Ones To Watch: Nathalie Nguyen
Nathalie Nguyen is a visual artist based in New York. Known for her 3D art, Nguyen’s work digitally morphs the line between reality and digital manipulation. Nguyen’s creations can be traced way back to her surreal, highly detailed sketches; sourcing back to her creative inspirations including her favorite manga and anime films such as NANA and Ghost In The Shell. Her project Happy99 in collaboration with her partner Dom; features her outlandish designs ranging from sneakers to animated dogs; however not one item is on sale. Happy99 does not exist out of Instagram, but for those eagerly waiting, Nguyen might have some good news in store. Milk spoke to Nathalie about her upcoming projects, her favorite creations to date and her digital kingdom of Happy99.
How would you describe your practice to those who don’t know you yet? Introduce yourself!
I’m an artist living in NY. More specifically but not super relevant to my work is that I’m Vietnamese and immigrated to the US when I was 6 from Nice, France. My practice involves multiple mediums and styles but I’m probably most known for my 3D work, drawings, and Happy99.
How did you delve into the world of 3D rendering and digital manipulation?
I wanted to study art when I graduated high school but my dad was super against anything that wasn’t computer-related. I convinced myself and him that 3D computer animation was an appropriate compromise between us. Once I got through my 2nd year of my BFA of Animation & Visual Effects in San Francisco, I decided to switch majors to Visual Development which is basically illustrating concept art and design. I finished school and continued to draw knowing I had a basic understanding of 3D graphics tucked in my back pocket.
I moved to New York years later to create my comic/become a painter but scored a sickening job at a tech start-up as a 3D production lead (read: the only person who did 3D). The job was challenging but inspired me to go to YouTube University and dedicate time to learning more about the craft. I started making 3D versions of my drawings, then jewelry, make-up, human clones, and then finally shoes.
What are some of your biggest influences? How do you plan out your projects/ideas to execute them?
I’m so deeply rooted in manga because it shaped my entire childhood. However I find a lot of popular overseas “otaku” outlets to be overplayed or done in bad taste, so I think the subconscious part of my brain is always trying to rewrite these influences in my own way.
The best way to plan for me is to sketch an idea out in square format and see if it hits. Knowing where and how an idea is going to be showcased affects the composition of it and instead of feeling like the sky is so big and blue, it’s nice to think “Oh this looks good in a square!”. It’s all about building confidence for me. I have to sell myself my own idea as a thumbnail and if I’m not completely sold, I’m not completely committed, and then there’s a chance I may change my mind on the whole thing before I’m done.
Who is an artist you are inspired by? What are your favorite TV shows and books? Do they influence your practice?
Ah, I have no idea where to start. I started drawing because of this artist/mangaka named Arina Tanemura when I was 10. She re-invented the shojo style for me and at the time I was obsessed with Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew Mew, Utena, Chobits, Inuyasha and then I started getting into Eureka 7, NGE, NANA, Ghost in the Shell, etc. I really could list forever into the past but right now, my favorite airing show is an anime called Dr. Stone. It’s about the world 3700 years in the future after humanity has turned into stone. Anyway, the point is the main character is a scientist who is trying to re-create all of the technological advances that existed at the height of humanity while another character wants to keep everyone in the stone age sans science and the corruption of ownership. It’s thrilling stuff but in terms of influence, they remind me of how to relate to people using a strong narrative. I love consuming things that make me feel intensely. At the root of it, my practice is to entertain myself and others. I like to relate it to social work and I’ve always wanted to pursue comics to create an iconic and compelling narrative.
Your apartment reflects a lot of your interests and inspirations. What are some of your favorite memorabilia/pieces?
I have this Neon Genesis Evangelion 3D pop art T-shirt that I got to match Dom’s Alien 3D T-shirt. Both pieces are insanely rare, but the NGE one is arguably harder to find. A lot of the memorabilia that we’ve attached to the walls are pieces of childhood. I also have this huge ghost plushie that everyone always asks about, but it’s a 1 of 1 commissioned on eBay from a plush maker for my Perona cosplay from One Piece. I’ll probably do a 10-year challenge to flex my cosplay years one of these days… I have the entire collection of these NANA keychain Gachapon toys that are basically tiny jewel cases from each band in the series and they open up with removable tiny CDs and cover sleeves! Dom also bought me a married plush set of Peko and Poko in wedding attire that we keep in our bedroom.
We started happy99 in May/June in 2018 right when we started dating to prove to ourselves we wouldn’t let the comfort of dating get in the way of our artistic pursuits. Dom and I were upcycling a ton of clothes with friends in the Bay Area and then we transitioned into trying to make physical shoes. We searched and learned that rubber injection molding and sizing/scaling meant that the shoe-making process was super prohibitive to people just starting out small like us. I moved to NY and once I was experimenting with 3D, I taught him how to 3D model and we decided to just show our designs off and pretend as we made them since we didn’t have funds to manufacture.
In terms of skills and working together, it’s a balancing act. I’m more of a logistics/technical person and he’s more concept-driven. I’ll often be too ambitious and shoot for the moon, but he’ll scale it down to something more tangible but just as effective. He could drop something posthumously, but I’m ready to share it whenever. We’re both perfectionists so sometimes we’re too isolated in our own self-criticism and need to ask our friends for 3rd party opinions. Right now, we are strictly a 2-man army so we divide up the labor evenly. We often pass files back and forth, but more recently he’s been more focused on producing amazing products and I’ve been learning new 3D tricks to upgrade our content.
You have shared a lot of amazing sketches and doodles on your Instagram- tell me more about this one.
Thank you! It always warms my heart when people find out I draw because it’s the earliest form of communication I had when I first immigrated here. That one specifically, I did in Shibuya with my friend Yui. We were challenging ourselves to draw daily while on vacation and I was obsessed with Choro-Q, the tiny collectible car toys. The proportions are so cute, and the OZONE logo was the name of the collective Dom and I were a part of in San Jose before I left for New York.
What is something you learned about yourself in 2019? What were some of your favorite projects you worked on this year?
Hmm, I learned that it’s okay to not post every week, even every month. I really wanted to be an artist that could post something super finished and feel a personal validation that wasn’t so tangled in social media validation or the timing. I think as I was going in late 2018 and really pushing myself to learn more 3D, I became really insecure about the concept of growth. Do we all experience growth until we plateau? Is there a way to un-grow? Is there a way to grow after we plateau? I didn’t feel like the metrics of social media were lining up with what I believed was a normal artists’ output so I sort of quit trying to align myself with that.
I also learned it’s okay to be hurt and not do anything about it. Plenty of people hurt without intending to and seeking a solution like closure or cancellation can really be another journey in itself. I guess I’ve calmed down a lot since my younger years and I avoid fanning the flames.
What are your plans for 2020?
Develop more of the Happy99 universe. Make physical shoes. Release a comic. Create another runway in September. Explore my sustainable options for living and creating in New York City!
Digital Edits Courtesy of Nathalie Nguyen and Dominic Lopez.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.