photo by Sean macNaughton, art by Min T. Nguyen
Photo by Sean MacNaughton, art by Min T. Nguyen

On campus, there is an open gallery for students to display their work, free of charge. The catch is, it is in such high demand that there is a lottery — it changes each week and it’s only for graduating art students.

It’s called the Eduardo Carrillo Gallery E103, and UC Santa Cruz’s art department has designated the space for graduating art students to display their artwork. Seniors have the option of doing a gallery, portfolio review with a faculty member or creating a senior project the spring of their senior year. Space is assigned through the lottery process at least a quarter in advance.

Fourth-year student Min T. Nguyen hosted the opening reception of safe [space] in this gallery on Jan. 13, which ran through Jan. 18.

“My only safe place was in my own mind — no one to truly trust, no one I couldn’t fear of hurting,” Nguyen said when introducing the collection safe [space] — aimed at portraying what safe space means to them.

Their thesis comes from a personal narrative of feeling trapped in their comforts of living in L.A., their attachment to their “best friend turned lover” and the struggles of adapting to a new environment.

Nguyen said their first and most memorable experiences as a transfer student were roaming around the campus and hanging out with friends.

“In relation to the gallery, I hadn’t been in my relationship until the quarter had already started,” they said. “I noticed I would go out with my friends a lot, go hiking or whatever in the beginning, but once I became busy with my relationship, I started crawling back into the dorm rooms.”

Noticing their behavior, Nguyen decided to change their gallery theme to one that portrayed a narrative about discovering a safe space.

“I actually changed the theme of my gallery in November, which was after the election had occurred and I came to a breaking point in my relationship, which is where everything tumbled.” Nguyen remembered thinking,  “I don’t feel safe on campus. I don’t feel safe with someone that I’m supposed to feel safe with.”

Nguyen shared that music was their safe space and it helped heal them through their experiences of isolation. Music opened the door connecting their past and present. Songs that made them nostalgic and assisted in creating the collection were exhibited alongside the paintings.

“My works tend to use different motifs, inspired by topics I have learned about or inspiration from various media,” Nguyen said in their introduction to the collection. “Most often, I’ll be listening to a song, hear a lyric I like, and illustrate what I feel would best interpret that song.”

Each painting corresponded with a song or lyric by artists like My Chemical Romance and Mitski. At the reception, My Chemical Romance’s “Bulletproof Heart” filled the intimate white walls showcasing the textured acrylic paintings. When asked about their use of music in the gallery and when creating the works themselves, Nguyen expressed that music became an important factor to creating a safe place for them.

“I studied music theory for a little bit in community college,”  Nguyen said. “So [music] has always been a reoccurring thing. Ever since elementary school, I’ve been singing, performing, and all that stuff.”

At the premier of the exhibit, Nguyen greeted guests at the gallery’s entrance and welcomed them to their own safe space collection. The gallery held 7 to 10 people, and allowed the audience to pass in and out comfortably while taking in what Nguyen looks to as a safe space.

“[The exhibition] was more of an observation of the safe space the artist experienced as they refound themselves in the music they listened to and how the musical environment helped them overcome a very rough time in their life,” said third-year chemistry student, Spencer Neapolitan.

Some students expressed their responses to the collection and their connection to certain works.

“I understand the space where [Nguyen] is coming from,” said fourth-year film and digital media student Amber Rose Kelly. “For me, [it’s] being an out lesbian and growing up not having that space where people understand you. That’s what really resonates with me.”

Kelly said she felt especially drawn to Nguyen’s piece “Crybaby” because it reminded her of what it was like to feel isolated in her own world.

“Crybaby” is a 16-by-20 inch acrylic painting with muted colors and varying shades of gray to portray a naked feminine figure curled up in crib. The naked figure, positioned in a corner, is shown crying so much that the tears are seeping through the bars and collect at the bottom creating a pool of tears.

Lyrics from Mitski’s song, “first love/late spring” are assigned to “Crybaby.” The rest of the works in the collection follow the layout, color scheme, and formatting of “Crybaby,” creating a cohesive flow.

Nguyen said they shared similar sentiments of isolation in moving to Santa Cruz, and created safe [space] to show their journey out of isolation, and finding solace in music. They said they hope safe [space] allows viewers to “find their own identification and stories.”

“The whole point of [the exhibit] was to get people together,” Nguyen said. “I got to talk to a lot of people who felt really moved by certain pieces or they would share their own little tid-bits and said, ‘This piece really resonates with me.’ That is what I wanted out of exhibiting [my work] because I feel even though it’s my art and I make art for myself, I also want to extend that out.”