Some wear their hearts on their sleeves, but Lexi Danh wears hers on her fingernails.
Her heart is one filled with a love for art. “The universe is a work of art to me,” she said, and she sees every fingernail and toenail as a tiny canvas that can display creativity.
“I love all forms of art,” she said. “If you gave me clay, I would work with it. If you gave me sand, I would find a way to create pictures out of it. If you gave me dry dead leaves, I could come up with ideas to create a picture.”
Danh says creating nail art is just like other forms of art. “With finger- and toenails, the only difference is that the artist is using a smaller material as a canvas,” she said. “I basically paint what I would paint on canvases, only on fingernails and toenails. … I paint sunsets on canvases, I also paint sunsets on the fake nails I use.”
Danh came to Rochester in 1980. She and her family escaped Vietnam in 1979 when she was about 4 years old.
“We were rescued by the Malaysian government and stayed in refugee camps there, and were then sponsored by a Catholic family and church arriving in Rochester,” she said.
Danh graduated from John Marshall High School. After that, she lived for some extended stretches in Orange County, California, where she raised a daughter as a single mother. She moved back to Rochester in 2019.
When she was 22, with a daughter on the way, she needed to find a way to support herself.
“I knew my current job was not enough to raise my daughter on my own,” she said. “The nail business was booming, and I was told it was good money.” She completed training and became a licensed manicurist when she was 23.
Though she enjoys the creativity involved in giving manicures, she disliked the working conditions at many salons and describes the business as very competitive.
“Doing nails is hard on the body, as it is very physical,” she said. “Salon owners expect you to be very fast.”
She also says that the dust involved when removing acrylic nail polish, even wearing a mask, was damaging to her health. She now has asthma. So today, Danh creates her tiny masterpieces with less harmful products like gel and isn’t working at a salon, though she still loves creating nail art.
Kim Senst, one of Danh’s clients, sought Danh out for a pedicure based on her daughter’s positive recommendation. She describes Danh as creative and outgoing. “I didn’t know about colors,” Senst said. “She picked the most beautiful pink out. It was amazing.”
This past December, Danh transformed Senst’s big toenails to look like gift packages with blue and white ribbons on a red background.
“I got so many compliments,” Senst said. Senst said she didn’t want to cover up her nail art with socks and shoes.
“You can trust her,” she said. “Say, ‘Do what you think,’ and she’ll create something beautiful on your nails.”
The art Danh creates on nails includes everything from palm trees to butterflies. Her designs also feature abstract work like silver starbursts over a glossy midnight background or angled purple stripes accented with sparkles. One design she made includes colors ranging from orange to sparkling red layered in overlapping squares of various sizes like a Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass window design.
Danh’s nail art is also sometimes 3-D. “One day I was bored and decided I would use acrylic and sculpted a little bunny sitting on my nail bed,” she says. She’s also proud of a technique she developed to make a marbled swirling design on nails.
While Danh says she loves showing off her tiny creations, she humbly says that there are other nail technicians who are more skilled.
When Danh creates her nail art, besides typical nail polish brushes she uses a wide array of other tools including items like dental floss, miniature screws, wax paper, and toothpicks. She also sometimes accents her designs with Swarovski crystals, foil, gems, and dry flowers. In addition to nail polish and gel, she sometimes paints with acrylic paint, markers, and various pens.
The process of creating tiny works of art on nails has its own unique set of problems.
“Doing 10 fingers is not easy,” Danh said. “Especially making them all look the same or ‘shrinking’ the image on smaller nail beds such as the pinky fingernail bed.
“There are lots of things to consider that clients don’t think about when it comes to me creating designs for them,” she said.
The way Danh sees it, creating nail art is transformative. “A person getting their nails done always makes them feel cleaner or sexier. They feel more confident. … They feel more secure. It shows their character. It takes out the dullness within them, and it takes them outside of their box, stripping themselves of their conservative nature.”
John Sievers is a Rochester freelance writer.