We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Minh Huynh. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Minh below.
Minh, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. We’d love to hear about the things you feel your parents did right and how those things have impacted your career and life.
The highest privilege of my life is being born into the family that I have. The priority in my house has always been my health and happiness. The immeasurable love and radical compassion that my parents have given me has truly made my life complete, and for that I will always be grateful. There is a nasty prevailing stereotype about Asian parents being overly strict, grade-obsessed “tiger parents”, who push their children to their breaking point. This was never the attitude in my house. In Vietnamese culture on the child’s first birthday, the parents will lay out objects for the child to select that represent their career path. For example, a hammer could perhaps represent the path of a construction worker, and a whisk could represent a chef. For my one-year ceremony, my parents swore up and down how brilliant I was. I first picked up a stethoscope and my parents were excited because they thought I was going to be a doctor like my father, but much to their surprise I handed the stethoscope to him. They were beside themselves with shock that at one years old I was able to recognize that my family is a doctor. Then, I reached for the telephone. This was the mid-90 so I picked up the equivalent of a brick with buttons and I handed the phone to my mother, also to their amazement because my mother was a real estate agent and always on her phone. Finally, I picked up a notepad and a pencil. Really it was like a scene out of a movie, and they knew I would do something with art or writing. They just went with it.
Support was found in abundance in my house. When my parents saw that I loved art one of my birthday presents was a nice color pencil set. When I was older, I stayed long hours in high school after class painting murals, and it was my mother and father that would drive me at 6:00 am in the morning and pick me up at 8:00 pm in the evenings. For my seventeen birthday, they brought me my first Wacom tablet for digital art. However, to be perfectly frank, I was never a very good student in primary school. I only ever excelled in the arts. I was terrible at math and science. My parents had a Vietnamese saying “Làm ở đâu thì hay tới đó”. There isn’t a direct translation, but I suppose the most direct translation is, “Whatever you put in is good up to that point”. A more poetic translation could be “Whatever you put in, is better than nothing at all”, I promise it sounds so much better and kinder in Vietnamese!
There was a lot of external pressure from my Vietnamese community. I am in a unique position. My father is one of the first Vietnamese doctors in Georgia, he has a reputation in the community. Many people look up to him, and when they discovered his only child wants to be an artist of all things, eyebrows were raised. I never in my life felt the pressure from my parents to be anything other than a kind person, but I felt it from within myself. I clung to this idea that I had some responsibility to “carry on my father’s great legacy”. It is a difficult feeling to live in the shadow of someone like him. There were times when random strangers would come up and shake my hand saying things like “Your father saved my life in the war”, “I thought I would never hear again after that bomb went off, but your father saved my hearing!”. Of course, I am filled with immense pride, but also, I can’t help but feel the immeasurable pressure. He was a war hero in Vietnam, and a doctor, and what was I? His C-rate kid who doodles in math class. I was not delusional or oblivious to the comments that people made behind my back.
There is also another nasty stereotype about Asians in the arts. That isn’t a career path many Western/American people are used to seeing. I remember in high school when I was nominated for an award, before the ceremony a parent came up to me and started making small talk and asked if it was for math or science. People are used to seeing faces like mine in the STEM fields, not in the arts. I felt like on all fronts a failure. A failure as a daughter, a failure as a student, and on a deeper level, a failure as an Asian. In retrospect this is completely foolish, my civilization is one of the oldest on the planet and we have a rich history of art, and therefore ancient traditions lead by artists. It’s amazing how the world and their expectations can make someone forget their own history. Also, I never saw a face like mine in the arts in primary school, and the culture in the Vietnamese community like with many refugee and immigrant communities is on finding stability. Art is seen as too risky, it was always framed as a hobby or a pastime, never a serious source of income. What’s even more is astonishing is, even with all the love and support I was given in the home, I still felt the weight of the world. I felt the pressure to give up art and go down a different path.
In college, I attempted and failed miserably in my first year to major in Biology. I thought maybe I could aim to be a doctor like my father, if not a doctor at least a nurse. Every step of the way I was miserable, and of course I was still doodling on the margins of my notebook and not balancing equations. In retrospect, this was a tall tale sign for me that I was not enjoying myself. I wasn’t studying or reading up on Biology for fun. Professionally now as an artist, I am almost always reading up on art for fun or doing it in my spare time. When chemistry class was over, I was drawing again, and I didn’t bother to pick up that book until I had to. Needless to say, one semester in and I had a mental breakdown. Full stop.
This was a small tipping point in my life, and one of the first moments I started to accept the fullness of who I am as my own person. The older I become the more I appreciate the love and the tenderness that my parents have shown me. My mother and father’s parenting method is heavily inspired by their Buddhist and Taoist roots. Buddhist philosophy teaches that the root of all suffering is attachment. This could be an attachment to material objects or more intangibility concepts and ideas.
When I told my parents that I wanted to change majors, they weren’t even shocked. In fact, they were more surprised that I picked Biology to begin with. I asked them if they were disappointed that I wanted to become an artist.
They responded, “When people are so attached and cling on to their preconceived and rigid ideas of what they want for their children, they are not open to growth or change. We must work with our children to nurture them into whomever they want to be. Forcing them to go against their spirit creates suffering for everyone involved. When you love something, like art, truly love it, the money will come.”
This lesson of letting go of attachments I have taken with me throughout my life. There are times when I am so attached to a composition for example, and because of this, I am not open to the greater possibilities. It’s only when I can let go and now, I can make an even better piece. At 28 years old, I still find myself attached to the ideas that others have for me, and it has been one of the hardest things to learn to let go. I am still on that journey of fully internalizing that happiness and contentment come from within, we cannot find it and we shouldn’t find it in the approval of others. Clinging on to others’ perceptions of us only leads to further suffering.
Furthermore, the more I reflect on my life the more I see my parents’ lessons through their actions. The focus in my house was never on the material, (and frankly arbitrary) numerical value that others placed on me but on the compassion that I showed to others and myself.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
Currently, I’m a Graphic Designer and an Illustrator. I work with The Creative Folks, a creative branding agency located in Atlanta, Georgia. When I was younger, all I thought about in terms of art was drawing fun cartoons, but as I got older, I realized very quickly that art can be a form of problem-solving. In many ways, it is like a formula that I must solve daily. There are some things that are unchanging, like the client’s logo, or the font they want to use for the piece. The variable that I must find is how to take what I am given and add on to it in order to make a beautiful design that will complement the words or the layout of the page. So much of the work that I do in graphic design is creative problem-solving. For my personal brand of illustration, I am deeply inspired by the media I watch. I mentioned this before in a previous interview, but for me, English is not my first language. In my household, Vietnamese was the primary language, also, my parents come from an older generation. My father was born in 1941 and my mother in 1948, so my childhood was filled with hard-boiled noir detectives and 1950s cowboy movies. Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were like my Disney prince and princess. As an unexpected consequence, now well into my adulthood I am a massive cinephile. When I’m not drawing, I am most likely watching a movie or a television show. Sometimes, if I find a shot particularly interesting compositionally, I will draw the characters out. Now, keep in mind that illustration is a vastly different medium than film, so there is space to defy the laws of reality. All creativity, every bit of it, starts with curiosity. There are so many moments I find myself watching a live-action movie and saying “Now, wouldn’t that look cool in animation?”, “What would a Hitchcock film look like if it was animated?”, then I will literally transform the characters that I see into animation.
Lastly, I am also inspired by my Asian American identity. When I was a younger artist, this was an aspect of myself that I never put into my art. Genuinely, I didn’t think anyone would care about my experiences or my voice. The education system in America has made it clear that my history is unimportant and can be reduced to The Vietnam War and maybe if I am so lucky there will be two sentences dedicated to our hundred some odd years of French imperialism. It’s like we never existed before Westerns came. These subtle messages stay with us throughout our lives, and we internalize it. When history classes and educators framed my people as background characters in someone else’s narrative, I slowly saw that my experiences are not worthy of attention. My pain, my intergenerational trauma is beside the point. It wasn’t until my undergraduate degree that I learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act, The Page Act of 1875, and the birth of Chinatowns in America did I fully recognize that Asian Americans have always been here. We have always been here, and our story was the forgotten patch on the greater American narrative. My imagination was filled with Asian cowboys in the wild west, but along with escapist fantasies I like to also capture the injustice of the Chinese during exclusion. It’s embarrassing that I only learned about it in college. I also started drawing illustrations that reflect my own story.
It’s one thing to casually say “Vietnam was a colony of France”, but what does that mean for the people who have had their lives destroyed by this system? History and its consequences echo through time. I have never lived through the horrors of colonization, but my parents have. It’s in living memory. To this day my father speaks better French than he does Vietnamese. My art also explores colonization beyond the tangible aspects like the land but also the colonization of the mind, which is its own painful and traumatizing journey of reclaiming. These experiences are complex and for me art and putting these feelings into images is one of the greatest emotional releases. It feels like the all of those years of minimalizing my very real history and the pain that comes with it is out on the page for others to see, and my greatest hope is that these illustrations will inspire compassion, empathy, but also an intellectual curiously in the viewer to learn more about my region and the people.
I am so fortunate I have worked with so many talented Asian American groups and organizations in my artistic career. It’s validating, but also important. I hope that another Asian American can see my projects and recognize that not only has your voice always been worthy of being heard, there is a need for your voice and perspective.
Looking back, are there any resources you wish you knew about earlier in your creative journey?
Full disclaimer, I was a massive weeb, okay, I’m still a massive weeb. If you don’t know what that is, it is essentially someone who is obsessed (to an unhealthy degree) with anime. Like most people obsessed with anime, that’s all I drew for the longest time. However, let me tell young artists out there why this was terrible for my personal and professional growth. Anime is an artist’s interpretation of the world, especially for any artform that stylizes reality. When we are watching a cartoon or reading a comic, we are seeing the world in the eyes of another artist. Honestly, the same can be said for if we only studied Van Gogh of Monet. Thus, when I was drawing art from an anime show that is me interpreting someone else’s interpretation of the world, and now we have a game of telephone. My anatomy was terrible, I never learned proper techniques on how to draw. I could draw great anime, but not much else. I had so many art teachers warn me of this, but they would do it in a way that in my opinion felt very condescending, as if they ruled out anime as an art all together. Anime like any style has its qualities, the backgrounds in anime are astounding and even now in my professional career I do studies of them for my own art. I learned all this from my mentor in graduate school who also loves anime, but also knows how to look at art with a critical eye. He taught me now to study anime in a way that is meaningful, not just “oh I like this character, I want to draw exactly like this one style on this one show”. The best resource for my personal growth was a mentor, someone who sat with me in between his own hours and gave me his time and energy. Art is a very personal experience and having someone that truly understands your vision and your voice is a treasure. A good mentor is priceless. Through him I unlearned so many terrible habits that I built throughout the years. Also, figure drawing classes, classes in general that focused on going outside and literally touching grass are amazing. Now, more so than ever before there is a new kind of artist that in theory never has to leave their computers. Any reference image that an artist would need is online, so it’s very tempting to stayed glued to the monitor. When I was a younger artist in high school I hardly ever wen out with my sketchbook. I had folders upon folders of images of trees, animals, etc. However, now as a professional artist, I will sit outside in the park. It’s great for my mental health but also a better drawing experience. We need to have classes and courses that emphasize that as young as possible. Because I can only speak for myself, but I hardly ever remembered going out to draw in primary school, we were in the classroom most of the time. Studying reality also helps an artist find their own interpretation of the world. How does Minh render a tree? How does Minh draw a cat or a bird? Those are questions I am now discovering when I could have discovered them a long time ago! The Best advice I can give and the best resource I can offer is, go outside and touch grass.
What can society do to ensure an environment that’s helpful to artists and creatives?
Holistically, art and by extension artistic labor is devalued and not taken as serious financial pursuits. Seriously, I have a master’s degree in art; I have been working professionally in the field for five years now, and people will still ask me for free art. If I had to give an educated opinion as to why, I think it’s because our approach to education has become so utilitarian, to the point that it blinds us to the greater possibilities. However, I am of the firm (and not so humble) opinion that all knowledge is intersectional. Having a firm grasp of physics and the way light particles interact with objects has made me a better painter. Art has given me the ability to deconstruct an object down to its basic forms in order to draw it. That is a skill I can take with me and apply it to other areas. Because of our current understanding of education as a means to an end (i.e. finding a lucrative job), the humanities are perceived to be a waste of time. But I urge anyone reading to internalize that no knowledge is a waste of time. I don’t want to sound poetic or contrived but we are not here to work then die. Because we are beings that have the capacity for complex emotions, art and artistic expression is inseparable from the human experience. Art is a tangible expression of our ancestors and all those who came before us. Art is a visual extension of our spirit in the way we choose to dress ourselves, decorate our spaces, and deeply influences the way the navigate the world around us. We yearn for beauty, and we seek comfort in stories. The world needs art, and I would go so far as to say that to devalue art is to devalue what it means to even be a human. Perhaps this is bad comparison but for me I think the average person sees art like electricity. When I walk into a room, I naturally will flip on the light switch, and I won’t give it another thought. I am so used to having access to light. However, when the power goes off, I promise, everyone will notice. Art is all around us, so much so that it blends into the background of our lives. I think the failure of the education system is that art is framed as a luxury thing separated from the “common layman” that is hanging in galleries with bleak white walls and snobby art collectors. However, art is inescapable from our daily lives. The art I do is on websites, social media, infographics etc. The commercial that we rush to skip that plays before a funny skit or a show we want to watch is art. Someone had to direct that commercial, someone had to storyboard it, and someone had to get a casting call. I think for so many people they see the end results of a lifetime of dedication to a craft, but they don’t see the hours that go into that advertisement they just skipped. When a page on a screen doesn’t load there will be an image that pops up with a sad person or icon to let the user know that there is no internet, someone had to draw that image that everyone hopes they never see, but it serves a purpose. There are thousands of pieces of art that we take for granted daily because we are constantly surrounded by art. How do we fix this?
The best thing that we can do as a society is teach art as a constant part of our lives, this starts in the classroom. If we are teaching children as young as ten to code and build apps, well, what good is that app if it is unmarketable and not usual friendly? What good is it if the logo is ugly? You can have the best idea in the world, but who will use it if it is not user friendly or the graphics aren’t appealing? I think in our education system, we are obsessed with binaries, especially in the West. Good, bad, dark, light, male, female, math, and art. It fragments us as people, but also creates needless hierarchies. The arts must be taught in harmony with the sciences, not just confined to the art classroom. Biology needs to have a greater emphasis on life drawing the subjects that are being studied, at bare minimum teach the fundamentals of good composition to children so that their scientific findings are readable to the average person. And I am seeing some classrooms taking this approach.
Slowly, I am seeing my generation and those younger than me embracing this school of thought. It’s powerful to see young people in STEM take a poetry class or pick up drawing. If nothing else, art is healing, and offers solace. Now with all that being said, I think that one last thing that would help artists is accessibility to the arts. Art supplies, art tools, and anything to do with the craft is so expensive. It was a massive struggle for me to even begin to teach myself art without breaking the bank. There needs to be some tangible investments in the arts to provide students with these materials. The free resources online were fantastic. I seriously had to teach myself art by watching YouTube videos because I didn’t have the money for a private art tutor.
To directly help artists and support their careers, obviously buying their art. However, if that isn’t an option than share their art, follow their accounts, it really helps boost their work. Also, if someone is devaluing artistic labor by asking for free art, gently and kindly educate them that their comments and requests are not acceptable. I have been amused by my community and the people that have stepped up to make sure this behavior doesn’t continue. I am hopeful for a huge cultural change in the next fifty years or so.