For Kim Le Nguyen, art is a path to healing
by William J. Dagendesh
COLORADO SPRINGS. Artist Kim Le Nguyen enters her studio, lowers herself on to a chair and picks up a brush waiting for the first application of the day.
Nguyen studies her work for a moment, then applies the first stroke to her latest creation, using the brush and paint as a writer uses a computer and words to evoke an emotion.
“I consider myself more of an expressive artist than realistic,” said Nguyen who paints what she prays. “I think about how I want to portray what my prayer looks like in colors, textures and shapes.”
Indeed, much of Nguyen’s prayers are reflected in her paintings, particularly those that stem from having endured Vietnam’s civil war until April 1975, when the communists seized South Vietnam. That’s when her parents loaded the family into a small fishing boat and, along with 25 other people, left the country to escape communist rule.
However, on the third day at sea, the boat encountered a storm, during which the engine died. In an attempt to help navigate the boat, Nguyen’s father fashioned a sail out of a blanket, but fell overboard and was lost at sea. “We saw him one minute and the next he was gone. We were all crying and mourning,” Nguyen said.
For the next few days the boat drifted, eventually landing in Malaysia where a United Nations representative and the Red Cross helped find homes for everyone. Nguyen and her family arrived in the United States on Sept. 2, 1976.
“We didn’t know anyone, but sponsors helped find clothing, housing and jobs,” said Nguyen, who was 13 at the time.
Looking back, Nguyen credits her father for her artistic skills: “My father was very creative, so I guess I took after him. When I was in high school, I was good at drawing, (but) not so good at English.”
After graduating from James Logan High School in Union City, Calif., Nguyen went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Louisiana State University and a Master of Science in Art Therapy at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wis.
Since 1986 Nguyen has worked with adult mental health patients in various facilities and hospitals. She views herself as an intuitive/expressive artist who uses her paintings to heal and raise awareness. However, Nguyen at one time believed she had below-average artistic skills.
“When I was working toward my BFA, I painted a lot of memories of my traumatic childhood. I was thinking about majoring in art education and then I heard about art therapy program. I knew this was for me,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen began her career as an art therapist teaching others to use creative techniques to express and heal from past trauma. “As I teach, I improve my techniques. I started to paint with watercolor since college and painted seriously since 2013,” Nguyen said.
In time, Nguyen employed black India ink for her backgrounds. “I found this process is very spiritual. It’s as if I’m able to recognize the light and God’s grace while realizing my sinfulness and/or in darkness. It was a conversion experience for me,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s studio is typical of an artists’ creative lair where scores of brushes and paints litter her table and creative ideas are brought to fruition. Here, Nguyen gets lost in her works and thoughts about God.
“My studio is downstairs where I have access to the sink and refrigerator. I paint whenever I have time, mostly on Saturday. That’s my ‘chill’ day,” said Nguyen who paints chiefly in watercolor. “I did splatter permanent India ink on my shirt once so, I make sure I wear black or dark clothing.”
She lists Dean Mitchel, Mary Whyte, Andrew Wyeth, J. Hun-Sung and Misulbu Atelierjust as her artistic influences because of their attention to detail and paint-mixing ability.
“I’ll spend my lifetime to practice being like them,” Nguyen said. She also draws inspiration from Catholic spiritual leaders, she said.
“One of my favorite quotes is from St. Pope John Paul II: ‘Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.’”
Many of Nguyen’s works hang in St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish, where she was asked to be on the Encountering God through Art committee as well as commissioned to paint the image of the Woman at the Well for the adoration chapel. Her works also are displayed in the Catholic Pastoral Center in downtown Colorado Springs.
“I haven’t seen the artworks at the Catholic Pastoral Center, but I think all of the artworks presented to Bishop (Michael) Sheridan and Bishop (James) Golka were hung there. I just did my duty as part of the deaconate class of 2020, showing our appreciation for all the support and guidance the bishops provided for the whole class,” Nguyen said.
Since 2001, Nguyen developed and managed a Creative Expressions program at Aspen Pointe where she uses the arts to help mental health clients, military personnel and family members to bring about healing from trauma. Nguyen has facilitated numerous workshops, classes and retreats in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Nguyen is married to Deacon Donbosco Le, who serves at Vietnamese Holy Martyrs Parish with a secondary assignment at St. Patrick Parish. Also, she teaches art at Bemis School of Art at Colorado College and joins her husband in the Diocese of Colorado Springs Permanent Deaconate Formation Program.
In 2014, Nguyen was awarded as one of 13 Women of Influence in Colorado Springs by the Colorado Springs Business Journal. In 2016 she received the Joe Henjum Hero Award by Home Front Cares for her work with mental health clients and military families. The award celebrates community heroes who go above and beyond in their service to the city’s seniors.
During the past few years, Nguyen has been involved with the Wounded Warrior program, where she assists veterans to cope with the tragedies of war. Presently, she is working on a collection, “Surrendering,” for display at St. Gabriel Parish in September.
“My twin sister suffers with liver cancer, and her attitude inspired me to work on this series. When others told her they will pray for her to be cured of cancer, she said, ‘Please pray so that I would be able to resign to God’s will.’ So, my paintings are my prayers in union with her suffering surrendering to God’s will,” Nguyen said.