by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern
“When you paint and when you draw, to me, you create a capsule with time and space, and it’s imprinted in life forever at that time.”
When Nhut Vo arrived in the United States at nine years old, it was not only his first time in a new country, but also his first time meeting his father, who had immigrated from Vietnam when Nhut was born. “I was a shy and quiet kid. I was an introvert,” Nhut says, reflecting on his childhood. Most of his thoughts and beliefs were based on assumptions because he spent a lot of time by himself, not venturing out of his comfort zone or engaging with many people. “When I came to this country, I did not feel like I was part of this country,” he explains. It was only when his parents got divorced and they moved to another district that things began to change.
In his new neighborhood, Nhut found himself facing even more challenges. He began struggling in school because he couldn’t speak English very well and with his two older brothers starting to have their own lives, Nhut’s “self-limiting beliefs” and feelings of loneliness were heightened. In junior high school, his life reached a turning point when he was first exposed to the gang culture in his neighborhood. His feelings of isolation hadn’t subsided: “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.” His search for a sense of belonging coupled with the culture of rebellion he was introduced to by his neighbors and brother led Nhut to begin associating with gang members who were older than him. Nhut describes how they fulfilled his need for validation and became the role models he had been looking for. Nhut started getting in fights and at 15, he joined a gang. “It was a camouflage for me to hide my insecurity, hide my shyness.” Through the world he now found himself a part of, Nhut developed a kind of “false self” defined by recklessness: “I thought that was who I was — that’s my identity.”
When he was only 16 years old, Nhut was involved in the crime for which he would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
After Nhut was first arrested, he was placed in a cell with a man who sold drawings done on handkerchiefs. Nhut had long held a curiosity for art, but never really invested time into learning about it. He can’t remember if he was interested in art when he was young, but he recalls practicing tattooing on some friends (“they probably still hate me for it now,” he jokes). Nhut remembers watching his cellmate work: he’d start with a picture and then trace and color it. “I figured I could do that. Can you help me do that? And he showed me.” And so began Nhut’s journey with art, looking at pictures in the newspaper until he found something that interested him, at which point he would simply cut it out, trace it, and do his best to replicate the image. As Nhut felt himself improving, he spent more and more time drawing.
Nhut started his term in a maximum security prison that didn’t allow any drawing supplies, so he learned to draw with pen. Working in pen is extremely challenging, Nhut explains, as you have to “barely allow that ball pen to touch the paper” in order to shade with a very light tone. Nhut spent years developing his technique, becoming skilled in the delicacy and precision required for the difficult medium.
After the Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a child to life without parole, Nhut was able to return to court for resentencing and in 2016, he received a reduced sentence with the possibility of parole. He was moved to a lower-level prison that offered many more program opportunities, including a painting class. Though he had never painted before, Nhut’s talents with pen and colored pencil allowed him to pick up the new medium with ease. “I go, oh, this is amazing! I can just cover a very large space with just one big brush rather than sitting there and scribbling.”
His talents did not go unnoticed and shortly after picking up his first brush, Nhut was invited to paint a mural in the prison. He took on the project and painted a large mural inspired by another program he was part of called the Pawsitive Change Program. The mural was just the beginning and Nhut’s painting took off.
At first, Nhut’s artistic process was about replicating exactly what he saw. His mental state when creating was focused on the result and how people would respond to it: “How people will perceive it, how they would experience it.” He would feel disappointed if he showed somebody a piece and they didn’t like it. But once he started painting, Nhut began to appreciate the artistic process itself. Working with color, both colored pencil and paint, takes a long time, especially when adding detail. It was in spending that time with color that Nhut learned to value the process — “enjoy it to an extent where it’s okay if they don’t like it.”
When Nhut is painting, he tries to stay fully engaged, enjoy the process, and not think too much about what the result will be. This mindset helps him not feel frustrated when he makes mistakes. “I’ll add the wrong color. I’ll add black when I know I’m not supposed to. And I constantly try to remind myself, you know, it’s an engagement with life.” This outlook has allowed Nhut to find far greater joy in his painting. Of course, he still finds it rewarding when audiences like his work, but, in Nhut’s words: “I think it’s fair to say I paint for myself.”
Now, Nhut describes his creative process as a formula. Inspired by his Buddhist practice, Nhut follows what is called the eightfold path, specifically one of the paths known as “right effort.” Nhut explains the formula: “First, you want to engender a wish to do something, and then you put forth the effort, and then you search your mind, and then you set out to do it.” Especially during his incarceration, this formula helped Nhut find the motivation to work: “A lot of the time you allow the environment to get to you, and you just don’t feel like doing things sometimes… you kind of have to psych yourself up.”
In addition to the eightfold path, Nhut finds it helpful to set up a “physical condition” for his space that he can repeat whenever he’s creating. When he can see something in a certain place and have a consistent routine like listening to music and drinking coffee, it’s easier to get into what he’s working on. Nhut also likes to set out his materials as a way to almost force himself to begin. He describes how in prison, your bunk pretty much covers the whole cell and acts as your table, your furniture, and your living room. By laying out his books and dictionary when he was taking college courses or laying out his paints and canvas, he would have no space to sit and no choice but to start.
Sometimes, however, setting up his physical space isn’t enough. Nhut describes how his state of mind affects his ability to create: “If I am not in the mood, if I feel depressed or stressed out, it’s very hard for me to engage myself to paint. Even if I set everything up like that, I would still sit there and just look at the setting.” For Nhut, art is not only an outlet that can take him away from his immediate environment, but it is also an opportunity for self-reflection. Nhut thinks about the way his intention in creating has developed over time, originally being too focused on external validation — something he has struggled with his whole life. But over time, alongside his spirituality and his practice of meditation and Buddhism, Nhut has come to view his artwork and creativity on a deeper level, seeing value without outside validation and finding his self worth through art. “When I think of it that way, I think all my artwork is beautiful because I created it. There’s no second person that actually did that.”
“I think it’s how I show up in the world. What I want to share, what I want to present, and not really being shy about it, being genuine and authentic… It’s really understanding yourself and how you can be comfortable with yourself to an extent that you can reveal yourself to the world just as you are… And in a way art does that. It helped me to understand myself.”
Learning to appreciate his own artistic process also taught Nhut to appreciate other people’s art. “I used to look at actual art and go, ‘I don’t get it.’ And now that I look at it, I understand… I can see what kind of brush they use, I can see the layer they lay on top of each other. I can sit there and imagine and guess the process it takes.”
Nhut can look at any of his paintings and remember the moment he painted it. He describes how painting captures his experiences and just by looking at a piece he can access them again: “I remember I had my dog sitting right next to me while I was painting that. I remember the people who walked by.” Beyond the memory of his physical experiences, Nhut can also look at a piece and remember who he was and what he was thinking at the time that he painted it. Describing a piece he did shortly after his sentence was reduced, Nhut says, “When I painted this… I was a person that just recently found hope again… Before then, I thought I was going to die in prison.” Looking at the piece now, Nhut sees a person who was painting with enthusiasm and joy, knowing he would have the opportunity to earn his freedom one day, “eager to prove to everybody that he can be a lot more.”
At last, in July of 2020, after 20 years in prison, Nhut was granted parole. He is still painting and drawing, doing commission pieces and sharing his work on Instagram. He also does tattoos and works as a dog trainer. Now that he has completed the six month transition program, he gets to go home to a lot more space and freedom, both literally and creatively. He says, “I have no idea what I want to do, but it’s almost like I’m just going to throw paint on the wall just to see how that feels.”