In Phát Lê’s Studio

The floor in Phát Lê’s studio is covered with white plaster powder. His latest creation is inspired was by the booby traps Vietnam built near the shore lines of their oceans and rivers in order to the sink invading Chinese ships. Though unfinished, the piece already has intricate, compelling details. Down a short, narrow hallway with a tarp splattered in splotches of dried paint there is a small back room where another plaster piece sits patiently, waiting to be finished.

Lê holding Unit 1. Photo by Whitney Wernick

“Everyone kept telling me, ‘you’ve made a penis, you should make a vagina now,’” Lê says. The resemblance between the work in progress and the female reproductive organ is apparent, but Lê’s studio-mate, Chase Stafford, can’t see the resemblance at all. Tha­t doesn’t stop him from trying.

As a senior Studio Art major, Lê has devoted an immense amount of time to his artwork, often spending the night in his studio. His passion began at a young age, but he was unable to pursue art until he moved to the United States 17 because Vietnamese schools don’t offer art classes for their students. Additionally, art is highly restricted in Vietnam, making it difficult for artists to speak to the public through their work. Coming to the US allowed Lê to explore and develop his strong desire to create art.

“Being an artist is a selfless thing to do because it’s about sharing perspectives,” he says. “I want to tell a story, not just to communicate with my country but also to unify multiple perspectives. I think that’s why I want to be an artist.”

That is not to say that Lê hasn’t been inspired by Vietnam’s artwork. Growing up in Vietnam exposed him to traditional carving wood, which are known for having a simple form with a lot of detail. This is similar to Lê’s artistic style, as his pieces tend to emphasize simplistic forms contrasted with intricate details. Both of his unfinished pieces featured very basic shapes—the most notable being his booby-trap piece, which was composed of four large spikes held together by plaster webs.

“I think, in some cases, it [Vietnamese art] does inspire me but it’s also my roots,” Lê muses as we sit together in the Thaw Art History Center. “I have a very hard time making pieces that have clean, nice forms and shapes, because I just don’t function that way. My work is usually very messy, very organic and highly detailed.”


Photo by Whitney Wernick

Most of Lê’s creations are made out of plaster.

“Ironically,” Lê said while laughing, “I used to hate plaster. The first time I worked with it, I swore I’d never touch it again in my life.”

This changed when he realized that plaster could be used as a stronger type of paper mâché. The numerous possibilities plaster affords, along with its ability to look extremely delicate as it fortifies heavy objects, fascinates Lê. As a result, it’s become his favorite material to work with. Although his favorite plaster piece is back in Texas, he mentioned that it was the first piece to help him realize he didn’t have to make huge pieces in order to produce good art: “I made something simple and nice. Being able to hold it in my hand was just like, ‘Wow, I can actually make something clean. I can actually make something nice and uniform.’”

Detail of Unit 1

Photo by Whitney Wernick

Currently, Lê’s art is focused more on politics—many of his pieces tend to poke fun at society in a sarcastic or cynical way. Nonetheless, he finds freedom of expression to be very important. It troubles him that the Vietnamese people are unable to speak out if they have an issue. He is further troubled by the lack of imagination people display due to their investments in activities like Facebook and Television.

“I think a generation who isn’t creative, who doesn’t have perspective vision, who cannot see farther than what they know, is like having a generation of robots,” Lê says. “And without art I don’t think our society can possibly survive, to be honest.”

Ultimately, his art seeks to change that and inspire people to think outside the box so they can have more options to express themselves. “If I can raise some curiosity from art I feel like that’s all I need to do, because that will evoke an, ‘Huh,’” he says. “‘Maybe I can look at things from a different perspective.’ Maybe I can help people be a little happier. I want to activate a chain reaction somewhere.”