Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The multitudes of Instagram artist Kaydence Le

A look inside the creative process and many lives of the artist, math major and international student from Vietnam
Courtesy of Kaydence Les Instagram
Courtesy of Kaydence Le’s Instagram

Wrapped in red and pink fabrics, a young woman stands in a dark stairwell. Amber light flirts with her black curls. Shadows burn her lipstick into the crimson of her traditional Vietnamese dress. Her expression is one of tranquility, as if she belongs only within this distilled moment — a magenta and scarlet flame frozen inside a photo.

This Instagram art — a captivating respite from the endless stream of “duck face” selfies and absurd memes — is captioned “Femme Yearning.” It stars Kaydence Le, a 20-year-old sophomore math major at the University of Massachusetts and an Instagram artist with over 1,500 followers.

When I first encountered Le in an Introduction to Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies lecture, I sensed she had an interesting story. Of about 40 students, most of them wearing sweatpants or jeans and hoodies, Le stuck out. She sat in the front row with round-rimmed scarlet glasses, mismatched earrings and white eyeliner around the inner edges of her brown eyes, as if tears had frozen into spikes of ice. I couldn’t help but think, “She seems cool.”

Le had recently arrived on campus after a 24-hour trip from her home in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she goes by the name Uyên. After spending most of high school at a boarding school in New Hampshire, she returned to Vietnam when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and spent two years there with her family.

Art has always been Le’s escape, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she started crafting elaborate photos, often with help from friends in Hanoi who form a casual collective of young artists. Le’s style collides with the group’s expertise in makeup, photography and editing in a storm of skill, imagination and, most importantly for Le, a sense of fun.

“I need to hang out with the person, get to know this person, and then I’ll make art with them,” Le said. “Making friends while you’re doing it, that’s the whole point of art. It brings communities together.”

At first, Le had to be coaxed into the spotlight. A friend, who happens to be the 2022 Sony Youth Photographer, told her, “‘Okay, now you got to pose for me, I’m behind the camera,’” Le recalled. Thus, her Instagram art began with an exasperated, “Fine.”

The poetry of Hanoi, a city that smells like the milk flowers curled over its streets, partly inspires Le’s art. Poets, artists and tourists glamourize Hanoi because of its lakes and rivers, and couples park their cars at Hoàn Kiếm lake to watch the sunset.

“People love to romanticize that s***,” Le said.

For the “Femme Yearning” photoshoot, Le’s friend, a talented makeup artist studying at the London College of Design & Fashion in Hanoi, smudged on pink eyeshadow and replaced Le’s eyebrows with thin arches split in half by ruby flowers. Their friend, another photographer, shot a few photos of Le in an older, aging cafe: a staple of Hanoi.

“We walk into this cafe just full on in makeup and we set up in the corner,” she told me. “They literally brought out a teapot and they put a candle underneath, I was like, ‘They know what we’re doing!”

Courtesy of Le’s Instagram

Next, they climbed up a dusty stairwell at the back of the cafe for a change of tone. Referring to her photographer friend, Le said, “He saw the bleached eyebrows and traditional clothing and immediately thought of Wong Kar-wai,” the prolific director, screenwriter and producer from Hong Kong, known for the saturated aesthetics of his films.

“You know how Tim Burton has a very gothic style, and Wes Anderson has very weird colors like a pink glaze over his entire film? So Wong Kar-wai has a very turquoise and orange glaze over his film, so we tried to do that,” Le recalled.

“The Wong Kar-wai aesthetic is very much like Asian Lana Del Rey — very smoking, yearning, you’re sad and your heart breaks all the time,” she explained. With her friend’s camera clicking as she leaned against the wall of the dark stairwell, a cigarette dangling from her limp hand, Le tells me she became a lady in ‘90s Indochina aching for a lost lover. “It was kind of like we disappeared into the narrative we were trying to tell.”

Other projects have budded from boredom and Le’s funny bone. “How about you just make me a pineapple?” Le once asked her makeup artist friend who was feeling burned out from her fashion classes. Le pulled on a skirt with a pineapple-shaped fabric flap and a shirt from her 9-year-old sister with the words “fruit party” written along the chest. She embroidered a “y” so the shirt read “fruity party,” she told me with a sly grin.

“We went downstairs in full makeup and the aunties in Vietnam were just looking at us shopping for two pineapples,” her head falls as she laughs. They glued the notoriously wacky stem of the pineapple on a headband for the cherry on top.

As with the pineapple shoot, Le’s art most often begins in her closet — a treasure chest of colorful gems stitched with stories. Her favorite hat — a fuzzy black beret — was a gift from her ex-boyfriend’s mom. Her favorite hair scarf is a tea cloth. “I just found it when I was getting a fork, and I took it,” she explained. What else is in her “little box of stuff?” Just a red hat that stands 6 inches above her head and is “giving Paddington Bear vibes,”  according to Le. And don’t forget the Toy Story alien hat Le and her roommate spotted in their high school’s costume department. “We did rock, paper, scissors for it, and I won,” she said.

A few of her 20 ties even have personalities.

“This is Braden,” Le tells me, holding a red tie with blue streaks and yellow polka-dots. “Braden is abstract. He’s at Tisch learning to direct indie movies; he smokes cigarettes. He’s like one of those that’s like, ‘I don’t need an Oscar.’”

The blue tie with lopsided buildings? He’s a “stoner doing architecture,” according to Le. The tie that looks like a pencil. “I like Jill the most. She would be into ceramics. This is what I would’ve done with the tie,” Le says.

Even when she is not creating art, Le wears colors like emerald, fuchsia and firetruck. During the pandemic, she ditched her all-black wardrobe. “I feel like the whole COVID era made people stop caring what people think for a moment,” she said. “Like the world is burning, what the hell.”

Although she doesn’t always like the attention which bites onto her bold clothes, she said her style signals who she really is. “I think it draws the right people to me,” Le said, peering down at her flowy indigo shirt that is actually a skirt. More specifically, it attracts the artists — both here and in Vietnam.

“Vietnam is a very small population, and the people who are into the same thing that I’m into is even smaller,” she said. “It’s like they’re in a cave and they’re just hiding and I’m just like ‘come out, come out’ with a little carrot toy.”

“I think dressing the way I do — it’s not like if I don’t dress well, my friends will leave me — but it’s like, they see my commitment to being creative and being artistic, and that’s the same thing that they want,” she said. “They want people around them to hold art to the same value that they do.”

Courtesy of Le’s Instagram

Her friends at UMass are no exception. “Fashion is really what I relied on to make friends freshman year,” Le explained. “People come up and compliment your outfit and then you would exchange Instagrams, and like each other’s posts and respond to each other’s stories and then, you’re having lunch.” According to Le, her style says “I’m one of you, I see you … I don’t have to do the networking; my clothes will do the networking for me.”

Le brought her style with her from Hanoi, but at UMass, math is her focus. She always carries an iClicker and calculator in her one remarkably ordinary accessory: a white and black Adidas backpack which she wears not for style, but out of principle.

“I just have this fear that when I’m old, I’ll be like this,” she shoots her right shoulder down in what can only be described as either a malfunctioning robot or a zombie dance move. “If I only take tote bags, I would have slanted shoulders.” Seeing her life as both an art project and a statistical analysis, she tells me she does not want to become the first statistic of this yet-to-be-discovered disease.

Although math devours most of Le’s day, art remains her anchor and her escape. When she is not hunched over her computer or notebook solving and calculating, she works at the Craft Center as the sewing coordinator, a job she took to carve out time for the artist in her daily life.

“One thing I promised my future self is: don’t just let art be a hobby,” Le told me. “Then you’ll be old and wrinkly and sad that you did not do art for your life.”

Le tries to clear space for the many parts of herself: Kaydence and Uyên; a UMass student and a Hanoian; an artist and a math major; the star of photoshoots and the girl who lets her loud clothes speak for her. The through line of it all, it seems, is her creativity.

For one of her favorite classes at UMass, Asian American Feminisms, Le edited a collection of photos of herself. But in one picture, there are two versions of Le: one faces the camera in a white tank top and rests her head on the shoulder of the second version who is wearing a white traditional Vietnamese dress. Despite Le being the only model in the picture, she named the piece “Community Building.”

“I feel like art is the basis of world building. You can envision a new way of living,” she said after showing me her project. “Like you look at something and it’s mundane as f**k, but then with art, you put it into a larger context and you see so much more of it.”

Aalianna Marietta can be reached at [email protected]

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    Demann BlaiseMay 17, 2023 at 12:20 pm

    She is so cool! I admire her art everyday.