We were lucky to catch up with Phung Banh recently and have shared our conversation below.
Phung, appreciate you joining us today. Let’s jump back to the first dollar you earned as a creative? What can you share with us about how it happened?
I remember earning my first dollar as an illustrator in 2020. PAX commissioned me to develop the main visual illustrations and headlines for the Pax StoryArc™—a multi-sensory publication created to address pressing social issues and help us be more in tune with ourselves.
In this issue, the PAX team and I wanted to unpack the journey of finding our cultural identities and the process of becoming who we are through different mediums like illustration, text, and audio. Brandi Miller explained our subject best in the first path point of StoryArc: “Our cultural identity is expressed through the world as we live our stories out. It is the complex combination of the places, people, ideas, histories, politics, and experiences that have formed us. Who we exist at these complicated intersections.” My role as an illustrator is to help frame PAX readers’ StoryArc experience and visually tell the bigger story.
When COVID hit, I spent the majority of my time creating illustrations to cope with the new normal. I posted artwork consistently on my Instagram page @PB.Journal and fortunately gained attention from art lovers. This was how Mondo Scott, Creative Director at PAX, found me. In meeting Mondo, I not only gained the opportunity to work on this project, but I also learned a valuable lesson about the intersection of business and art. At the beginning of my career, I found it challenging to request reasonable and fair compensation. I vividly remember my first Zoom conversation with Mondo. I shared my rate after he had given me the creative brief, and he paused and looked at me in disbelief. He asked me: “are you sure?” and told me that I should be asking for more because my rate was way too low for his proposed deliverables—and he ended up paying me more.
I was embarrassed but grateful for his candid response. Being so new to the industry, at the time, I just wanted to take on as many meaningful projects as I could to build up my portfolio. I didn’t put much thought into my worth as an artist. But starting then and later on, I began to recognize the harm I had been bringing to the art/creative community whenever I failed to ask for fair compensation. Thanks to his transparency and kindness, I now know how far I can push and what I can bring to the table.
Our collaboration was a remarkable one. We celebrated the beauty of different cultural identities and successfully reached our target audience—specifically those with conflicting narratives: to hold on to their heritage or be a true “American.” This project set the tone for my subsequent works and inspired me to speak up as an artist supporting myself and my community.
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.
My name is Phung Banh, and ‘Phung’ means ‘phoenix’ in Vietnamese. I am an Art Director and Designer at a full-experience creative agency in Minneapolis called KNOCK inc., where I contribute strategically to our overall creative vision and artistic approach. I specialize in visualizing the physical world through in-store experience design and the virtual world in digital communication. I work as a creative across print, digital, and in-store experiences for clients ranging from commissions and small startups to large organizations like Target and Planned Parenthood.
Outside of work, I am an illustrator with a solution-driven mindset and a love for visual storytelling. My work seeks to highlight women, facilitates space to promote different world cultures, and brings awareness to various social issues. My favourite freelance project that I have worked on this year is the World Calendar 2023 with New Internationalist, a non-profit media organization that partners with and supports the funding of Amnesty International, Amnesty France, Climate and Traidcraft. For this project, I researched and illustrated 12 cultures from across the globe. I enjoyed learning about cultures I hadn’t had the chance to look into before, like Lebanon, Ukraine, and Aboriginal Australia. The launch date is to be determined, so please check out my website at www.phungbanh.com or New Internationalist’s ethical shop at www.newint.org for future updates!
Have you ever had to pivot?
The last time I had a conversation with Voyage Dallas in 2021, I remember saying that if I have to choose between taking risks or staying in my comfort zone, I prefer the latter. Fast forward four months later, at the end of 2021, I made a drastic career transition—not the change I was comfortable with but the change my life needed.
When I started my journey of creating art in 2019, I focused my time on becoming a successful Instagram creator. I was illustrating with no particular message and just enjoying the process of transforming beauty into artwork through my lenses and strokes. As I progressed, I found that more and more, I wanted to tell stories with art; in 2020, especially with the many social justice movements happening at the time, I realized that my art could find a deeper and more meaningful existence. Being on social media pushed my work to reach greater audiences and exposed me to a larger community of peers and art lovers alike. The platform was a support system for me and many others during that time.
On the other side of the coin, having a large audience and following started to become a form of external validation. I slowly became over-fixated on the number of likes and followers. This obsession invoked doubt in myself and the value of my work and creativity. What started as a community for me became an unhealthy relationship with social media. In the last half of 2021, I noticed how easy it was to overwork, overthink, and eventually burn out. That was when I knew I had to do things differently.
In November 2021, I finally overcame my fear of missing out, listened to my body and decided to take a break from posting on the @PB.Journal page after two years of consistently doing so. At first, I wanted to use this pause to think about which direction I wanted to take for my art. But then, one week turned into one month, and now it has been six months since I last posted. During this much-needed break, I explored new art mediums, focused on perfecting commercial projects, and most importantly, I worked on myself. Some of the things I learned that I’d like to share are:
• Avoid feeling the pressure to assign yourself a label or brand yourself in a single role that limits possible opportunities that may come as you grow. Instead, find ways to try new experiences and push yourself to flourish. • It is okay to disappear for a while to reinvent yourself. Take the time you need to catch your breath and plan the next steps. • And when we create space in our lives by removing the things that no longer work for us – bad habits, clutter, unhealthy relationships, etc., we make space for new energy, new people, and new opportunities.
We’d love to hear a story of resilience from your journey.
Before diving into my story, I want to give the audience some context about my earlier years. I have been an artistic person for most of my life – from performing arts and bullet journaling to graphic design and illustration; I always found myself engaging in creative projects that fuel me. Yet, growing up in an Asian family, I was never encouraged to pursue a creative career. My parents are business owners, and my uncle works in tech – so the idea of becoming an artist never once crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and exposed myself to a new environment that I considered the possibility and allowed myself to explore my most sincere interest.
I migrated to the United States to obtain my Bachelor’s degree at a liberal arts college in 2017. During college, I allowed myself to explore my passion. I double-majored in Art and Psychology and began to advance my artistic eye and design skills while researching and learning about social stigmas, human behavior, and mental processes. If you have ever relocated to a new country before, you would understand the difficulties of adjusting to a new country, family separation, perceptions of racial discrimination and how the migration process impacts resilience, well-being, and mental health. On top of being an international student, I took it a step further and pursued a creative career. Not many international students and alumni would recommend or approve of the creative route. This is because not many companies and organizations sponsor international students for a work visa or green card who major or specialize in art or graphic design. So while it might be satisfying to explore my interests during my undergraduate career, there is always the fear that there will be no return on my or my parents’ investment in my education.
Despite all that, I still chose to go for it and dedicated myself to being the best I could be with the intent of finding a company that would take a chance on me.
Thankfully, I did.
- Website: www.phungbanh.com
- Instagram: @PB.Journal
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/phungbanh/
- Other: Etsy: www.etsy.com/shop/PBJournal
1st photo: PAX