Duy Huynh doesn't act or look like a rising star. He's unusually polite and reluctant to speak unless asked a question. He's slow moving and thoughtful and laughs easily when amused, which is not often. One gets the impression he takes life very seriously, which is sometimes painful to watch but indispensable if attempting to produce artwork which is substantive, alluring, contemplative, revealing.
His work can be seen in big time venues and cracks in the walls. He painted a mural in the VIP suite on the third floor of Ericsson Stadium, a piece he executed under the auspices of Creatrix, his former employer. It's splashy and grand and inventive and one of the weakest of his works.
I talked to Duy (that's YEE, remember) on New Year's Day. We talked about his stint as one of many boat people escaping Vietnam in the early 80s, his art influences, and living and working in Charlotte.
Creative Loafing: When did you start making art?
Duy Huynh: Well, I started drawing in elementary school. I didn't really start taking the "fine art" aspect of my work seriously until my senior year in high school, here in Charlotte in '93. Before that, in Pomona, CA, I took art classes, but it was different there. No one really took it that seriously; it was considered an easy A class. It was crowded. Not enough supplies, kids were stealing materials, spray paint, tagging up the school.
Taggers. Guys who left their names or symbols sprayed on buildings. I wasn't much interested in those guys, but I liked the graffiti artists who did murals, t-shirts, air brushing cars. I did designs for these guys in sketchbooks, most inspired from comics -- Marvel Comics like Spider-man and X-Men. I liked the art work. I started out tracing and then free handed copies of characters. That was in junior high. That's where I started the human figure, my first anatomy lessons.
Do the graffiti artists still influence you?
I like their passion. They aren't so concerned about selling their work; they're not trying to get into galleries, they just want to show their work to the public, even though some of it was illegal -- I don't agree with that part -- but I liked how passionate they were about it. I think that has a lot to do with my work now, my impulse to connect with the public.
When did your family emigrate to the US?
In 1981. I was six.
How did you get here?
We were rescued by the US Navy. We were stranded in the ocean for a few days. We were refugees, boat people. We ended up in the Philippines in a refugee camp. We were there about a month.
We came to California. We were sponsored by a southern California Buddhist temple. We came to Pomona. We stayed there until '93.
A tragedy happened about a year ago. An accident.
Sara, my girlfriend, was killed.
Did your work change after the accident?
The work itself didn't really change. It wasn't so much a difference in the subject matter, or the work itself, but why I did the work. The work just seemed to have more feeling to it. It meant more to me. I feel I'm communicating with her through the work. Some of the work got darker, but more simple in composition and design. But I think they all have a sense of hope: Even though they're dark, there's always a hint of symbolic imagery indicated, a sense of hope.
You say at your web site, "Through the years, (art) has become a very therapeutic means of documenting the many wonders as well as concerns of our impermanent existence." What wonders and concerns?
I guess what I tried to express is not only the good in life, but the bad in life. Whatever that may be. Whatever inspires me at the time. The dark and the light.
What artists do you like?
Definitely any of the Mexican muralists. Diego Rivera, Orozco, David Siquieros, a lot of those guys. And Alphonse Mucha -- I like him, too. I love his work, kind of Art Nouveau.
Frances Hawthorne, my art teacher at UNCC. She encouraged and helped me all the way through. She was a second mom to me.
How do you find clients?
I don't do a lot of footwork. I think my best advertising is having my work out there. I hang my work in coffee shops, restaurant, bars, music venues. Sometimes it can just be two or three pieces, people ask about it, give me a call. Every job seems to lead to another. People come and see me working, ask me to look at their place.
Is Charlotte a good town for an artist to be in?
I think so; it really is. You can go to New York or LA, where there's a huge art scene, and you become a nobody pretty much. You can get lost. Here, you're able to start your own art scene; it's still growing and you're part of that history.
The art history of Charlotte?
Yeah, you can be one of the innovators, start something the city doesn't have, something that LA or New York already has.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the paintings for a show coming up at Hart Witzens Gallery in February (Days/Daze of Displacement, with the opening reception February 1-2). Also in mid-January, I'm doing a mural for Creatrix on Davidson Street. A commission job.
You stay busy.
I pretty much work all the time. I do the mural work and the smaller studio stuff. I like to be able to work on them both. I go back and forth. I like the permanent aspect of the murals -- y'know, creating a piece of history in Charlotte. *