The Lane Arts Council has awarded local artist Uyen-Thi Nguyen with a $2,000 grant to complete a project centering around the Cottage Grove community.
Nguyen was among only five artists in Eugene and the surrounding area to receive the award through the Artist Grant program.
“It was awesome. I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “There are no grants for artists in this area. You have to be affiliated with a nonprofit, so it was really exciting to apply for something just as a person.”
The Artist Grant program was launched by Lane Arts Council this year, giving out $9,120 in all. The program is funded by the City of Eugene Cultural Services Division, Banner Bank and individual donors and provides financial support to individual artists to move forward a new project or creative endeavor that promises to advance their career or artistic development.
With the grant money, Nguyen is primed to develop her project, “A Portrait of Cottage Grove,” which will include solo art exhibits and a published artbook of her oil portraits and landscapes.
“It’s a project I’ve wanted to do, but it’s big,” she said.
The project endeavors to piece together a mosaic of the community through portraits of local people. Nguyen hopes people will walk away from the experience feeling they’ve connected with someone.
“A city is not solely its architecture, landscapes or residences. The heart of any city lies in its communities,” she said.
In all, she anticipates producing between 60-85 portraits for the project.
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 developed an afterschool program for youngsters.
Her nexus point in the heart of downtown opened the door for interactions with a variety of people.
“It’s a neat community because there’s all kinds of people,” she said. “There’s hippies and there’s people who have lived here their whole lives and there’s loggers and there are people who shoot their dinner. … And they talk to each other.”
The openness to root out deeper connections with community members was a characteristic that stuck with Nguyen.
“It was just really unique. I had never seen that before,” she said. “That’s one of the things I like about this town — people are very approachable and really down to earth regardless of what their jobs are.”
With the town’s own character acting as inspiration, Nguyen hopes to reproduce the experience through her project.
“What I want, when you see the art show or the artbook, is you can walk away and think, ‘This is what it’s like to be another human living in the community.’ And maybe we can learn something about ourselves through it,” she said. “I think it’s really perfect timing because people feel so divided and I don’t think they need to feel that way. I think that we’re just so focused on those one or two aspects where we’re not really seeing eye to eye. But there’s so much more about a person that goes beyond that and it would be nice to have something like that to feel reinvigorated as a community.”
Though much of the project is conceptually there, Nguyen is still in an exploratory mode.
“I want to approach it like an experiment in a sense,” she said. “I want to be a natural process so I’m not forcing ideas on it.”
To accomplish the task, Nguyen plans to enlist the help of community members to volunteer as subjects through her public Facebook page “Art by UTN.”
With dozens of art pieces ahead of her, she anticipates the portrait production to last through December and hopes to culminate the project with exhibitions next spring in local museums, galleries, libraries or other public spaces.
Nguyen’s art is on view this month in the “Around Oregon Annual” at The Arts Center in Corvallis and at The Axe and Fiddle in Cottage Grove.
A Virtual Awards Ceremony will be held Tuesday, Aug. 18, beginning at 4 p.m. and streaming on Lane Arts Council Facebook page.
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