Switching Lanes: An Artist's Path

Ava Blum ’23

Alumni in Art:
Mai-Hân Nguyen ’17

As I approach junior year, questions of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “Do you know your major yet?” have started to swirl around me alongside the pressures of college application season. I don’t have the answers to those questions yet. In fact, while as a little kid I was always sure of my answer (no matter how many times it changed), nowadays I just say, “I’m taking it day by day.” As someone who loves everything, from international relations to acting, sports, studio art, and writing, I have wrestled to find the right balance between such divergent passions. I have worried about not having enough time to pursue each interest or to figure things out for a fruitful career after college. 

When I interviewed GDS alumna Mai-Hân Nguyen ‘17, now a painting and printmaking major at Boston University (Class of 2021), I was surprised (and relieved) to learn that her path has been full of detours. Her journey, from aspiring to work in environmental science and international affairs to her current, blooming career in art has taught me so much about the fluidity it takes to find where you fit, and how even a single destination can hold the best of all worlds. 

When she entered the college application season in her junior year, Mai-Hân was still narrowing down what she wanted to major in. “I didn’t initially know I wanted to pursue a career in art,” she told me. She explained that she and her family are first-generation immigrants and finding a career offering stability and security was the top priority. “I didn’t really consider art to be a real career path.”

During her time at GDS, Mai-Hân demonstrated true talent in her art classes with Michelle Cobb, the High School Studio Arts Department Chair, who was one of the driving forces behind Mai-Hân’s artistic career. Over a series of “intense heart-to-heart” conversations they had over several weeks, Michelle told Mai-Hân “You’re gonna regret it if you don’t take the chance to even try to discover what this profession could hold for you,’” Nguyen recalled. 

However, although she wanted to hold on to her artistic side for college, Mai-Hân majored in foreign policy and environmental science for her first two years at Boston University. She credited her experiences at GDS to helping her get to where she is today. “When I was telling [my GDS teachers] all about my double degree and all these things, I bet in their heads they thought, ‘this kid is crazy.’ They don’t tell you how much work would be expected of you to pursue two degrees.” Despite this, Mai-Hân thinks this audacious independence is valuable for all fledgling students on the road to self-discovery. “If I had known how much work it would take, I probably would never have considered it” Mai-Hân said. “But because I went through that and changed my majors so many times, it makes arriving at the place I have so much more worthwhile.”

The High School art teachers ensured that the GDS studio was always a space for developing a better understanding of oneself through the freedom to make mistakes, Mai-Hân explained. “The conditions for us to develop as artists were perfect...the faculty [were] very supportive of our high ambitions for our projects, and while not all of them landed, they were also very supportive about the process of us trying to fulfill those ambitions.” 

From my experience in the art studio, I’ve observed that the freedom to experiment has continued to endure since Mai-Hân graduated. The art we create is never “wrong,” as all my art teachers have said, and there has always been encouragement to take risks in our work. In considering Mai-Hân’s initial decision to pursue multiple majors, she said “not being discouraged from the get-go [in art] set us up with confidence to continue those types of works in college...that confidence really helps develop my work, especially when in the outside world, there is no one there to constantly motivate you but yourself.”

Mai-Hân’s background in environmental science and international relations allowed her to take an “interdisciplinary approach to making art” during her first years in college, as she noted on her Artrepreneur page. She used those interests to fuel artwork that addressed important issues within both subjects. She wrote, “Art allows me to ask ‘why’ when something catches my interest and use that interest to create something new.” 

Since those first college years, a lot has changed. Now solely pursuing a studio art-related dual major, Mai-Hân’s work is primarily centered around channeling, expressing, and evolving her understanding of herself. “Rather than creating something new...these days it’s more about appreciating what already exists.”

Her recent artwork has also been strongly inspired by her Vietnamese heritage, a central part of her identity she has unpacked more since attending Boston University. “The works I have felt the most attached to have been the ones about my concerns [and] worries. The biggest concern I have had throughout my life would be preserving my family heritage; especially since I’m away at college, it feels like I’ve left half of me in DC—that half being my Vietnamese heritage.” 

Being half Chinese, this insight particularly resonated with me, as I have constantly thought about the ways in which this aspect of my identity has impacted my experience as an American. I have also thought a lot about how I could incorporate and explore these concepts in future art, like Mai-Hân. “I realized I didn’t really have a part of my Vietnamese heritage...specific to my experience as a Vietnamese American [that was] separate from my family, so that’s been my recent content inspiration.”

A year studying abroad in Venice has had a strong impact on the way Mai-Hân now views art as a career. Students in Italy had a “freer perspective” on what a career in art could be and its richness is not measured in money. Mai-Hân allows herself now to think about working as a collaborative printmaker and hosting workshops on the side after graduation rather than trying to check off accomplishments to prove she’s “made it.” 

Mai-Hân’s journey is an important reminder that a successful career path may not be the one paved for us by society. I’ve learned, from her example, that I might have to create my own path and that there is adventure in finding new paths in unplanned directions. Mai-Hân has had the opportunity to paint the view for herself. And it is breathtaking.

To see more of Mai-Hân’s amazing art, visit her Instagram (@nah_iam) and her website https://maihan.myportfolio.com/!


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