People | Fifteen Minutes

Thuy-Van Vu’s Art Points to the Story Beyond the Subject

As an artist, Vu was looking for a way to represent personal history without feeling like she was “performing otherness.”

In the midst of considering the reopening of schools during a pandemic, Thuy-Van Vu’s gorgeous 2014 paintings of empty classrooms have an eerie resonance. The spaces she portrays are vast and full of potential, and also of a great, yawning absence. Where are the children? Their teachers? The chairs are piled awkwardly on top of the desks, everything pushed together, as if those who left were in a rush. There’s a sense that these desks and chairs have been lingering and might never be used again.

Storage (Former PS), by Thuy-Van Vu

Classroom (Former PS), by Thuy-Van Vu

She grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, one of four daughters of Vietnamese refugees. Her father, a former pilot in the South Vietnam Airforce, enforced a strict expectation of deference to authority at home. “I had a complicated upbringing. My father was controlling and often unpredictably angry. He probably had PTSD,” she says. “I could get in trouble for having the wrong expression on my face. I knew other Vietnamese kids whose fathers—also former pilots—had similar temper issues, so I didn’t feel uniquely victimized. And as I got older, I also saw my parents as victims in their own right.

What are you doing here?

Portraits of My Father, by Thuy-Van Vu

Insulation, by Thuy-Van Vu

Thuy-Van Vu, photograph by Winnie Westergaard

Though her art-school-self imagined she was making incremental progress toward an art career, she’s happy now with the life she’s carved out for herself in Seattle, a city with a vibrant art scene that is smaller than that of New York or Los Angeles, and perhaps because of that less competitive and more supportive. There Vu has been able to create a life in which her art is not the only focus, but a piece of a larger story.

Nyack Classroom (in progress), by Thuy-Van Vu