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Staff Focus: Nguyen Practices Rare Art Form, Garners Acclaim

by John Syme
darkness in the light
“See the darkness in the light/the two halves of our soul/take flight/like leaves in brittle imperfection/nourish the ground in winter.” Egg tempera, 23 karat gold leaf, palladium leaf, bole, Indian ink on papyrus, 10 x 7.5 inches

The Vines"The Vines: Amongst the birds/they writhe/breathing with the clouds/but on the ground they lie-/forgotten” Egg tempera, 23 karat gold leaf, fish glue, Indian ink on papyrus, 10 x 7.5 inches

The wheels “The wheels spin/and like smoke/obliterate/the-,” Egg tempera, 23 karat gold leaf, fish glue, Indian ink on papyrus, 10 x 7.5 inches

An exhibit called "The Art of Illumination," held in an academic library, is not necessarily where an art lover might go to view new works of art. But the exhibit, held recently in Davidson's Smith Rare Book Room, showcased two new illuminated manuscripts, an art form with roots in the Middle Ages.

And what's more, the works' creator is on staff at the library.

Clara Nguyen's day job is as a collections assistant for government information at E.H. Little Library. On her own time, she is an artist of growing renown. One of her manuscript illustrations recently made the 2014 shortlist of the International Emerging Artist Award competition, and she has entered other competitions since then.

Manuscript illuminators supplement a text with the addition of gold and silver decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations.

Nguyen works with traditional rabbit, garlic and fish glues – which are exactly what they sound like – and time-honored decorative materials, such as 23-karat gold leaf and palladium leaf.

"Why use something new if the old thing works?" she asked students of Assistant Professor of Art Tyler Starr at a live demonstration of her work. After careful instruction, she passed around a sheet of gold leaf for examination. "Go ahead, I trust you!"

Something Old, Something New

Nguyen began her Davidson career in the art department, as interim assistant art curator at the college's Van Every/Smith Galleries. When that position ended, she found she had come to love Davidson College life so much that she applied for the job she has now.

"Who knew there was a collections assistant for government documents, right? Those documents need attention, too," she said of her work with processing documents and confirming the location of government-published maps, now numbering about 2,000.

The more cut-and-dried nature of the library work helps free her artistic process, she said, in a way that wasn't possible when she was working full-time in the art field. She also does oil painting in a broad-stroked style that helps free up the energy contained in the long hours of close work required of her illuminations.

Whether filing documents, painting or illuminating manuscripts, Nguyen brings careful attention to her work. With a background in art history (B.A., East Carolina University; M.A., George Washington University), she has held internships at the National Portrait Gallery, the private collection of the Kiplinger Washington Editors and the Ellen Frank Illumination Arts Foundation, as well as working as a student assistant at the National Archives and Records Administration.

At Ellen Frank, much of her work centered on the Book of Judith, a contemporary illuminated manuscript. She also has used her Book of Judith work as a topic in a demonstration and discussion with students in Adjunct Assistant Professor of Writing Laura Fiss's Writing 101 class, "Pushing the Boundaries of the Book."

Nguyen's recent work springs from – or in some cases, gives rise to – her own poetic texts as manuscript. And while she sometimes mechanically prints out a traditional art-gallery "wall text," the visual artwork itself hews to standards with their roots firmly in the Middle Ages.

"‘I try to use natural materials because I'm trying to keep in the tradition of illumination,' Nguyen told Caitlin Christian-Lamb for the College Archives blog ‘Around the D.'

"Don't expect Clara's work to look like a medieval manuscript, though" the blog article continued. "She says that she ‘likes taking physical images and then making them abstract.' Much of her work is inspired by nature, including one of her pieces in the Rare Book Room display, which is based on an outing on the Davidson cross country trail."

Read "The Art of Illumination: Interview with Clara Nguyen."