Veronica Pham is passionate about sustainability in both her art and daily life. Born and raised in Bridgeport, Chicago, her family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota when she was a teenager. Pham recalls drawing and painting for hours on end since she was three years old. She graduated from the University of Illinois in 2015 with a BFA in Painting. After completing her degree, Pham moved back to Minnesota and married Robbie Steffen. She currently resides in Champaign, where she is Studio Manager of Fresh Press Paper.
Her connection with Fresh Press Paper began when she reconnected with Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Eric Benson, the co-founder of the local student-run paper making studio, at Mistletoe Market in 2017. Learning about the practice of sustainable paper making jumpstarted Pham’s newfound passion for illustration. Pham was excited to create work on a material that was both sustainable and beautiful. Growing up, Pham’s parents, immigrants from China and Vietnam, were focused on working and providing for their family. They did not have the high level of urgency and awareness about environmental issues that Pham now possesses. During college, Pham was always curious about environmental studies but did not have enough time to pursue the minor. Fortunately, Pham is currently practicing sustainable living.
Pham and her husband implement a variety of techniques that allow them to live a sustainable lifestyle. They bike to work, collect rainwater to reuse in their garden, compost food waste, and predominantly cook over a fire, instead of using gas. Additionally, they own reusable produce bags and use Bee’s Wrap for leftovers. They are also in the process of repurposing a used school bus into a tiny home. In 2017, Pham and Steffen purchased the used school bus, with 100,000 miles on it, in Kankakee for around $4,000. The couple wants to be able to live a life that is “true to who we are.” This includes cultivating sustainability, being off-grid, and refusing to be strapped down to a mortgage, debt, corporate job, and whatever else society has deemed necessary. The bus will allow them to live more freely and be able to travel frequently. Pham and Steffen plan to incorporate the use of solar panels within the bus structure, use vegetable oil instead of diesel fuel, and continue composting in their future lifestyle to maintain eco-friendliness.
Pham converted to a sustainable art practice to maintain her values. The first step was to eliminate the use of polyurethane, which takes a long time to decompose. Subsequently, Pham switched from using acrylics and oil paint to water colors, which are more environmentally safe. All the paper Pham illustrates on is hand made by her. Her favorite materials to make paper out of include rye, recycled cotton, and denim. Rye creates a darker and more earthy color. Denim produces a wide variety of blues that are fun to work with. Pham appreciates how all types of fibers turn out very differently and how each sheet she pulls has a unique look. At the end of the current growing season, Pham plans to use the inedible parts of her garden, such as the red stem and green leaves of radishes, to make paper. She also would like to experiment more with the invasive weeds in the Midwest in her future projects.
Pham advises other artists to question their own practice and reflect upon how the materials they use will impact the environment. She encourages asking “what else can I do in my work that can contribute to a more sustainable practice?”. Even starting with something simple in daily life, such as eliminating the use of plastic bags, can help. Artists can also experiment with making their own supplies, such as pigments and paints. What attracted Pham to papermaking was using materials that can decompose and benefit the soil, as opposed to mindlessly buying substances that she would consume and throw away. It also allowed Pham to use the canvas itself as part of the artwork.
Pham’s main recurring theme in her artwork is landscapes. While creating, Pham reflects on how humanity and the earth are interconnected. She often depicts land formations, rocks, and prairie. To add quirkiness and lightness to the heavy topic of climate change, Pham incorporates human forms within her pieces. Pham hopes that when her audience sees the work they will notice the material itself, containing a wide variety of fibers and textures. Pham hopes that people will question what the paper is made of, inspiring them to reflect upon their own interaction with nature and the footprint they leave on this Earth.
When quarantine began, Pham and her husband were not sure what to expect. Thankfully, Pham readjust to working from a home studio and using paper she has made from this past year. Moreover, during this time Pham hosted two virtual fundraisers on social media. The first was a set of three digital illustrations, which Pham sold online and donated the proceeds to the World Health Organization. The second fundraiser, Black Lives Matter paper cut stamps, allowed Pham to raise over $700 for Reclaim the Block, an organization based in Minneapolis working towards defunding the police. After what happened with George Floyd, Pham wanted to help contribute to her community. Although, Pham has donated in the past, she has never used her artwork in a way where she can exchange it for funds to contribute to a movement she supports. Pham “[gave] a part of a skill she is good at to other people”. This experience made Pham rethink how she can use her art to help social change and she plans to do it again.
Pham maintains her art making practice and sustainable lifestyle to help the environment in any way she can and hopes that her story will inspire others to follow suit. Pham believes that if you care deeply about making environmental or social change you should not wait to act. A little goes a long way. You can always start within your own studio or community. Once Fresh Press Paper reopens, make sure to visit for a paper making workshop.