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In PLUSH He Trusts

Nguyen fights for identity through his art

The Spectrum

A man walks through the gallery's double doors. His identity is hidden by a white, plastic painting suit and a mask made from bandages. A pink helmet covered in condoms and breath mints rests on his head.

He speaks through a noise-distorting megaphone, taunting and teasing his opponent to come into the ring.

The audience, lining the edges of the room, looks around in eager anticipation. Long, stretched minutes pass before the man's pleas are answered and Thomas Nguyen enters the room.

Nguyen has a crown on his head and his forearm fastened into a padded, spiked piece of armor. The two opponents scan each other with smiles on their faces.

The fighting begins.

Stuffed artifacts fly across the room, launched from both challengers' hands. The next 20 minutes evolve into a blurred flurry. The stuffed pieces begin to deflate as they are thrown forcefully, pushed and pulled.

These wrestlers are battling to be crowned the victor.

The conclusion nears when Nguyen falls and his body sinks into the once bulbous pieces of art. His opponent stands in front of Nguyen and lifts a soft, spherical ball above his head. He pauses for a moment before spiking the ball and launching himself on top of Nguyen.

But the match isn't over until the best twerker emerges.

Both men place their hands on the floor and kick their legs onto a wall. They twerk until they fall. And still no one wins - a victor is never crowned.

The wrestling ring was the Visual Studies Lower Gallery in UB's Center For the Arts (CFA). The weapons were Nguyen's art: "PLUSH." And the two opponents were friends and artists Thomas Nguyen and Jeffery Sherven of UB's Visual Studies department.

Thomas Nguyen (his friends call him Tommy) is a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) graduate student and the creator of the art exhibition, In PLUSH We Trust. Over the past two weeks, his artwork and personality invaded the CFA.

Each day brought something new and unusual to the forefront for the audience - artistic stagnation was not an option for Nguyen. The exhibition began on March 25 with a PLUSH Purr-Raid - Nguyen, his colleagues and the students he teaches led PLUSH, his pieces of art, around the buildings of North Campus.

The parade dipped into the food lines in the Student Union, wove its way into classrooms and disrupted any normality of North Campus. PLUSH was alive.

"What is it?" curious onlookers asked.

"It's PLUSH," Nguyen said.

"It kind of weirds people out, because they're like, 'Well, this doesn't seem familiar to me.' But this is what he's doing. He's questioning the boundaries of communication," said Jeffery Sherven, UB's instructional support technician in print media and Nguyen's wrestling partner. "They're trying to make people aware of that because if you're always around the familiar, around what you think you know, you'll never question it and you'll never really understand it."

The art blurred the lines of what should go together, what was compatible and what was socially acceptable.

As the week progressed, Nguyen's art was the subject of various events. It was the inspiration for a serious lecture from artist Rebecca Schneider, a hip-hop dance party entitled "A HIP-PLOP Hooray Hurrah" and a PLUSH-inspired nude "fuller figure drawing session."

At every session and behind every piece of art, large or small, was the constantly smiling, curiously creative Nguyen.

"If you know Tommy, you know that he's vivacious and outgoing," said Natalie Fleming, UB's Visual Studies resource curator. "He's interested in interacting with you and getting to know you - PLUSH is his personality."

But Nguyen hasn't always been that way. He sees PLUSH as more than an exhibition - it was a way of expressing himself that he had always been unable to grasp.

When Nguyen was 14, his parents decided that the family would move from California to Houston, Texas, after his father was transferred to work in a new location.

This was one of the hardest challenges Nguyen has ever faced. He moved from a place that encouraged freedom and eccentricity to a city and high school that left him feeling segregated and unwelcome.

Being a first-generation child in the United States didn't help ease his insecurities. He was constantly torn between his mother's desires to instill Vietnamese tradition in him and his brothers, and his own desires to assimilate and embrace the new, American lifestyle that he was witnessing.

"As an Asian American, you were told that you could only be an engineer, business person or a priest," said Khoi Nguyen, Nguyen's older brother. "So being a professional artist was looked down upon. Art is just a hobby - math is more regarded."

Nguyen's culture always seemed to be sneering at his artistic desires. It was only recently that he realized his struggle began long before moving to Texas.

"I didn't know I was Asian until my first-grade teacher told me so," Nguyen said. "I remember playing with the other kids, and wanting to go and play kickball - but she told me, 'No, you need to go and play with those guys.' It was like, go and play with the boys that are like you. And I did, because she was my teacher."

He was encouraged to segregate himself within a group of only Asian boys.

As Nguyen grew older and his persona developed, his challenges only seemed to intensify. Who he was, or who he was supposed to be, was never clear to him. He would try to change himself in an attempt to fit in.

After high school, Nguyen transferred around the country, enrolling in university after university, aiming to find an economically fruitful career. In 2005, he received a bachelor's degree in art and philosophy from the University of St. Thomas (Houston) after deciding to leave the five-year master's in international business program that offered him no passionate outlet. He then began a Master's degree in history at the University of Toronto.

In 2008, he decided to fulfill his passions and became a fine art major for a second bachelor's degree at the University at Buffalo.

When he graduated from UB in 2010, his art had progressed, but he remained unsure of himself. Very few people within the Visual Studies department knew Nguyen outside of his artwork. He was quiet and inward - a stark contrast of his work.

He was successful in his studies, but never fully happy.

With much persuasion from Sherven, in 2013 Nguyen accepted a place as an MFA graduate student at UB.

He found comfort as he started working on his artistic venture, PLUSH. It was a voyage that began as an alter ego for Nguyen. It put the focus on something that wasn't wholly him - a distraction of sorts.

But as PLUSH developed, Nguyen realized the exhibition was an outward expression of himself, his past and his attempt to find himself.

"In some ways, PLUSH is camouflage," Nguyen said. "When you put it over yourself, it's so colorful that it takes things away from the person who's wearing it. Then when more people wear it, you become even more camouflaged."

His camouflage is paradoxical. Its bold colors and strange shapes make it unavoidable and the art has only enhanced Nguyen as a social figure within the Visual Studies department. His name alone makes others smile.

Throughout his evolution over the past few years, both emotional and artistic, Nguyen has found support and friendship in his past professor and current colleague, Sherven.

"I think visual manifestations of critical thinking - thoughts, feelings, hormones - they don't manifest themselves in some sort of neat prose or beautiful poetry. Sometimes we have to have visual expression," Sherven said. "In that sense, it helps highlight the questions of acceptance and diversity that he tries to raise by engaging in playful and, sometimes for others, awkward behavior - so that basically people reduce their inhibitions.

"It's a lot quicker than getting stoned."

Over the past two weeks, visitors and friends have flocked in and out of the Visual Studies Lower Gallery in the CFA, which Nguyen designed to break their socially induced, preconceived reservations. They have stroked their hands against the plump, fabric skin of the pieces of art and smiled as they have embraced the colors that lit up their mundane days.

"This is great, Tommy."

"It's so animated."

"You've worked so hard."

Each visitor has come with his or her own exclamation of awe or praise - or both. And with each compliment, Nguyen has smiled, looked to the ground with coyness and politely replied, "thank you," through doubtful laughter.

Philip Koperski, a senior fine art major, has been heavily involved with the execution of the PLUSH exhibition. His original, handmade, up-tempo music provided the soundtrack to people's PLUSH experience as it played from the speakers of the exhibition space and helped enhance PLUSH's fun-loving spirit.

"PLUSH to me is just the way the world should be," Koperski said. "The way that people should act is the way that they act around PLUSH."

PLUSH was not the first time Nguyen's talents have been applauded - those around him have long been aware of his promise.

In 2010, Nguyen was awarded the Eugene Gaier Award for Excellence in Drawing. He didn't nominate himself - the faculty whom he was constantly impressing did. They could see Nguyen's potential and the seemingly never-ending ways that he could apply it.

In the same way that PLUSH invades its exhibition space, Nguyen is on his way to invading the artistic world.

He is currently teaching within the Visual Studies department, attempting to instill his vision for creative freedom into students.

"Tommy's really fun. He's really different from any other art teacher that I've had," said Elise Roy, a sophomore art history and studio art major. "He's really chill about what you want to do. He's really enthusiastic about everything - from what he's teaching to what you're doing. It's always a nice, relaxed environment, but you get to be super creative."

As a child, Nguyen's artistic expressions faced consistent scrutiny, but now his dreams are beginning to manifest themselves.

In July, Nguyen will travel to Iceland to continue his work on PLUSH. He has been selected to be part of the Summer We Go Public arts festival at the Nes Artist Residency in Skagastrond. It's an opportunity that carries weight to Nguyen because of his and PLUSH's inherent obsession with the blending of cultures.

"It's about different cultures," Nguyen said. "It's supposed to embody this weirdness that so many people try and hide, so, it's become this semi-organism of people's lives."

Iceland embodies a path that Nguyen never thought would be available to him.

"Frustration is a challenge for you to learn something, not just something for you to get angry about," Sherven said. "You've got to get over it, engage it and the results will happen. If you don't, and you're always looking for a result without engaging, it's not going to happen."

Nguyen discovered feeling angry about his confusing childhood was unproductive. His passions and desires had always been in front of him, and after almost two years of artistic expression in the form of PLUSH, Nguyen has embraced his upbringing and who he is.

Neither Nguyen nor PLUSH can be defined. They embody more than could ever be portrayed on the surface.

But for Nguyen, the internal wrestling that plagued him for so long has subsided. His life, both his struggles and successes, has resulted in a piece of art that questions the boundaries of communication. It has resulted in PLUSH.


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