Whimsical Murals as an Avenue for Community: A Conversation with Denise Duong

October 6, 2021


A photograph of Denise Duong standing in an art studio. There are large figures painted on the white wall behind her and the room is lit by large windows on the right.

Denise Duong is a Vietnamese American artist whose artwork appears on the cover of the Autumn 2021 issue of World Literature Today. Her paintings, drawings, and murals tell stories of adventure—of hope and love and loss—with an eclectic cast of characters modeled after marionette puppets, and her work often features vibrant, eye-catching colors. A native Oklahoman, she embraces the state as her home. Her art is featured throughout Oklahoma and the wider United States, and internationally as well.

Alex Crayon: Your artwork [Something about the Darkness People Are Afraid Of (2018)] is featured on the cover of the Autumn 2021 issue of World Literature Today. Congratulations! What led you to pursue art?

Denise Duong: As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to make art for my life. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said “an artist.” Most adults saw that as just something kids just said as a dream, like “I wanna be a fairy when I grow up.” But, deep down, I knew, “They don’t believe me, but this is what I love and what I want to be.”

Crayon: Who would you consider to be the biggest influences on your artwork?

Duong: I enjoy the works of Giacometti, his sculptures and portraits, and I love the art of tribal cultures. Also, I like the multimedias of Rauschenberg, the modern cleverness of Banksy, and the multitude of stories and scenarios in Bosch’s triptychs.

Crayon: Your art is vibrant and whimsical, full of eccentric people portrayed with marionette-like features. Why did you adopt this particular style?

Duong: This style came about while I was living in Chicago and waiting for the train. I enjoy people-watching, and one day some of these people made their way into my work, transformed into the characters I continue to create. Their marionette figures are made by the maker—me.

Crayon: What attracted you to painting murals?

Duong: Murals are large canvases. I love painting large, so I love the challenges of murals. And I love how they are usually outside, how a lot of problem-solving is involved with that. When I finish, I get the sensation of having hiked for miles—even days—before finally making it back to civilization.

Crayon: Your murals appear throughout the United States and all over the world, but you haven’t forgotten your roots: you’ve painted many murals in your home state of Oklahoma. What does it mean to you to be Oklahoman? What does it mean for your art?

Duong: People are always shocked when they learn I’m from Oklahoma. I feel like I get to help outsiders know there’s more to Oklahoma than they generalize, than they think. I feel like growing up in Oklahoma helped many of us become, possibly, even more creative. At the time, we didn’t have internet or really know what was going on in other cities or states. What we did know was that we had to make things happen if we wanted them to happen. In our early twenties, Gabriel Friedman (my life and art partner) threw epic art parties in warehouses and wherever else we could find support for these kinds of artistic endeavors—and shenanigans. Today, I find the support in Oklahoma stronger than ever, and I hold that dear to my heart.

I get to help outsiders know there’s more to Oklahoma than they generalize, than they think

Crayon: I visited a couple of your murals in Oklahoma City, and they blew me away with their intricacy. They’re huge, but every detail seems to be in its certain, proper place. What is your process when creating your art?

Duong: For me, creating murals and painting on canvas have similar processes. I’m not sure if it’s the best way to approach the murals, but it’s working for me. When I work, I have an idea and a pretty rough sketch, usually, of what I plan on doing. And once I get started, the art morphs into its entirety as I add things as I go. But this makes it hard to have someone assist me in painting the bulk of these murals.

I feel murals make art accessible to everyone.

Crayon: What do you hope to accomplish—to inspire—with your artwork?

Duong: I feel murals make art accessible to everyone, and they can inspire or motivate people from all walks of life. To someone that says, “I don’t know anything about art,” I say: “You don’t have to know anything about art. You know what you like. You know how something makes you feel when you look at it.” This recognition may open up other avenues of interest in art. It’s incredible, the mood art can create beyond the bleh-ness of a boring building. It strikes something. Anything. And it’s definitely not nothing.

Crayon: What’s next for you?

Duong: I want to keep creating and soaking in every minute of this life we live, and I want to show my now nine-month-old daughter a life full of adventure, love, and passion.

September 2021

A former WLT intern, Alex Crayon is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Kansas.