Vy Ngo is an artist whose biggest inspirations are the things that tend to frighten us the most.
By Nicco Pelicano, Photos by Gaby Deimeke and Vy Ngo
Artist Vy Ngo was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Vietnamese refugees. “Being a child of immigrants, you kind of live in two cultures,” Ngo says. “Trying to navigate that identity of who you are, it’s a journey and can be very daunting for someone young.”
Ngo felt alienated growing up. One foot in each culture she was immersed in, but not really belonging to either one. She found solace in drawing, journaling, writing poetry, music and dancing. “The arts and being creative were very much my sanctuary,” she says. “It was the only place I could go to express myself and to process all the feelings I was having.”
Along with the arts, Ngo had an interest in science and volunteered at a children’s hospital throughout high school. These two interests posed the question in Ngo’s mind before she graduated.
Do I decide to go to art school or into medicine?
“I think that as first-generation immigrants, we feel the responsibility to our parents to make the most of the opportunities given to us because of their sacrifices,” Ngo says. “So I ultimately chose to go into medicine.”
She got her undergraduate degree at Penn State, went to Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and became a pediatrician. “I had to put art on the back burner for a long time,” she says. “Twenty plus years it took me to pick up a paintbrush again.
“Ten years into my medical degree is when I hit a wall,” she continues. “And I’ll be honest, I went through a dark time of depression, and I couldn’t understand why. I didn’t feel like I was living for myself. I kept thinking about painting.”
Vy Ngo: Balance
After 20 years, one of Ngo’s friends bought her a 5-by-9-foot canvas to encourage her artistic side to come out. After many months of avoidance, she painted. “The moment I started painting, it’s like I couldn’t stop. It was like a flood,” Ngo says. “I realized that being an artist was my natural state; it always has been since I was a kid. My life’s purpose is to be able to heal and connect with people through medicine and through stories I tell with my artwork. I have to do both so I can do both well.”
Balance is a theme she explores throughout her art, specifically in her latest exhibition, The In Between. It not only encapsulates her experience of cultural identity as an immigrant and person of color in the U.S. It includes the stories of three other first-generation immigrants, along with their portraits.
“A lot of the titles in the show were tongue-in-cheek,” Ngo reveals. “Being painful but also turning it into a place of humor, brightness, color and beauty. Art, and anything you do creatively, has to be personal, emotional and with purpose and intention. What I’ve learned through my experience is that it’s only when you create in that space can your work really take a life of its own, and it’s no longer yours.”
Following the Soul’s Purpose
Ngo faced a separation and divorce at the beginning of the pandemic. All while working as a physician on the front lines and facing isolation in quarantine. “I did a body of work during COVID that was an abstraction,” Ngo says. “A lot of my pieces were reflective of what was happening in the real world, but also what was happening internally with me.
“This year I also started a new body of work that is experimental, bringing together my abstraction, representation and cultural work,” she reveals. “They are still in progress. I’m excited for it because it’s really pushed me. It’s about trauma and how you can transform pain into something beautiful.”
By going back to her roots, Ngo found her youth was always the door to her contentment. “When I started being creative, being an artist, is when life really started for me,” Ngo admits. “Going to the places we fear is where we need to go the most.
“Medicine, art and activism, where all these things are colliding for me is where I want to see myself in 10 years,” she continues. “I want to do nonprofit medical work with refugees and use my artwork as a platform of activism, as well as continuing to heal people through it.”
In telling her story, Ngo brings light to the bravery of her immigrant parents and of those who feel as if they don’t belong. She creates a vibrant identity out of color and nostalgia. Proving that the human condition is beautiful if you follow your “soul’s purpose” in life.