Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
In January 2019, Mike Nguyen rediscovered his childhood passion for painting. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Winnipeg 14 months later, Nguyen wanted to help others rediscover the joy of childhood activities. So, he created a treasure hunt.
Nguyen and his wife, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra violinist Takayo Noguchi, divide their time between Toronto and Winnipeg. He had created an art hunt event last summer in Toronto, hiding his work in the free little library boxes around the city, but he wasn’t sure anyone in Winnipeg would go for the idea.
He took to Twitter and Instagram (where he has 1,600 and 5,200 followers, respectively, under his @mikenguyenart handle), posting shots of the sports-themed work along with clues as to their whereabouts.
"Since I live in downtown Winnipeg and there aren’t any libraries around, we’d walk to The Forks almost every night with our dog, Cookie, and hide my art in different areas," he says.
To Nguyen’s surprise, people were excited by the treasure hunt, with families often coming out with their children to look for his hidden artworks.
Over the course of two weeks, Nguyen stashed 15 prints — including framed likenesses of Winnipeg Blue Bombers Adam Bighill and Andrew Harris, and Kawhi Leonard, formerly of the Toronto Raptors, wrapped in plastic in case of rain — around the area of The Forks for his fans to find. His last in Winnipeg was Leonard on June 22.
"The people that found them really got to know every nook and cranny of The Forks," he says. "I tried to use difficult hiding spots and give very obscure hints, but most of my art was found in 30 to 60 minutes."
Nguyen first put brush to paper when he was four years old. His love of the artform continued to grow through high school but was set aside in favour of pursuing the more practical field of graphic design at George Brown College in Toronto.
From 1999 to 2019, Nguyen didn’t paint at all.
"I finally picked up a paintbrush after a good friend convinced me to start painting again and have been doing so ever since," he says.
Nguyen specializes in watercolour paintings of sports figures. He loves the portability of the set-up for painting with watercolours and "how the colours shine through while being able to see the texture of the watercolour paper."
His interest in sports figures as his subject also comes from a childhood passion: hockey.
"I would play street hockey with my friends and paint my favourite hockey players for fun," he says. "So when I got back into art last year, I knew I would be painting sports players once again.
"I started off with hockey players, then transitioned to baseball and basketball players as the sports seasons changed. I eventually got requests to do football and soccer players, and just kept on expanding from there."
When Nguyen isn’t busy painting athletes and taking requests, he dabbles in landscapes, animals and musicians — including rapper Biggie Smalls, Queen’s Freddie Mercury and late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie — but always comes back to sports.
"I’ve received so much support since moving back to Winnipeg last winter," says Nguyen, who, shortly after hiding his last piece in Winnipeg returned to Toronto, where he’s waiting for the right time to return to the city.
"So as the weather got nicer, and as the situation with the pandemic looked brighter, I felt it would be a nice gesture to do something fun and lift some spirits."
He’s now making his way as a full-time artist with a studio in the Exchange District, but the impact of the pandemic inspired Nguyen to utilize social media and his website, MikeNguyenArt.com, to continue to create and share his work.
"I used to do local pickup and private viewings of my studio," he says, "but that will have to wait until it’s safe to do so again."
As Nguyen waits to reopen his studio, he keeps his fans on Instagram engaged by offering teasers and holding caption contests of his paintings that capture the essence of the athletes he knows and loves.
For 20 years, Nguyen didn’t realize how much he missed painting, but now that he has a paintbrush in his hand once more, he has no intention of ever giving it up again.
"Being an artist was my childhood dream and now I’m finally fulfilling my passion and enjoying my new career."
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