An Energy Signature of Love, 2022, gouache on paper, 14″ x 14″
Weaving Together Spiritual Knowledge and Visual Art
In 2001, Nguyen began to study energy psychology, plant spirit medicine, and Reiki while living in New York. Being both witness to and a part of the growing class divide that exploits the working class and marginalized people, Nguyen recalls, “I didn’t want to contribute to perpetuating that disease within society, and I wanted to instead do something that was healing towards that.”
When she began studying alternative healing modalities, Nguyen was unsure how the knowledge could be woven in with their creative interests. During a year of daily drawings, however, Nguyen found themselves experimenting with different ways to incorporate their spiritual knowledge into their art practice. They began asking their soul simple questions during these drawing sessions, which led to an unexpected but very welcome sense of liberation.
“All of a sudden, there was this [spiritual] realm of possibility that… could hold all of me…” says Nguyen.
It felt resonant; as a half-Jewish, queer, female-presenting person, Nguyen struggled to find a sense of belonging in art school, which, at the time, was dominated by white patriarchal standards that prioritized external angst as the only acceptable form of inspiration for art making. Nguyen found, instead, that her internal wisdom offered an expansive space with unbounded creative potential.
“[Suddenly, my art] could hold all of who I was. And it could contain so much more than I even have dreamt up yet…” she reflects. “I knew as soon as that popped open… this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.”
Michelle, Soul Pattern Portrait #64, 2019, watercolor and gouache on paper, 21″ x 30.5″
Shelly, Soul Pattern Portrait #52, 2017, gouache, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper, 14″ x 14″
Intuiting the Intricacies of Soul Pattern Portraiture
Nguyen’s daily soul-intuited drawings led them to making colorful, complex geometric paintings customized for individual people. For each piece of her Soul Pattern Portraits series, Nguyen consensually connects with another human’s soul, then consults with a team of spirit guides to paint a pattern unique to the energy of that person.
“When I’m doing a soul pattern portrait… [my] intention is to paint a portrait that embodies the qualities of that person’s soul… [and create] whatever is the most tonic and healing for [them] at the time,” she explains.
In order for the spirits and the client’s soul to communicate with her, Nguyen steps out of her ego and allows herself to be guided. The process first involves setting a very clear intention in writing; Nguyen then invites their team of spirit guides and the soul of the specific person into their energy field. From there, Nguyen asks an undetermined number of yes and no questions.
After nearly a decade of working in this manner, Nguyen has developed an intricate matrix of questions from which she is able to sense answers from her soul, guides, and client’s soul. The process relies on both external energy muscle testing and internal energetic pulses.
“[The matrix includes] more than 300 possible [prompts]… [and] some of the matrix options have come out from conversation and community,” says Nguyen. “There’s sort of a preliminary set of questions that I [ask] about material and about the… overall format of the pattern.”
“Is it going to be symmetrical? Is it radially symmetrical or bilaterally symmetrical? Are there random things within it? Is it more of a collection of forms? Are there any representational elements?” she asks, “That’s rare, but sometimes they happen.”
Vanessa, Soul Pattern Portrait #82, 2021, gouache, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper, 12″ x 12″
Although Nguyen has a regular team of spirits she knows by name and collaborates with frequently, she is not limited to working with any one set of devas, or spirits of nature. Pan, frequently seen in popular media as a part-human, part-goat god, is actually an energetic consciousness that Nguyen works with closely. In her workflow, Pan is an energy Nguyen connects to first; Pan is then able to connect her to any additional nature spirits that she may need to collaborate with.
Once Nguyen is connected to different guides, their answers to her yes-no questions come through her energy field, but her conscious mind and intuition are also involved in the process. Through a number of cues, she is able to distinguish responses to her questions.
“If I pick up the paint… there’s a physical sensation I get when it’s a ‘no’… the paint feel[s] slippery,” says Nguyen. “[Sometimes], when I pick up a paint tube… my hand wants to hold [onto] it,” which indicates a ‘yes’.
Approaching her artmaking in this manner has given Nguyen access to a realm of her own deepest truth. As much as the portraits serve as healing for those who commission her art, this practice also acts as a medicine for her own healing.
Nguyen’s relationship to spirits and energies extends beyond their studio space. They describe how nature beings like Mount Tahoma (commonly known by its colonized name of Mount Rainier), the Red Alder tree, and the lake, x̌ačuʔ, are entities she goes to for guidance when she is in need of solace or comfort. She often finds symbolism through ordinary occurrences; patterns of clouds in the sky, waves on the water, or sticks and stones on the path become affirming messages and signs from the spirits she is in relation to.
Red Alder Energy Signature, 2022, gouache with Red Alder flower essence on paper, 8″ x 8″
Tahoma Energy Signature, 2022, gouache on paper, 12″ x 12″
Creating Medicinal Tools for the Collective
Nguyen also creates templates for community and environmental healing, honoring those who have passed, and social justice issues. They come in the form of energy signature patterns, which can be embodiments of plants or nature beings and are designed to restore harmony to spaces that have been disrupted by humans.
“[Soul] pattern portraits are so complex and… wouldn’t translate graphically to multiple situations… [so] I wanted to… make these patterns that had big healing purposes, [and were] accessible to many more people,” explains Nguyen.
Nguyen shares that in order to translate these energy signature patterns to a variety of wide-reaching tools, she chooses to work in simpler color palettes which are easier to translate into digital or printed mediums. Nguyen then prints the patterns onto textiles such as t-shirts and table cloths, makes them into stickers, transforms them into large-scale murals, or digitally overlays them onto photographs in a series called Photo Interventions.
Within the photo interventions series, Nguyen has translated the energy signature pattern for water onto many bodies of water in need of deep healing. The patterns were intended to return water to its original harmonious state. They have placed it over waterways that are close to their home, such as the Lower Duwamish Waterway and Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, as well as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. A healing pattern placed atop the Oceti Sakowin Camp at the Dakota Access Pipeline provided a blessing of gratitude and power for the Water Protectors.
Nguyen has also created a pattern for healing forced family separations, placed on images related to the slave trade from West Africa. The pattern serves as a tonic for the ancestors and descendants of those affected by the violence of separations — but Nguyen also says that its medicinal properties have extended to those seeking to heal from family separation from divorce or foster care.
Healing Pattern for Water over Owamniyomni / Gichi-gakaabikaa / St. Anthony’s Falls, 2022, Photo intervention, digitally edited original watercolor over stock photo, 22.5″ x 40″
Building and Healing Community in Bellevue over Bellevue Skyline, 2021, photo intervention, digitally edited original installation drawing over stock photo, 12″ x 18″
Nguyen often returns to the question, “What is the gift and the offering that [I] want to give to the community?”
The artist’s publicly-accessible work also includes murals using clay and porcelain slip. They describe how working in this earth-based impermanent medium allows for people walking over the murals to pick up parts of the painting and carry that prayer of healing, love, and gratitude with them wherever they go.
“I think of those outdoor pieces in clay slip as outdoor temporary offerings — like they’re a kind of a gift to the place and the people of that place,” says Nguyen.
In the future, they look forward to having more of their work in the public sphere, where the patterns can have a daily presence in people’s lives, and their patterns’ healing properties can reach a wider audience. Nguyen is also excited to see her practice evolve to integrate pattern-making based off of a particular group’s intentions.
“There’s this depth that comes through when I’m collaborating with my soul…” says Nguyen. “I’m always just awed by this deeper sense of harmony, and balance and beauty and resonance that was able to come through because it’s something that I never would have conceived of [on my own].”
Leah Nguyen performs a public removal ritual of Building and Healing Community in Bellevue, at Bellevue Arts Museum; work part of Daily Special, curated by Ellen Ito for Bellwether Art Festival (Credit: Brita Fisher, 2019)
Community Vision–Bennett, Colorado, 2022, detail of ground mural 7′ x 35′, exterior floor paint on concrete.
Leah Nguyen celebrating the completion of Community Vision–Bennett,Colorado, wearing a t-shirt silk screened with their “Supporting Us Through Disease” pattern. (Credit: Amy Smith)