A walk through a ‘Garden of People’

Uyen-thi Nguyen displays two portraits of Cottage Grove locals included in her project.

Local artist Uyen-thi Nguyen has found a unique way to get to know her community – and is inviting others to “walk through the garden” she’s cultivated.

Her book, “Garden of People, A Portrait of Cottage Grove,” is an artist’s perspective on society, using Cottage Grove as the basis for exploration.

A Kickstarter supporting her project is currently live and runs until May 31, 2021.

The art book and the planned exhibition are designed to be experiential, allowing viewers to formulate their own views of society through words and experiences of the subjects and through expression of the art.

Nguyen’s solo show is slated to be on exhibit this summer in Eugene during Visual Arts Week, in Cottage Grove and Springfield.

The project found its feet financially when the Lane Arts Council awarded Nguyen with a $2,000 grant last year to complete the project.

Nguyen was among only five artists in Eugene and the surrounding area to receive the award through the Artist Grant program.

Her project began simply as “A Portrait of Cottage Grove.” She aimed to piece together a mosaic of the community through portraits of local people.

The concept was inspired by Nguyen’s steady increase in affection for Cottage Grove over her 15 years in the area.

“I really like Cottage Grove,” she said. “I’m actually surprised how much I like Cottage Grove.”

Things didn’t begin this way, however. Growing up in a small New Jersey town of 10,000 people, Nguyen was at first apprehensive of fully engaging the community after moving here.

“I kind of assumed people would do a lot of gossiping because I saw that before and I was just very cautious,” she said.

Then she noticed a tendency for people to smile as they walked down the street or passed her by, which she initially found to be somewhat off-putting.

“But after a couple weeks, I was like, ‘I think they’re just nice,’” she laughed. “I had also lived in big cities, so maybe I just had a different viewpoint.”

Since then, her relationship with Cottage Grove has blossomed.

Eight years ago, Nguyen established what would become the local landmark game store Delight downtown and also develop an afterschool program for youngsters.

Her nexus point in the heart of downtown opened the door for interactions with a variety of people.

With the town’s own character acting as inspiration, Nguyen hoped to reproduce the experience through her project.

Using census data as a guide, Nguyen incorporated gender, age, household income and employment figures to roughly represent the town’s demographic ratios in her subject choices.

As Nguyen met her subjects in an environment of their choosing – a park, a workplace or even a cemetery – she questioned them about their family culture and experiences growing up.

“I wanted to interview people so I could get to know them better so that I could paint them better,” she said. “And they shared a lot of things about themselves that were really intimate. I felt kind of honored that they would share these things with me.”

One data point which stood out right off the bat was the roughly 90 percent of Cottage Grove listed as white in the U.S. Census.

“So I was thought, ‘Okay, this is not going to be really culturally diverse,” Nguyen said. “But after talking to one of my first interviews, I realized that … each family has its own culture.”

She was surprised, also, to find that many of her subjects were first or second generation immigrants, often of European descent.

From her interviews, she incorporated a collage of anonymous quotes into the project.

“So in the end, the ‘Portrait of Cottage Grove’ is now ‘Garden of People’ because it’s really an exploration about society through this town,” she said.

Nguyen is hoping that, as experiential art, her project can allow people to walk away feeling more connected to their community.

“People are having a lot of difficulty and people are divided,” she said. “They’re polarized and they’re isolated. At this time and this place right now, I think having a different perspective on: What does it mean for us to live together? What does it mean for us to be a society as human beings? I hope maybe that will bring some light.”

The project has been a period of personal development for the artist as well.

Nguyen said the work has granted her a much deeper look at the people she lives alongside and made her aware of her own preconceptions about others.

“Not just superficial niceties but a real embrace by acquaintances, neighbors and strangers,” she said. 

The final project will include portraits from the current project as well as others Nguyen had previously created.

With just a few more paintings to finish, the book is due to be reach the public this fall.

Nguyen’s Kickstarter page can be found under the title “Garden of People, A Portrait of Cottage Grove,” where pre-orders will be made available.

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