An artist who has spent the past year working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has created a series of drawings and paintings, which she hopes will help humanize the city’s homelessness and drug crisis.
Originally from Toronto, Phuong Nguyen moved to Vancouver two years ago and has spent a lot of her time learning about the city and creating artworks, which reflect her experience.
While here, she put herself amongst the angst, pain, and struggle of those living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. Her collection, Hastings & Pain, is named after the nickname for the intersection of Hastings St. and Main St, and was drawn while she worked for two different organizations in the community.
“I worked at a shelter that has a mandate to serve adults suffering from substance use disorder and/or mental illness and a home for older adults that was located right by Oppenheimer Park, notoriously known for its tent city,” Nguyen said.
She said she wanted to find a way to shine a light on people in the community without revealing their identities.
“All of the drawings that included community members were a source of conflict for me,” Nguyen explained.
“A part of me really wanted to draw and understand the individuals in the community and their faces, but it was fought back with another part of me that understands that not everyone wants to ‘come out’ as homeless, and not everyone wants to show the world who they are at their weakest point.”
Nguyen said some of the art pieces were drawn in the moment and others were referenced from quick photographs she took on her phone while walking around the community. To protect the privacy of the community members, she refrained from drawing portraits.
She said it was difficult to do because while symbolism worked for a variety of genres in art, she was reluctant to indulge in it in this series because “the people who live in the DTES are not often treated like people in our society because they are not often seen as people.”
“Individuals suffering from substance use disorder, mental illness, and who live in poverty in the DTES are overwhelmingly ignored, looked down upon, and treated as lesser humans.”
She hopes her works will inspire others to think more deeply about the situation.
As well as her artwork on the Downtown Eastside, Nguyen also created a series of works focussed on Vancouver’s natural beauty titled Nocturnes & Landscapes. “Like many historic Canadian artists who were enamoured by the beautiful landscape, the mountains and the ocean on the west coast are incredibly striking,” she said.
“I began painting the landscapes I saw in watercolour, and eventually moved on to oil painting and chalk pastel when I felt the pull to abstract them. The purpose of the paintings changed from documenting what I empirically observed to documenting the feelings that the landscape evoked.”
She said her paintings slowly shifted from daytime to night-time scenes, as she found night time evoked deep feelings and the “clarity of celestial bodies like the moon and the stars offered a silence for contemplation.”
See more of her paintings and drawings from the Hastings & Pain collection: