By Kendra Hovey
It’s Thursday afternoon and by the look of things, Phong Nguyen might think he is back in college. After all, there are pizza and video games and it’s not even six o’clock. But Nguyen, 25, is not in college. The Texas native graduated from CCAD in 2011 and soon after took his Illustration degree to a new job at Tencent Boston—where every other Thursday is Game Day. “We stop working when the food arrives,” explains Nguyen. Spouses and partners come, and the play can last all night “or whenever we tap out.”
Tencent is China’s largest and most-used internet portal—comparable to Google—and Tencent Boston (TCB) is one of its U.S. branches. At TCB, the focus is on game development, and Nguyen is a junior concept artist. “Basically,” he says, “whenever there is a question of ‘how will this look,’ concept artists provide the answer.” Getting to that answer is when Nguyen knows for sure he is not in college. “In school, I might have weeks to complete an assignment. Here at work, from thumbnails, sketches, semi-final, to final can be as short as a day.”
Most days now at Tencent Nguyen works on a Cintiq digital tablet, drawing on the pressure-sensitive screen with a stylus. When he is given a project, it comes with a code name and an “art bible.” Sometimes the creative direction in the art bible is specific—a Greek castle, say, circa 15th century, colors muted—and sometimes very loose, like the two words guiding his assignment for a project codenamed “Ice.” All Nguyen was given was “creepy cave”—so he created a dark, damp, eerie mood with lighting that allowed the action in the game to reflect off puddles and the damp roof of the cave.
Is it challenging? “Yes,” he says, “but I’ve learned that when you push yourself, you can do a lot you didn't think you were capable of.” The best part of his job—even better than Game Day—and the part he never loses sight of is this: “When it comes down to it, I'm being paid to draw and paint pictures.”
In a different city and a different industry, CCAD alum Kristen Macauley has also managed to marry art and career, and she is pretty pumped about it. At Haskell Jewels in New York, Macauley is the jewelry designer for the Robert Lee Morris line. “It’s been amazing,” she says. The 23-year-old Fine Arts major works directly with Morris, whose “wearable art” has been celebrated since the 1970s and can be found in the pages of Vogue and on the wrists of stars from Iman to the Olsen twins. (Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas is partial to his silver metallic cuffs.) Morris’s style is sculptural, conceptual, and organic. “He is an artist,” says Macauley, “and he inspires and motivates me every day.”
Macauley, just like Nguyen, is less than a year out of CCAD. For any graduate, that first year is often a time of finding one’s professional legs, yet both of these young artists seem to be in full stride. “In fact, it’s been crazy hectic,” says Macauley—especially in January, when the runway pieces had to be ready for Fashion Week, which is right on the heels of Market Week, when Haskell opens its doors and all its lines to buyers scoping out the newest designs.
Macauley no longer works on the fabrication end making the jewelry itself. Yet before samples are delivered to the studio, she knows exactly what each piece will look like. It’s a skill she owes to CCAD faculty member Kelly Malec-Kosak, an assistant professor in Fine Arts and the chair of Dimensional Studies. “She makes you really get your hand and mind wrapped around what the material is going to do,” says Macauley, who also appreciated her former professor’s emphasis on communication, even her “dreaded” writing assignments. “One thing CCAD does very well,” she says, “is to make you talk about your work, what it is about, and the story behind it.” Macauley believes this prepared her for the intensive interview process that got her in, first, at the large apparel and accessories company the Jones Group, and then later, in November, at Haskell.
Macauley also discovered that her degree from CCAD was a “wonderful attention grabber.” In the accessories side of the New York fashion world, most candidates come out of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Macauley’s interviewers assumed she did, too. “I was very proud to say, ‘No, I went to CCAD,’” she says. She feels that, as a result, there was more interest in her portfolio and her education.
CCAD also played a role in Nguyen finding his job. It was a CCAD alum who told him about the opportunity at Tencent Boston. Nguyen was a senior at the time and already building his concept art portfolio; he immediately began researching Tencent so he could tailor his portfolio to the company’s needs.
From Nguyen’s first day at CCAD, his plan was to work in entertainment. The industry is recession-proof, he explains, and “allows steady income without losing creativity.” His parents were supportive of his art degree, but to him the loans were scary. He’s glad to have found that he is able to handle them now.
Macauley’s family is, in her words, a “huge supporter of the arts.” Her father is an application architect for Rolls-Royce North America. Macauley had always expected that, like her father, she would do creative work within a commercial enterprise, but exactly what kind of work that would be didn’t come together until her senior year at CCAD. “That’s when I realized I wanted to combine my interests and find a way to deliver a fine arts message with a fashion and jewelry design look,” she recalls.
Now living in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Macauley likes to take advantage of the design scene in New York—going to events, conferences, and museums. Still, she does miss CCAD, especially the studio time. Her advice to current students: “Take full advantage, because when you leave, studio time is not cheap.” Nguyen especially appreciated the camaraderie of talented artists at CCAD, as well as the painting and figure drawing classes, and nights spent sketching and drinking bubble tea at Pochi’s. In Boston, he enjoys going to Newbury Street and Chinatown.
But both grads are well aware that they’re still getting to know their new cities. It’s no surprise; after all, it’s just the first year.
Click any thumbnail below to view images in larger, slideshow format. Nguyen and Macauley each provided images of of their work and offices. Thanks to Fernanda Medina of sydandpianyc.com for the 2011 photo of a Robert Lee Morris shop window in SoHo.