Kim Nguyen knows a few angels personally. They walk among us in camouflage, and carry the heavy burdens of conflict and extreme conditions that can scar very human minds.
Nguyen is the creative program manager at AspenPointe, and in coordination with Fort Carson's Warrior Transition Unit uses art to work with returning soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Nguyen shows them how to paint, and then uses the images to help them work through troubling areas, and become part of the world again.
Though she has a background in fine art, it took a while for Nguyen to understand its potential for healing.
"When I became an artist, I was doing things like painting myself underground, in a coffin, and things like that," she says. At the time, she didn't know about PTSD, but she soon recognized that she was working through her own heavy burdens.
Between 1975 and 1996, more than a million people escaped Southeast Asia, and oppressive, murderous communist regimes, by boat. "I was one of the Vietnamese 'boat people,'" Nguyen says. "As a kid, all I heard was the sound of bullets and bombs. The whole country had PTSD."
On Dec. 19, 1975, Nguyen and her family boarded a small vessel bound for anywhere but Vietnam. She was 14 years old. The engine died three days into the journey, and while her father was attempting to fashion a sail, a wave swept over the boat, knocked him overboard and he drowned. The rest of her family made it to Malaysia a few days later, then to California with the help of American sponsors, months after that.
When Nguyen thinks about it, it's clear her trauma catalyzed her interest in art. She knew she felt better when she created it, though it wasn't until later that she became familiar with the clinical diagnosis of PTSD, and recognized it in her own work. Once she discovered there was a career field that could combine her passions, she earned a master's degree in art therapy.
Her approach is centered upon compassion. Nguyen says she doesn't teach art. "I teach people to tell stories about their experiences through art," she says. Once stories are told, it becomes easier to recognize and work on troubled areas in patient lives. "This isn't about painting pretty pictures, but techniques to express themselves. Colors, shapes and objects tell stories that can give clues to where they're at."
She recalls a patient whose renderings always included trees. Talking through his images, Nguyen came to understand that those trees were a part of his healing. They represented him as a whole person. He later went on to a degree leading to a career in forestry.
The important part is the actual painting, and to get her patients to use it to see hope and purpose in their lives.
Though she spends much of her time working with patients, Nguyen still finds time for her own art. Her solo show, Strung by Heaven, is part of that expression, and focuses on angels. To her, they're stories of soldiers, the angels walking among us who need help feeling like they're part of the world again.
It's a different sort of show, without a standard wine-and-cheese reception. Instead, Strung by Heaven will offer a free class that will have attendees painting with and on feathers. The feathers, she says, speak to compassion, and healing; to belonging to and being a part of the world; and to the divine in each of us.
Says Nguyen, angel healer in residence: "To remind you of who you are."