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January's Mind of the Artist: Mai Pham

January 10, 2019
We are kicking off 2019 with the wonderous works of Mai Pham! We love Mai's fluidity as she experiments with different mediums and incorporates her artistic prowess into each new piece. Her insight into her process and her art is amazing and we thank her for sharing. Enjoy!

I was born in Vietnam and came to the US in 1975. We were among the first southeast Asian families in Philadelphia, and I developed a Zelig like habit of trying on new accents and cultural tics as a way to adapt. This sense of fluidity carries over into my art. I roam from one medium to another every few years, and like to experiment with mixing them in my pieces. So I have flitted from watercolors to acrylic on large canvases, paper sculptures, hardware jewelry (I haunted one corner of Frager's hardware store many, many weekend afternoons), welding, and now fiber arts. Right now, I'm experimenting with using yarn not for weaving or knitting, but for sculpting. And I discovered that leftover steel wool from my hardware phase worked well as beards on some figures of old men that I welded. 

Matte Blue

Stylistically, the whimsical (Florine Stettheimer, Wes Anderson) and mystical bordering on dark (Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro) most resonate with me, I think because I had a very rich inner life as a child with invisible friends and whole imaginary universes that helped me deal with stress and trauma. In earlier work, I used a lot of assertive and sometimes surreal colors (partly because I'm colorblind) and Matisse like forms. They made me cringe internally because I knew they were driven in part by my need to speak more loudly and be heard. More recently, the saturated hues have given way to more texture and subtlety, but I still find it irresistible to inject a pop of color in there somewhere. 

Topically, a lot of my inspiration comes from working through internal issues. Some paintings came straight from dreams or metaphors for real life relationships. Other pieces, like an ancestor worship table I made of steel shaped to spell out the names of the ancestral towns and countries where my and my husband's forebears came from, immortalize key life events. Lately, I've been reflecting on questions raised by the macropolitics of the day -- like what is the value of things that people throw away or consider dross, and their humble beauty, like dirt on a forest floor or tracks left by hurried walkers. My first yarn piece was inspired by the seeming demographic cliff that America is headed toward, when the Census Bureau tells us white Americans will no longer be in the majority after 2044, which has raised many objections from demographers who question what it even means to label someone white, or black, or Asian etc. in a world of mixed heritages and cultural experimentation. 

Rotation 3

Mostly, I am just glad to be relaxing into a phase of life where I truly feel free to try whatever I want to try. I love learning new skills and have deeply enjoyed the peer critique sessions at CHAL. I also get a twinkle in my eye when I want to do some genre bending thing. The only problem is -- my pieces keep getting bigger and bigger, and my husband now insists that if I add any new pieces, I have to remove from the house something of equal mass. That was great motivation to start applying to shows and set up my website.


You can learn more about Mai at