Nguyen turned to photography to capture the feelings of unforeseen loss she experienced when her grandfather died.
Nguyen’s most valued art collection, "Expired," focuses on her emotions throughout the process of losing a loved one, as well as her internal struggle with religion.
"I use a lot of symbolism and minimalism in my art, so I like to use organic materials to represent life and show my viewers how something looks through my eyes," Nguyen said.
In the summer of 2018, Nguyen’s grandfather, An Van Nguyen, was admitted to a hospital in Davenport for lung and heart issues. Nguyen said she stayed by his side as his primary caregiver for 16 days, barely sleeping.
Although her grandfather was originally expected to recover, Nguyen said miscommunication among hospital staff contributed to his unexpected death. She said she still blames herself for the accident to this day.
Her grandfather's death records read: expired June 4.
“The documents were very cut-edge,” she said. “It seemed that he was no longer a person, just a number.”
While battling feelings of guilt, Nguyen said she also had to deal with the religious complications of her Vietnamese-American culture. She said the Catholic and Buddhist sides of her family had such conflicting opinions about how to handle her grandfather’s death that two separate funerals were held.
“It was a very confusing time for me,” she said. “After 49 days, according to Buddhism, he is no longer my grandfather, but in the Catholic church it is said that you are reunited with your loved ones again after passing.”
While she wanted to do everything in her power to guarantee the safe passage of her grandfather’s soul, Nguyen said she felt compelled to keep his memory alive. One of the first art pieces in her collection began to take form.
After her grandfather's death, Nguyen returned to the hospital and had his records enlarged, made protest signs and photographed herself with friends outside of the hospital. She then hung the photos and documents upside down with string from the ceiling in the Visual Arts building at UCF and patted soil beneath the pictures. The upside-down photos represented loss of power, the soil symbolizing a freshly dug grave, she said.
The piece was named "Expired," inspiring the title for the whole collection.
Other pieces in Nguyen's collection include “Piece By Piece,” a two-framed video that focuses on guilt and loneliness. In one frame, Nguyen uses a knife to cut through a cake with a picture of her grandfather on it and in the other frame she consumes the cake, symbolizing how she feels like she took her grandfather away. Another piece incorporates folded photos of the artist's family where her grandfather is missing.
A video of Nguyen bowing for hours in front on an incense pot to her grandfather in traditional Vietnamese clothing is one of her favorite pieces, she said.
“Both videos I did put my body through a pain that I didn’t realize until after the fact,” she said. "In the back of my mind I wanted to suffer as penance for my guilt, and I ended up consuming the whole cake which made me very sick, and my body very sore from bowing for hours.”
Although Nguyen's journey as a photographer continues to progress, she said she will never forget where her love for art started.
Nguyen began her art journey at Polk State College in Lakeland, Florida, where she received her associate degree with a focus in drawing and painting. She said she has always felt a passion for art but didn’t fall in love with the photography focus until she came to UCF and took a class with Brooks Dierdorff, assistant professor in photography.
“Professor Brooks taught me that there are so many different ways to look at and create art,” Nguyen said. "I’m not constricted to one traditional way, but instead am free to explore contemporary conceptual art."
For the past two years at UCF, Nguyen has taken multiple classes with Dierdorff, exploring photography from the most basic to complex levels.
Dierdorff describes her work as "courageous, emotional, smart and aesthetically sophisticated." He also praises her ability to remind people of their own experiences with images, memory and personal tragedy through her artwork.
“In Jenny's artwork, she skillfully taps into the power that photography holds to bridge the gap between giving insight into a personal tragedy that she has experienced, while allowing others to have a more universal experience with her work,” Dierdorff said.
Senior studio art major Benjamin A. Valentin went to Polk State College with Nguyen and said he believes that photography is her true purpose in life.
“Her artwork is about taking the practice of photography and transcending the practices to push what a photograph is and how she can overlap other types of artwork which is what makes her so special,” Valentin said.
Although Nguyen’s professors and peers recognize the emotion behind her work, the artist said her family continues to question it.
“They’ve always rejected that part of me,” she said. “They always suggest the fact that since I can’t do anything with an art degree, that they’ll open a nail studio for me when I graduate.”
Nguyen is currently working on a new project this semester titled, “What it’s like to be a fat Asian woman in America.” This project will explore not only how the artist sees herself but how others view her.
“In Vietnamese culture, I have been called things such as 'white washed,' but in America they believe I am Asian because of how my facial features look,” she said.
After Nguyen graduates, she plans to apply for art residencies to complete before applying for graduate school. She said that although she is still afraid that her art will be misunderstood, her time at UCF has given her the courage to tackle difficult universal themes.
“The one thing that I fear about the art world is that the topics I choose to express are so close to my heart and that people won’t understand that,” she said. “However, as I continue to grow and learn at UCF, my heart has been touched because of the positive reactions that I have received and the mutual understanding for a topic we all experience — loss.”