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Thuan Vu, art professor, exhibit

As a Vietnamese-American whose family came to the United States as refugees when he was very young, Art Professor Thuan Vu knows what it means to be an outsider looking in. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Vu settled with his family in New Orleans, La., when he was just two years old, and the thematic core of his work as an artist has always been the exploration of his identity.

“As a Vietnamese refugee, I grew up in New Orleans wanting to be a model American citizen,” he says, adding that his “misplaced strategy” as a teenager was to absorb all things Western and American. “I was the surely the only 15 year old who was thrilled to learn about the art of Currier and Ives and Thomas Cole . . . and who could happily sing the Great American Songbook by 17 years of age,” he says. His interest in the American canon, he says, reveals a love for tradition and its development, and he grew into his Vietnamese-American identity “through the acquisition of cultural knowledge: adopt the tradition, adapt it to my life, and use it to grow.”

Vu’s latest body of work – a series of paintings called “The New World” — is now on display at the New Haven Lawn Club, 193 Whitney Avenue, New Haven. The opening artist’s reception took place at the Lawn Club on Tuesday, November 15. The exhibit is on display and open to the public through December 21.

The recipient of numerous awards and grants, Vu exhibits and lectures nationally. His research has taken him to Vietnam and Paris, where he studies Vietnamese communities worldwide.

“My drawings and paintings document how I grew into my Vietnamese-American identity,” Vu explains. “In my work, I reflect on themes of growth, integration, and reconciliation. These paintings combine Eastern and Western traditions of depicting nature to describe a space that is as much emotional as it is physical. These spaces, created through a combination of memories, photographic references, and my own imagination, mirrors the refugee experience of re-creating a sense of home.”

The New World (American Hymn 3), charcoal on paper, 18" diameter, 2016
The New World (American Hymn 3), charcoal on paper, 18″ diameter, 2016

“The New World” is a series of paintings that he began in 2011 and is the latest manifestation of his life as an individual, an American, and an artist.

Vu explains that over his career, his art has traced his process of growth and integration, especially in the exploration of his ethnic heritage since he visited Vietnam for the first time in 2002, 27 years after his family fled the country. In the various series of his work, he has used different visual languages to express the specific thematic content. “I use the languages of the many cultural traditions that I studied in order to express how I navigate my identity,” he says.

With The New World series, Vu says, he hopes to evoke the feelings involved in building a new life in a young and innocent America. “Contemplative and hopeful, these paintings share the emotive ethos of early 19th century American painters who went out to discover this new land. I correlate the American experience with that of my parents: Coming to America with seven of their eight children, I imagine their sense of awe, confusion, and hope. I feel their search for a ways to adopt, adapt, and grow. I can picture their appreciation for the opportunity that America represents.”

Visually, the work combines Eastern and Western traditions of depicting nature. Elements of Romanticism and abstraction are mixed with an Asian sensibility to create an image meant for Zen-like contemplation.

“In this series,” Vu says, “I chose to use nature as the universal constant, the one thing that affects all people, that can create a sense of awe, and that can inspire the mind to contemplation.”

The series’ name, “The New World,” echoes the Vietnamese term for “new world” – “doi moi” — a term coined to describe a Vietnamese age of optimism and open trading in the mid-1980s after the Vietnam War.

“The term recognizes a turbulent history yet optimistically accepts change,” Vu says. “In this series, I depict overlapping natural elements in ambiguous perspectives to create an unexpected space. This space — which is as much emotional as it is physical — can be at once thunderous, ethereal, and peaceful. It is the visual expression of the complicated, and often confusing task of building a new life faced by many refugees. Nature is used to mirror this journey and is depicted in numerous ways, from the sublime to the minute, from the literal to the abstract. In its variety, it expresses the non-linear task faced by us all in building a sincere sense of self and a true sense of home.”

Thuan Vu painting, The New World (Fall 2)
The New World (Fall 2), oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″, 2016

View an online gallery of Thuan Vu’s work

Founder's Gate
Founder's Gate
From a unique outdoor classroom to one-of-a-kind works of art, here’s a look at a few quintessentially Southern locations. When you spy these views, you know you’re in Owl territory.

A tie to Southern’s past, Founders Gate is part of a newly instituted tradition: each fall, the incoming class enters campus through the gate following new student convocation. In the spring, graduating seniors will cross it again to mark the culmination of their undergraduate experience. The gate spans the area between Lyman Center and Engleman Hall, but originally stood on the school’s first campus on New Haven’s Howe Street. After being restored and moved to its current location, it was dedicated during Homecoming in 1987.

Geological Rock Garden
Geological Rock Garden

A unique outdoor classroom, the Geological Rock Garden includes 52 rocks that are indigenous to Connecticut. Numerous quarry operators in the area donated boulders for the display, which was created with the aid of Thomas Fleming, chairman of the Department of Earth Science. Some of the boulders are from Stony Creek Quarry, which provided stone for many iconic buildings and monuments, including the base of the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, and the Smithsonian Institution.

H2O: Liquid Zone
H2O: Liquid Zone

Set along a well-traveled path on the Fitch Street side of Engleman Hall, the stainless-steel sculpture, “H20: Liquid Zone,” was designed by award-winning international landscape architect Mikyoung Kim. Rain, snow, and ice collect on the sculpture, changing the view on an ongoing basis. The artist’s stunning portfolio includes the Crown Sky Garden in Chicago, the roof garden of the John Hancock Tower in Boston, and the ChonGae Canal Restoration Project — Source Point Park in Seoul, Korea.

Commissioned through Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces Program

End of the Line/West Rock
End of the Line/West Rock

Nature lovers are invited to view West Rock in a whole new light, courtesy of the environmental sculpture, “End of the Line/West Rock,” which was installed in 1985 on the Farnham Avenue side of Brownell Hall residence hall. The sculpture was designed by Nancy Holt, a pioneer of the land-art movement, which began in the late 1960s in response to growing awareness of environmental issues and debates about what constituted “real” art. In this work, two rings frame views of West Rock, showcasing the geological formation as an art object. Holt, who died in 2014, said of her designs, “I am giving back to people through art what they already have in them.”

Commissioned through Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces Program

Sculpture on top of Engleman Hall
Sculpture on top of Engleman Hall

Is it an Owl’s outstretched wings, an open book evoking the quest for knowledge, or perhaps both? Perched on top of Engleman Hall, this sculpture can be seen from much of Southern’s campus.

Rain Harvester
Rain Harvester

Every cloud has a silver lining, and, on campus, it’s the rain harvester located outside of the Academic Science and Laboratory Building. Named in recognition of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority for its leadership-level support, the rain harvester is ecologically sound as well as beautiful. Water drains into a 40,000-gallon underground collection system that is used to water surrounding greenery — reducing the need for irrigation of the area by 50 percent. An ultraviolet-purification system eliminates bacteria.

50-foot-tower sundial
50-foot-tower sundial

Incoming students are invited to learn many things during orientation, including how to tell time using the nearly 50-foot-tower sundial found on Engleman Hall. Built in 2005 of precast concrete and aluminum, the sundial is an award winner. The American Institute of Architects’ Connecticut chapter recognized it as the top design in the art/architecture category in 2006. The project’s architects are Howard Hebel (Herbert Newman & Partners) and Frederick Sawyer, who is a co-founder of the North American Sundial Society.

Hilton C. Buley Library clock
Hilton C. Buley Library clock

Those who haven’t mastered Southern’s sundial turn to the Hilton C. Buley Library clock. The bars light up in blue to show the hour, while the dots glow a golden hue for minutes. The clock was installed in 2015 as part of the renovation of the original section of the library. For a picturesque view of campus, go to the fourth floor of the library and look out of the clock’s transparent face.

Serie Metafisica XVIII
Serie Metafisica XVIII

Set on a hill overlooking the campus pond, the bronze sculpture, “Serie Metafisica XVIII,” was created by Herk Van Tongeren and installed on campus in 1983. In 1987 the New York Times fittingly described the late sculptor’s work: “The walls, columns, and steps of the theaters were mysterious and incomplete. They suggested Greek and Roman theaters, but it was unclear who would take their place on stage and what roles they would assume.” On sunny days, students are often found sitting on the sculpture, bringing Tongeren’s vision to life.

Commissioned through Connecticut’s Art in Public Spaces Program

Summer issue of Southern Alumni Magazine 2016

Art for public good

The term “street art” might conjure images of graffiti splashed across the side of a building, but street art – works of art created in public spaces – actually encompasses many media and is often legal and permitted, says Noelle King, an adjunct professor of art. Many artists are doing street art now, says King – herself an artist — so she proposed a new course on street art to the Art Department, and it ran this semester as a beta, or experimental, course.

As a final project, after hearing from several invited guests on the topic of street art, King’s students completed two approved community service art projects: a large mural inside the Yale New Haven Hospital George Street Parking Garage, called “A Leaf History of New Haven,” and “A Friend for Life,” an image of dogs and cats painted on a door at the New Haven Animal Shelter, intended to encourage adoption of animals at the shelter.

Throughout the semester, leading up to these projects, King invited several guests to the class to discuss various aspects of street art. Detective Orlando Crespo of the New Haven Police Department, a specialist in gangs and graffiti, who explained to the students the nature of graffiti and the legal repercussions of street art that is done without permission.

Another guest, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, is an artist based in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose “Stop Telling Women to Smile” campaign addresses gender-based street harassment. In 2015, Fazlalizadeh was named one of Forbes Magazine’s 40 Artists Under 40. In her project, she invites women to tell their stories of street harassment, does their portraits, and adds text from their stories to the portraits. She then pastes the portraits up on walls in public spaces. Fazlalizadeh’s project is universally lauded as being an important part of the dialogue concerning sexual harassment of women.

Other guest speakers in the class included artist and community organizer Alex White-Mazarella; Tina Re, curator of artists’ books and librarian in Buley Library; and Pairoj Pichetmetakul of The Positivity Scrolls Project in New York.

King describes the course as writing intensive, with writing assignments including everything from essays to poems, to letters to responses, and a project King calls indoor sky writing, that involved students writing messages with whipped cream.

Art for public good

To prepare for the mural they painted inside the Yale New Haven Hospital George Street Parking Garage, students researched plants native to the New Haven area from ancient days to the present and decided which leaves to depict. They then stenciled on the garage wall the mural of leaves, creating “a very calm and peaceful” feeling, says King.

Leaves depicted in the painting are from kelp, pin leaf cherry, tulip tree, birch, cinnamon fern, daimyo oak, fern, Franklin tree, white pine, sassafras, slippery elm, mulberry, chestnut oak, aquatic moss, red maple, willow, white oak, sycamore, northern red oak, apple, dandelion, white spruce, and two-leaf water fern.

Mural painted on door of New Haven Animal ShelterFor the animal shelter mural, the class responded to a request from the shelter. “A man from the shelter approached the Art Department about having someone come paint something to beautify the shelter,” says King. “They wanted to make the shelter feel more family-friendly and cheerful.” Students submitted designs for a painting, and student Traci Henri’s design, “A Friend for Life,” was chosen. The painted mural on an exterior door portrays a dog and cat and encourages adoption of animals.

King says she is proud of her students, who included Shannon Anderson, Ben Asbell, Nick DiDominicis, Alexis Dillon, Dannielle Gladu, Valerie Glibert, Tracy Henri, Ariel Herbert, Dan Holloway, DJ Johnson, Tessa Karmelowicz, Rahni Lawrence, Alexandra Marx, James Mastroni, Kelsey Page, Katie Pfeiffer, Rebecca Ramirez, Laura Salvatore, Jane Snaider, Nathan Tracy, Katie Verrastro, Roleen Bisaillon-Sheehan, Alyssa Fernandes, Kate O’Keefe, Melissa Urban, and Nina Zachary. King says, “They saw how they could make a relationship between themselves and the city of New Haven, and between the university and the city.” She wanted them to learn about doing street art for the public good, as, she says, “art has tremendous power and can change lives.”