By Noma Faingold
While Vu Mai was growing up, everybody who came across him could see that he had artistic talent. So it is not surprising the 35 year old has become a successful artist in the gaming/animation industry and pursues his passion for plein air painting every chance he gets. But at age 17, he almost took a radical detour.
After arriving in San Jose from Vietnam at age 9, his family soon moved to Milpitas. He drew a lot in his spare time and took classes at school. Teachers encouraged him.
“They told me to keep going,” Mai said. “I got a lot of compliments from my classmates. They wanted me to draw for them.”
Mai was the only one in the family who had creative leanings, yet his working-class parents were supportive.
“They knew I liked doing it and they wanted me to be happy,” he said.
When he was 17, not long after Sept. 11, 2011 Mai, announced he was enlisting in the military.
“The recruiter came to the house. I had a big fight with my parents,” he said. Mai’s father, Long Mai, had a sobering talk with his son about having to fight for South Vietnam and being locked up in a prison camp for six years while he was in his 20s.
“I didn’t fully understand what he went through,” said Mai. “But I didn’t want to hurt him.”
His father convinced Mai to go to college for two years and then reevaluate.
“I’m glad I listened to him. Once I entered the arts program (at San Jose State University [SJSU]), I got sucked in,” said Mai. “I’m glad I didn’t go into the army because I have some friends who went. When they came back, they had to start over in their late 20s. I didn’t have to do that.“
Mai immersed himself in the competitive SJSU program from 2003 to 2010. He stayed a long time, not just to earn a bachelor of arts (BA) degree in fine arts for animation and Illustration, but to boost his portfolio, a common practice for those on the same career path.
“It took seven years to build my portfolio and gain the confidence to go out there,” he said. “It was more substantial than getting a BA. In the Bay Area with Pixar and gaming companies, that’s what I had to do. I had a target and I zeroed in on it.”
His first job was with Electronic Arts (EA). Mai then worked for several startups before landing his current position at Palo Alto-based Machine Zone (MZ) a little more than a year ago.
He moved to San Francisco’s Outer Sunset in 2015, where his soon-to-be wife, Nancy Pho, lived.
“I wanted to move to San Francisco, mainly because of the liveliness and diversity,” he said. “There’s a lot of things to do here.”
Mai’s professional work is collaborative, specific and detailed. He draws on a computer. The look and feel must be consistent. Like a being on a film crew, he is usually executing someone else’s vision.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Pho said. “Last week he told me that he loves drawing a background. Well, the kind of background he does is pretty elaborate.”
With his personal paintings, Mai prefers the opposite approach. He loves nothing more than going outside and creating plein air paintings. He is partial to the outdoors and nature, but his subjects are often Sunset District landscapes, including simple stucco home exteriors. His style has been evolving to show less detail, which offers him more freedom.
“I can do what I want. I do what makes me happy. No one is weighing in on what I do creatively,” he said.
Mai’s influences include Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
“I’m crazy for impressionists,” he said. In 2018 he took a class in Italy, which has led to a more ambiguous style.
“I don’t want to over-communicate. I just want to hint at it. I like this direction. It may not be the most popular. A lot of people want something recognizable. I’m going toward the moody, the atmospheric. I don’t want to paint postcards. I like giving some alley in the Sunset some attention and things that are overlooked.
“I want the viewer to fill in the gaps,” he added.
He admits he doesn’t sell a lot of his paintings, even modestly calling his plein air outings a weekend hobby. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to take his artistry there. “I want to be able to survive just by doing fine art, where I can open up a studio and sell my art,” Mai said. “That’s the dream.”
For more information about Vu Mai and his artwork, visit: http://www.vumaiart.com.