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Dó-ing the work of heritage preservation: MFA student Veronica Pham spotlights Vietnamese papermaking

An Asian American woman with short black hair wears an apron and looks down at a table with freshly made blue and black ombre paper.

From completing fieldwork in Vietnam to presenting to peers at an international conference in Prague — Veronica Pham has had an exciting year. She recently attended the Past and Present – Built and Social conference hosted by Architecture, Media, Politics, Society (AMPS). The conference asked attendees to be curious about what “heritage” means and to consider how globalization threatens buildings, environments, artwork, craft and more.

An Asian American woman in a bright yellow sweater smiles while sitting in a design studio.
Veronica Pham is a MFA in Design Studies student at the School of Human Ecology.

The conference was a full-circle moment for Veronica. In summer 2022, she learned how to make — 800-year-old traditional, handmade Vietnamese paper — from papermakers across villages throughout Vietnam. Little did Veronica know that she would be presenting on the very subject less than a year later.

As she enters her final year in the Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) in Design Studies program at the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology, Veronica reflects on the conference and the many opportunities she has experienced:

What was the main focus of your presentation at the Past and Present – Built and Social conference?

I presented on traditional papermaking in Vietnam and talked about the history of this craft that is quickly disappearing because of the rise of automation and industrialization. Even though papermaking in Vietnam is at least an 800-year-old craft, you don’t see a lot of papermaking anymore.

I discussed the several different ethnic minority groups that still practice traditional papermaking and the influence that traditional papermaking has had in Vietnam, as well as the history of what has happened to cause its displacement. My goal was that peers attending the conference would hear my presentation and begin to recognize and celebrate this lost craft.

Three people sit in a conference room. They smile at each other while in conversation.
Veronica Pham (far right) participates in a conversation at the Past and Present – Built and Social conference in Prague.

What stuck with you the most from the conference?

There was a presentation about questioning what makes a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That question made me wonder about the qualification process of these sites. For example, traditional papermaking in Vietnam is not branded or protected by UNESCO, but Washi paper in Japan and Xuan paper in China are. Who has the power to signify that a specific tradition or craft is something that we should culturally preserve?

What draws you to Vietnamese papermaking?

I feel like papermaking found me. My fieldwork and interest in traditional paper ties back to my own cultural identity. As a child I was straddling different types of cultures. I’m Chinese, Vietnamese and American. My dad was a refugee from Vietnam, but he never talked about his time in Vietnam. And so in some ways, I’m finding these connections between the history of papermaking and then the history of my own culture and heritage.

Freshly made, thin pieces of blue-gradient paper lay flat on a table.
Veronica Pham learned how to make — 800-year-old traditional, handmade Vietnamese paper — from papermakers across villages throughout Vietnam.

Why is knowing the source of materials in your work important to you?

When creating, I always question where my materials are coming from and what kind of impact it has on our environment. Looking at my work in the long term, I want to know if it will be sustainable. Shortly after I graduated with my BFA, I came across papermaking. I fell in love with the process. It spoke to me because I was using agricultural waste to make the paper, so I knew exactly where the materials were coming from.

What about papermaking keeps you coming back to it? What significance does it hold?

Paper is an ubiquitous object that we use every day, but it has so much significance and weight as a medium and as an object. It’s been a carrier of history, reinvention, stories and culture that have spread out into the world. Without paper, we wouldn’t have so much of the history and the culture that we’ve come to embrace.

A wall is covered with rectangular pieces of paper varying in shades of white and beige. Text that reads "Veronica Pham" is printed on the wall among the paper.
Veronica Pham is in the beginning stages of putting together a body of work for the MFA thesis exhibition that will open in March 2024.

What are you looking forward to in your final year of the MFA program?

The MFA thesis exhibition will open in March 2024, and I’m working on creating a body of work that will be on display. My work will reflect how paper is a vessel for holding stories and information. I’m looking forward to growing this concept and the broader understanding of how paper is used as a way to tell a story that’s both spiritual and mundane, but also significant to memory, history, time and place.

What advice do you have for prospective and/or current MFA students?

Attend events like a conference that take you out of your comfort zone. I learned about the Prague conference from my advisor Mary Hark. She encouraged me to apply, and I’m grateful that she supported me. Normally I’d participate in artist residencies, and this conference was much broader with so many interesting people. I’ve made some friends and networked with folks who might be future collaborators!

Also, take advantage of the generous funding available at Human Ecology and UW–Madison to attend these conferences or to complete fieldwork. I received the MFA Project Award that helped cover expenses to travel and attend the conference in Prague. It’s really unheard of to receive this much funding every semester, and it shows how truly invested the school is in its students.

An Asian American woman with short, black hair poses and smiles on a street in Prague with pastel-colored buildings.
Veronica Pham enjoyed exploring the colorful streets of Prague. She received the MFA Project Award that helped cover travel and conference expenses.

Veronica was selected for the MFA Project Award and received funding to support her dissertation project and participation in the Past and Present – Built and Social conference. Funds for this award come from the Viola Baker Trust.