Da Thao, aka D.T., tells her story with exceptional ease. Her answers to my questions are straightforward, without needless embellishments.
Perhaps I expose her modesty when she credits her high school self as a “B student” before sharing that she moved to Dorchester from Vietnam at age ten, unable to speak a single word of English.
“I learned [English] by watching I Dream of Jeannie,” D.T. said. “It’s an old show. I learned by having the captions on.”
Despite attending The John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, D.T. enjoyed studying history. As a teen, she claimed to lack a unique skill or passion. She simply followed her heart as opportunities to explore, big or small, arose.
D.T. is currently working her dream job as an in-house architect at MEDITECH, a medical software company that owns six buildings across Massachusetts.
Out of 3,500 employees, MEDITECH only appoints two architects to beautify their facilities. D.T. is one of them.
“There’s always renovation projects going on in any of our buildings,” she explained. “By the time we finish one, there’s another building that we focus on, and so on. As an in-house architect, I assist in creating construction drawings and overseeing the renovation.”
D.T.’s journey involves many lucky circumstances. It began when she first caught wind of Artists For Humanity (AFH) as a high school underclassman.
“Andrew Motta [then Director of Operations at AFH] came to a career fair at the O’Bryant High School,” she said. “I was going around and picking up different pamphlets.”
“I read about AFH, and it sounded really cool. It’s a nice program where they would pay you to make art. So I chose to give them a call to sign up to work part-time in the fall.”
When I asked about her prior art background, D.T answered with a laugh: “Every single high school kid needs money, so [I thought], this was a good program.”
She also enrolled in Balfour Academy. “It’s a six-week summer program at Northeastern University where teens learn more about math and English,” D.T. said. “Every Friday, they arranged field trips to beaches, movie theaters, and Six Flags.”
D.T. spent the majority of her free time at AFH — three hours a day, three days a week, for more than three years.
“Susan [Rodgerson], Damon [Butler], Rob [Gibbs], Carlo [Lewis], Jason [Talbot],” her voice trailed off.
"These guys were the original co-founders of AFH”—providing an unwavering commitment to D.T.’s growth and success.
She endearingly recalled the old warehouse that existed long before the EpiCenter.
“Back then, we were on the second and fifth floors of a warehouse on 288 A Street. It was really cold because there was no heat on the fifth floor, but it was alright,” she smiled.
It was more than that. D.T. described the AFH experience as having a “tremendously positive” impact on teens. “Everyone was supportive of each other. Nobody put each other down,” she emphasized.
AFH offered fun, excitement, and adventure. D.T. was one of ten teens invited to a sponsored trip to Paris to paint a mural and learn about French culture.
“It was my first time leaving the United States since emigrating from Vietnam,” she beamed.
However, her most precious memories take place right on A Street. She loved participating in Young Women Incorporated (YWI), a former AFH studio complete with fashion and ceramics.
“In YWI, we had seven or eight teens — girls only,” D.T. added. “We made designs for t-shirts and holiday cards. There were different tasks and missions. It was one of the best studios we had back then.”
“It was more personal. We talked a lot, in addition to doing work.”
“You make a lot of friends. The leader, Lauren [Adelman], invited us to her home, and we’d bring food. We did things outside of AFH that helped create a nice bonding experience.”
Later, D.T. transferred to the Painting Studio and joined the newly formed Architecture Studio. This move coincided with AFH’s announcement of the construction of the EpiCenter in 2002.
Soon, art-making in the cold warehouse on A Street would be a thing of the past.
“At that time, AFH was designing [a new] building. You know, the one you’re sitting in right now,” she quipped. “The other teens and I would make physical models of it just so we could show it off during Open Studios and gallery openings.”
With D.T.’s hands-on experience in the Architecture Studio, she compiled an impressive portfolio and applied to Northeastern University’s undergraduate architecture program.
A fateful encounter in 1999 also propelled this career.
“We had an AFH gallery opening at MEDITECH’s Canton Building,” she said. “I met my future boss 20 years ago when I was 17 years old. I asked her what she did, and she said, ‘I’m an architect.’”
After working in the architectural industry for eight years, D.T. decided to change jobs in 2017. An available position at MEDITECH was only a short commute from her residence in Norwood, so she seized the opportunity.
“When I sent over my cover letter and resumé to MEDITECH, I mentioned our meeting years ago at the AFH art gallery, and she remembered me.”
“This is my dream — to be an in-house architect for a big company. Because of that gallery opening, I had a personal connection with MEDITECH, and it paved the way to my current occupation.”
D.T.’s remarkable story comes full circle in her family life, too.
“After I left AFH, I continued to paint at home. I just wanted to make little paintings here and there. I did one for my daughter before she was born, to decorate her room.”
I wondered if her child inherited her artistic gene. “Actually, yes. She draws a lot!” D.T. happily replied.
Just like that, the creative legacy of AFH continues.
To learn more about Da Thao (D.T.) Nguyen (she/her), email her at email@example.com.