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Leaving with Empathy: A Q&A and Studio Visit with Linda Lopez

an artist studio with a gray clay work in progress on a workbench in the center, a work desk to the left, and shelves filled with white clay jars and art supplies in the background
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is closed today, Monday, January 30 due to inclement weather. Any programs, tours, lectures or classes will not be held. If you are a ticket holder for a tour or an event today, we’ll contact you about rescheduling.

Linda Nguyen Lopez (b. 1981, Visalia, California) is a first-generation artist of Vietnamese and Mexican descent based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Most known for her ceramic “furries,” she has been exhibited at Crystal Bridges in two exhibitions (Crafting America (2021) and State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now (2014)), the Craft Contemporary Museum, Los Angeles; Museum of Art and Design, New York; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach; The Hole Gallery, New York; Fisher Parrish Gallery, Brooklyn; and David B. Smith Gallery, Denver as well as in New Zealand and England. Her work can also be found in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Springfield Art Museum collections among others.

a gallery view with a pink and gold abstract clay sculpture with a bumpy texture on a pedestal in the foreground and a mixed media colorful work in the background on black and purple wallpaper
On the pedestal in the foreground sits Lopez's work Squirmy Pink Dust Furry with Gold Rocks (2020) in Crafting America (2021). Photo by Ironside Photography.

Lopez also teaches as the Assistant Professor of Art, Ceramics & Foundations at the University of Arkansas. I had the pleasure of visiting her studio on campus and seeing her exciting new projects, including “furries” which will be cast in bronze for a permanent outdoor exhibition at Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Little Rock. In addition to discussing her upcoming exhibitions at the US Embassy in Mexico City and Fort Smith in 2023, I (being the novice ceramicist I am) learned about bisque-firing and strongly related to her tales of learning English with immigrant parents.

After visiting Lopez’s studio, we set up a Q&A session to continue talking about everything from her animation of ceramic objects to understanding our cultural heritages as first-generation daughters.

 

a brown clay work in progress in a bell jar shape sitting on a work bench in an artist studio with shelves of art supplies in the background
A work in progress in Lopez's studio.

IV: What inspired you to begin thinking about the “vast emotional range embedded in the mundane objects around us?” For example, you talk about how a coffee table shows its hostility in its scratches from keys thrown aimlessly on its surface. When/how did objects become not just inanimate entities, but objects with hidden physical and psychological lives?

LNL: [In Colorado], I had [picked] up a used vintage armchair and was looking at it with empathy, trying to understand what its past lives were [by asking], “Who did you live with before, and what was it like there?” Once I started asking those questions, I started to think about the relationships between objects and other objects: how we live with objects and choose to live with objects, and how some build who we are. Studies show that even if you don’t read books but have books around you, they enrich you. The things that surround you, make you who you are. Trying to understand my identity has always been a part of that—trying to understand who I was in a very Americanized home. [I’m] understanding what those objects were around us, how they impacted us, who it makes me. I guess that’s why I love objects.

 

IV: That’s amazing. [In thinking about] this being your way of learning about your cultural heritage, you have also spoken in other spaces about learning English with your family and the ways in which your Vietnamese immigrant mother would animate objects using language. Could you speak more on how you’ve come to understand your Mexican and Vietnamese heritage and how it informs your work?

LNL: I acknowledged, in college, the idea of inanimate objects and their lives, [but] it wasn’t until years later that [I understood that] that way of seeing and understanding was embedded in me since childhood. It was my mother’s broken English and the way she described things to me that animated everything around us. That empathy brought on super early to objects was just a way of life. I remember as a child, there were little parts in my hallway that were lifted up and I would feed it bits of paper. There were always things that needed care and I would care for them. It was the fact that we didn’t have a lot, living in a low socioeconomic household. The toys that I did have were very precious to me. I rarely played with them [and] placed them on the shelf. [These] small experiences around me have led me to understand parts of me and my heritage.

[In addition], going to the Asian food store, I saw people like my mother. The moments I [went] to the flea market in California, I heard banda music pumping, [got] all of [my] favorite Mexican snacks, [and saw] all of these Mexican cowboys. [This] allowed me to see [my] cultures [patched] together [like] the puzzles in my mosaic work. [They] feel soothing to me because I’m puzzling together these small moments [to] understand myself. I think this wasn’t important to me until I had my daughter. I always knew I valued both sides of my family but trying to patch them together [for her] has been very pressing. I really want to make sure she understands that her grandmother is from Vietnam and her grandfather is from Mexico. I want her to understand and embrace that it is in her because when I grew up, I didn’t learn Spanish or Vietnamese. To be American was to be Caucasian white—to have all of the things that my friends had because I went to a low-diverse elementary school. I want to make sure [her cultures] are accessible to her.

a white clay work in progress in a bell jar shape with protrusions sitting on a work bench in an artist studio
A work in progress in Lopez's studio.

“What’s important for me is that the viewer leaves with empathy—whether its towards objects or humans.” —Linda Lopez

 

IV: It’s so beautiful that you’re bringing both cultures, both backgrounds, to your daughter. Do you think it’s important for viewers and museum guests to know this background when viewing your work?

LNL: I don’t think so. What’s important for me is that the viewer leaves with empathy—whether its towards objects or humans. I saw the struggle my parents went through, and I still do. It’s crazy that racism still exists in California. I witnessed it with my own eyes a couple of months ago with my father and his neighbor.

I’m hoping that viewers leave with being more open and accepting, allowing to see things or people for who they are [rather] than to have a sort of blanket idea. We’re all taught what things are the moment we’re born: “this is a chair,” or “this is a table.” It’s questioning [and] leaving everything you know of what a chair should be or should do. It’s a way of understanding things and people. For so long, I never talked about my identity. My work has always been somewhat inspired by [my identity], but [only] now [is] the thread of empathy and understanding coming into understanding [it]. So no, it’s not necessary that the viewer understands my story, but bringing empathy, time for contemplation, and thought to the table.


 

As a first-generation Vietnamese American from California who came to Bentonville, Arkansas, for the first time hoping to embark on her curatorial career (and perhaps find adventure along the way), I would not have thought I would have the opportunity of meeting such a wonderful and personable artist like Linda Nguyen Lopez. Making plans with her to share more stories over plates of delicious Vietnamese food afterward was surreal. I am reminded that the stories which connect Vietnamese and immigrant communities can be found in the most unexpected place. It has been a pleasure, Crystal Bridges!

 

Written by Ivy Vuong, Havner Curatorial Intern 2022, Yale University ’23.