Making Art to Be Part of Something Bigger

Graphic design major Toan Vo ’21 loves to create—not for his own sake, but to start a conversation with his friends, family, and strangers, who all engage with his art through the lens of their own experiences. Throughout his time at Bethel, Vo has learned how to listen, express himself, and make the most of each day.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

May 06, 2021 | Noon

Toan Vo '21 will graduate with a degree in graphic design this May. Photo credit: Thanh Nguyen ‘21

Toan Vo '21 will graduate with a degree in graphic design this May. Photo credit: Thanh Nguyen ‘21

When he was in elementary school, Toan Vo ’21 volunteered to create name tags for his classmates. While he enjoyed the tactile feel of marker to paper, he loved capturing his friends’ personalities even more as he drew each letter of their names to match their natures and depict each unique friendship. As a young kid, he had already begun creating art not for his own sake, but for the conversation between artist and audience, between maker and receiver. 

Vo continued exploring this avenue of conversation throughout high school at Cretin-Derham Hall as he intentionally took fine arts classes like drawing, ceramics, painting, and photography. While he settled into his role as artist, he wanted to lift his practice from the physical world to a digital one and turn his own perception of art on its axis. Knowing that Vo was looking for a smaller college with a close-knit community, one of his teachers recommended that he consider attending Bethel, and Vo’s research into Bethel’s Department of Art and Design indicated that he could find a home within the community and continue to develop his craft.

A Study on Orbiting | Toan Vo '21

A Study on Orbiting | Toan Vo '21

As Vo prepares to graduate with his B.A. in Graphic Design this spring, he couldn’t be more grateful for how much he’s learned—both inside and outside the classroom. “The Bethel art and design faculty have been nothing but amazing,” Vo says. “They’re so supportive of my work and so encouraging of things that I was making, giving me honest and constructive feedback, and encouraging me to deconstruct what I was making and then to reconstruct again, which was very important to me.”

The first art class he took at Bethel was ART 103A: Drawing. Though he had intended to jump right in and work on a screen, he approached his work through a lens of discernment, which helped him determine if he wanted to pursue a life rooted in a creative practice if he would ultimately get burned out by it. Instead, he found himself falling back in love with the medium, especially as he began to see drawing itself as something beyond the page when he combined it with painting, photography, and digital work.

“I don't want to just make art and design for my own personal gratification. I want to make art that creates conversation with different individuals from different backgrounds. What do they see? What are they feeling? It starts to become something that's not about myself but obviously something bigger.”

— Toan Vo ’21

This initial class also helped him develop and articulate his personal creative practice—which he explains in three steps: process, visual execution, and delivery. According to Vo, the process shapes the piece from its inception to its execution, even as Vo continues his own journey as an artist determined to grow. The visual execution is deciding what makes the piece the most engaging or if the outcome matches his original intent. And delivery relates to the audience and how they can communicate with him as they interact with the piece. His practice starts as something cerebral and personal and expands to something tangible, communal, and ultimately bigger than himself—which, to Vo, is what his art is all about.

Floating | Toan Vo '21

Floating in Time | Toan Vo '21

For his senior exhibition, Vo is sharing a project close to his heart. Part of the piece is a digitally manipulated video on loop, showing archival photographs of his grandfather in the Vietnam War. The other part is a 24-by-36-inch book filled with his grandfather’s letters, handwritten in Vietnamese. Vo has woven numerous layers into his exhibition as he explores the emotional impact of letter writing through listening to and honoring his grandfather’s story. Vo did not translate or edit his grandfather’s letters, so these pages are messy with words scratched out or erased, messages completed within days, weeks, and months at a time. “My grandfather mentioned to me how within writing letters, there is a lot of sincerity and humanity compared to sending a text,” Vo says. He has been interviewing his grandfather—first and foremost to hear his story and appreciate everything he has been through. Vo’s secondary goal is to let these stories shape the piece not only for the Bethel audience, but for his grandfather as well, revealing how Vo has interpreted and portrayed their shared history. “The piece is definitely a personal piece where nothing is translated into English, everything is all Vietnamese,” says Vo, who was born in Vietnam. “It's all traditional, and it all feels like home.”

As Vo prepares to step into the world, degree in hand, his big picture dream is to work for a company like Nike that aligns with his beliefs and values as he helps design footwear or apparel—combining virtual design with something physical like product design. However, Vo clarifies that he perceives dreams and goals differently, and while he’ll pursue his dream job, his goal is to keep creating after graduation. “Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I think as long as I keep my hands busy, and my brain wired into learning and developing new ideas, then I think that's fulfilling,” Vo says. As Vo pursues a life fulfilling to his nature and creative talents, he acknowledges his interest in traveling, especially as he reflects on his study abroad opportunities at Bethel.

What’s the KAWS (Air Jordan 4 ‘Cool Grey’) | Toan Vo '21

What’s the KAWS (Air Jordan 4 ‘Cool Grey’) | Toan Vo '21

Vo started 2020 with his J-term trip to Haryana, India, with fellow art, design, and journalism students for Textura Magazine, where he learned how to be open, to create different things, and perhaps most importantly, to listen as others shared their stories. After the tripe, Vo prepared for a semester at Ewha University in South Korea, only to receive an email to return home the day he had arrived. Vo did his best to condense everything on his semester-long itinerary into three days and came back to a virtual instruction learning environment, disappointed but not bitter. “You can't really blame anyone for it or point your finger at anyone,” Vo says. “Because—through all that chaos going on within the world, with the pandemic—there's still some spark of beauty within all of it that you can always take from.” Throughout this last year, Vo has intentionally invested in his family and close relationships, determined to live out each day to the best of his abilities.

No matter what comes next—Vo plans to travel not to make up for what he missed in 2020, but to continue growing. He can’t wait to go back to Asia, specifically Korea, Japan, and eventually Vietnam to visit his family. He’s also excited to learn more about art across the continent. “And there's definitely a richness of art and design over in Asia,” Vo says. “There's painting, print-making, digital art. There's definitely a lot of noise over there that I want to just take in. I definitely want to soak that in because I want to get as much experience as possible.”
Dissolution | Toan Vo '21

Dissolution | Toan Vo '21

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