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Lynx Nguyen on Discipline, Self-Discovery and Making Truly Unique Art with Ballpoint Pens

Lynx Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. He first studied at The Art Institute of Atlanta and in 2015 received his Master of Fine Arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Lynx uses ordinary ballpoint pens as his medium and employs a fascinating technique of attaching the pens to a drill in order to apply layers of ink on various surfaces. The result is truly unique and gorgeous artworks which have a transcendental and spiritual quality to them as they carry important messages of the power of discipline, being present and grateful. In a relatively short space of time, Lynx has had over five solo exhibitions and continues to wow the viewers with his amazing technique, talent and vision.

You were born in Vietnam and later immigrated to the US with your family. How old were you when you came to America and what were the first few years like?

I came to America in 1993, when I was 8 years old. The first few years in America were miserable and I encountered a lot of suffering. We lived in the tropical region of Vietnam, so the temperature there is around 110F or 43C, however when we moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1993, there was a snow storm of the century. Temperature dropped below zero and snow was a little over a foot, the adaptation was difficult, my family and I never witnessed anything like it. A few months later, I was put in elementary school, where I experienced discrimination and racism for the first time. In Vietnam, I never heard of those terms and this was so new to me. In school, both white and black kids would call me Chinese and make fun of me by saying nasty words and Chinese words, like "Ching, Chong." I remember when I rode the bus home, there was a white kid and he would beat me with a big bamboo stick. I covered my head, but he kept beating me harder until it bled. I tried to tell the bus driver but he told me to shut up and sit down, because of my language barrier. The racism and discrimination didn’t stop even in my college years. However, looking back to the painful past, I am so, so grateful for the suffering because that motivated me to make meaningful artwork.

When did you discover the creative force inside you and felt that it just needs to be expressed?

I discovered the creative forces while I was in my graduate years at SCAD. Originally, I wanted to paint still life and portrait in oil just like Rembrandt, but I was not satisfied. I had no connection to my painting and the reason is… Rembrandt has Rembrandt's time, and I have my own time. I don't live in the past! In this current time, everything is Art, so it is very hard to satisfy people. I decided to let go of the result and just make what I love and that is when I discovered the tally mark. I never get bored of making tally marks, because that is what I do when I get bored anyway! For other people, when they get bored they stop making art but for me, every moment is an opportunity. I don't think that I am creative, and I really don't want to express my artwork to the public because it is such an embarrassment. Who would want to come to an art show to see tally marks? It is so boring! Indeed, when you do what you love even a tally mark can get people’s attention and curiosity.

You use regular pens as your medium and the technique you employ is very unique. Can you tell us what attracted you to ballpoint pens and how did you come up with the cool idea of attaching them to a drill in order to build layers of ink on your chosen surface?

The main quality that attracts me to the ballpoint pen is the sheen. The sheen is what separates ballpoint pen from any other medium, because it cannot be duplicated. For me, the Sheen is like the spirit, which gives life to the painting. Depending on where the light hits the painting and where you stand, the sheen will change the painting completely. I made the tally marks with the ballpoint pen by hands for two years and I found out that I did not go anywhere with that 'stick and stone' mentality. In my mind, I cannot make a living with that kind of progress. My discipline is not to have a rigid mentality, but always find a way to improve and be more efficient. The more I look inward, the more I discover myself. Truly, all creativity comes from within, it just needs to be excavated! The moment I saw a classmate drill a screw into a wall to hang her artwork, I became enlightened. What I discovered was the drill can create the same organic marks as if I was doing it by hand, but much faster. Because the drill is much faster, I have to put more effort by increasing the scale and put more layers of ink. The drill doesn't make my work easier; it actually makes the process harder and more challenging. The weight of the drill makes it difficult to work long hours, the loud noise of the drill will make you insane if you don't have the focus, because I do believe that sometimes we need the discomfort and frustration in life in order to find the way out and uplift oneself.

Can you describe what’s a day of working like in your studio? Also, what part of your creative process do you enjoy the most?

I really don't have a set schedule. When I wake up I do my artwork and when I am tired, I go to bed. On a typical day off from my day job, I would work on my artwork all day long. I only take a break to eat and then jump back on the drill drawing right away. When it's raining, I would do a pen drawing, when it is sunny, I would prepare the canvases and paper so it can be available when I need it. I work on one artwork at a time until I finish it, I never let a piece go unfinished and I always try to put in 101% effort each time so I don't regret in the future. In my studio, I try to make everything very convenient. For example, If I work on a black ballpoint pen drawing, then I would have only paper, black pen, and drill (1,2,3) ready waiting for me everyday until it is complete. I put everything else away to avoid distraction. I don't watch TV or listen to music because I don't want to miss the opportunity to learn. From my experience, the more you focus the more you open yourself up to possibilities in your work. I only give myself 3-4 hours of sleep, because I don’t need it, I am always very refreshed after doing my artwork. When I have an art show, I lay out all my work and see what pieces would have more affinity with the space and then go for it. I try to think in the most simple and efficient way, because life is already too complicate. I enjoy all parts of the process of making art because every time I do it, I always grow and learn a little bit about myself. I love everything that I do, so there is no side effect. The question is how much do I learn each day, how much do I improve?

John Olsen once said that “painting is a means of self-enlightenment.” What goes on in your mind when you are making art and also what impact does art have on your life in general?

When I make art, I always do a self-review. For example, I would ask myself many questions like: what is a better way of doing something? What words should I use to settle a person’s heart, to make them happy, to make them feel peace? Why do I say it this way, is there a better way of saying it? How can I do a little bit more? How can I take more responsibilities in the family? How to understand others? For me art is not important, what is important is how to use art as a means to understanding oneself, to overcome oneself and to build up solid foundation inside. Art is outside of oneself and something outside is changeable and temporary. I focus more on the internal qualities, because these things stay with you. Since my work is about discipline, it has positively impacted my life - 360 degrees. I used to be very lazy and not self-motivated, but after 7 years of discipline, I felt like everything in life is very hopeful and possible to attain. Now, I don't have to worry about laziness or motivation, because discipline is what I do daily, it goes beyond the emotion and the 'like and dislike'.

In another interview, you said that you ‘let go of the end result’ and actually try to make the worst painting; making for the sake of making. That’s a very fascinating perspective, can you share more of your thoughts on this?

In the past, I always tried to satisfy others and make work that I think is contemporary and that will sell. So while making the artwork, I felt so empty inside and felt so much suffering. Every time a class was over for the quarter/semester break, I would throw all my work in the dumpster. I went through this cycle over and over again, until one day I decided even if I am poor, I am going to make work that I like. Making work that I like means to let go of expectation, let go of the trend, let go of what people think. The way that society works is: if you want success - you go for it. When you go for it; you will be very happy when you get it and another, you will be very miserable if you don't get it - this kind of life is too stressful for me. The way I work is I also want success but I don't go for success, instead, I "let go" of success. If I happen to achieve success, then GREAT!, and if I don't have success, then it's also still GREAT, because I do what I love. This lifestyle is so broad, hopeful and stress-free. Don't you think this stress-free mindset can open up a new level of creativity? Therefore, making the worst painting means to accept and love what you do. If you able to accept the worst thing in life, then you can accept anything you do. You would feel more complete inside and have the complete freedom to make work without restriction, limitation and side effects.

Do you enjoy working in front of people and socialising at events while discussing your work or do you prefer to be alone in your studio making stuff?​

I enjoy both the crowd and being alone, my daily discipline project is to help me learn how to grab opportunities and learn how to be flexible. I used to be shy and preferred being alone doing my work, however, discipline is to recognize my weaknesses. One of my weaknesses is people, so I try to do more performance and interaction art now, to help me deal with my issues. My tendency is to run away from issues and then suffer later. I am grateful to suffering because of it I am able learn endurance and to how to be persistent. Whether I am alone or with people, or whether I sleep on the floor or work in the snow, it doesn't matter, as long as I have the endurance and persistence - my life is more hopeful.

What kind of feelings do you want to evoke in the viewer perceiving your art?

I want to use sincerity to touch people's hearts on a deeper level. This type of work transcends the idea of image making, the goal is to connect to the audience at the heart level, like heart to heart transmission. Whenever someone sees my artwork and picks up a ballpoint pen, our hearts automatically connect. To tell you the truth, I did not try to evoke anything, I did not try to make people feel good, I just do it and let it go! Because in life you never know, even if you try to evoke a positive message, there’s no guarantee that every audience is going to get it, there’s no guarantee that some of them won't have negative thinking. I am too tired trying to satisfy others, because I can't even satisfy myself! Sometimes letting go is very powerful!

What inspires and drives you to keep on creating artworks?

My inspiration comes from Chen Ren, my Great Predecessor in Dao, she vows to do 10,000 bows each day for humanity. She returned to heaven at the age of 95, while doing bows on the kneeling box. Whenever I think of Chen Ren, I get motivated to do something meaningful with my life; that is the reason why I do what I do. I want to learn how to be grateful, how to return the grace, how to be humble in learning and how to have discipline until the end!

Looking at your body of work, is there a certain piece that you are especially connected to or proud of?

It’s hard for me to answer this question because my main focus is on the concept of discipline so the art piece itself is the by-product. I think this is a blessing because I love everything that I do, every piece is a new discovery about oneself. This idea of going within helps me connect to my work, otherwise if I focus on the idea of image making then there will be judgment and comparison. Whenever there is judgment and comparison there will be dissatisfaction.

What is your dream project, in other words where do you see yourself heading in the future and what themes would you like to explore in your work?

My dream project is to have a solo show in the Tate Modern. I like to see myself travel from one museum to the next giving lectures on the eternal direction. The themes that I would like to explore in the future would be something like: how to overcome challenges in life, or how to live a meaningful life. I like to work with a subject that can be applied to daily life.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an artist?

I live in a large city, but the art scene is very safe and conservative. Most galleries are commercial, selling work for decoration and not many galleries are open to experimentation and True Contemporary Art. Most galleries advertise their artists/artworks as contemporary because artists produced their work now, however True Contemporary is not just works produced in this time, but addressing the time we live in and the future of our world. The challenge that I face as an artist is that my work doesn't fit in the galleries in my city because it "looks" too simple, boring, and very hard for people to understand. My work is not the typical work that can sell and ballpoint pen is usually perceived as cheap, not archival and not for making art. Another challenge is my work looks so simple, that it doesn't register well on camera and when I send off my work to galleries and museums to review, they always come back rejecting it. Some galleries and friends also suggested that I should make my work interesting (which goes against my concept of making the most boring painting) and add in lots of colorful ink, because that would attract more people to come see the show. Perhaps, the biggest challenge that I have faced is family members not believing in what I am doing. My wife left me after 15 years of marriage, because she doesn't understand what I am doing and she would say something like "how worthless and full of suffering you are," and she even said, "you low life with no future." This is her thinking, and I respect her opinion. My parents don't support me because they don't see the result, they don't see the income, they don't understand why I put so much time, money and effort. I live with my parents, I make artwork in my living room, in my bedroom, in the garage, and in the guest room (because it was so large) and every time my mom or dad would pass by, they said something like, "meaningless craft, wasting time and money, hopeless." As an artist, I knew this life is not easy, so I have to understand how people feel and I have to respect their point of view. However, I don't live to satisfy others, I don't live for others' feelings, I live for the Truth.

What is your idea of happiness?

Happiness is not important. Happiness is one of many feelings, but not the only feeling. I used to think that life is about happiness and the only meaning is to chase after happiness, but it always ends up in suffering. I think qualities like, thinking of others, respecting parents, having discipline and dignity, taking responsibility, sacrificing one's happiness for others, understanding others and many other things are much greater than Happiness. Happiness is self-centered; Buddha Shakyamuni stated, "Self-centeredness is the root cause of suffering." When you let go of happiness, you realize that life has so much more depth.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am working on a series of shape canvases and introducing 2 new colors from BIC ballpoint pen to my palette. These two colors are: Green and Purple, in addition to the regular red, blue and black. I will also go back to my older work and modify it or add more layers of ink. The goal is not quantity but quality of work.

Check out Lynx's website and follow him on Instagram.

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