The Healing Power of Art
An art therapist at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s Bemis School of Art, Kim Nguyen helps adults overcome trauma through creative expression.
Born in Vietnam, her mother was married at 15 and had Kim and her twin sister by the time she was 17 – and five kids in all by the time she was 30.
Her parents migrated to South Vietnam when she was a child because they did not like living under Communist rule. Then, in April 1975, when Vietnam fell, her parents decided to escape from the country via a small fishing boat.
Her father was conscripted into the Vietnamese Army, his salary barely enough to buy one bag of rice every payday. Her mom did other menial jobs so the family could survive.
Wanting a better life for their family, they took months planning their escape from Communist rule.
“We left Vietnam … with 25 people on that little boat,” she remembers. “The third day on the boat, it ran into a huge storm and the engine died. My father went up and tried to tie a blanket as a sail and he fell overboard. The waves were so huge, we saw him one minute and the next he was gone, swept away. We were all crying and mourning.”
Nguyen was 13.
The boat just floated for several more days and landed ashore on Christmas Day – in Malaysia.
A United Nations representative and the Red Cross helped them find new homes. The Nguyen family ended up in California.
“We didn’t know anyone here” but their sponsors helped them find housing, clothes, furnishings and jobs. They helped them get green cards and got the children enrolled in school.
Kim was a good student, but she didn’t find her calling until she took art classes. While getting her bachelor’s degree, she realized she was displaying her trauma on canvas.
“I kept painting myself underground, or in a coffin,” she says. She aimed for an art education degree until one of the local art therapists came to class and talked about that field.
“I said, ‘This is for me,’” she recalls, and went on to earn a master’s in art therapy.
She came to Colorado in 1998 for a workshop “and I loved the weather.” She quickly found a job working with seniors, and eventually ended up at AspenPointe, a local outpatient mental health facility, in 2005. She teaches art therapy classes for them. A partnership between the facility and the Fine Arts Center got her working as an art therapist at the Bemis School of Art in 2009. When that partnership ended three years ago, she continued to volunteer at the school.
She teaches one class for veterans and one for military families.
Art therapy has helped Nguyen “release what was blocking me from being whole and balanced,” she says. “It is a way to tell my story without going into detail. The more you tell your story, the less power it has over you.”
She is trained to interpret the art of others.
“Sometimes they think I am psychic, but it’s all there in their art work. Words can mask (what’s really going on) but art doesn’t lie.”
When she sees what art does for others, it also helps her heal, she adds.
“When I tell soldiers I had PTSD, too, they come to believe that they also will find their way back to a normal life,” she says. “This is the purpose of my life.”