Tran Nguyen

Tran Nguyen


Painter, Illustrator: Georgia

East from Atlanta, the I-20 is long. And plain. And kind of empty. The road stays as flat as it wants to. The grass on either side grows when it feels like growing. It’s just you, your car, and whatever radio stations you can find. Maybe not the best time for daydreaming with a lonely lyric. But it’s a straight ride, and there aren’t many other cars around on a weekday afternoon. And besides, you can almost hear the blues out here.

People, we dream most all the time.
Ever since my baby left me I don't do a doggone thing but dream.
Yeah, these nightmares are killing me now.
You know I lay down dreaming;
God knows I wake up crying.

     About an hour into the drive I started to think: what makes John Lee Hooker sing a blues lyric like that is also what makes Tran Nguyen paint what she does. About two hours into the drive I reached Augusta. And Tran.

“Most of my work is a little in the sad area rather than optimistic, but I’d like my viewers to see more than that. Not just skin deep, but more of the concept rather than it only being negative.”

“I’m really into fantasy, surrealism. I think those are my favorite illustration areas. The thing with my work is that I’m not trying to target just fantasy, or just surrealism. I’m trying to do more with the therapeutic aspect of art. Trying. For people who are dealing with adversity or tough times.”

     What do you feel when you look at Tran’s work? Whatever it is, you want to start searching right away. Forlorn faces. Lost expressions. Shadows. Look at that soft, glowing light behind her. It pulls you right in. Her coat – it’s part of the background, part of the foreground, part of those mysterious blue waves falling from inside the umbrella. Do you want to get into it? Wrap yourself in this woman’s story? Maybe you’ve been there. Or maybe you are there.

     A combination of paint and colored pencil adds to the effect. Dreamlike. Mysterious. The whole thing is look-into-your-soul intense.

“At one point I was thinking about going back to school and taking some classes in psychology. I read this book called Art and Soul (by Bruce Moon), one of my favorite books, and it’s about art and psychology and art therapy. After I read that book I think that’s when I started focusing more on the therapeutic aspect of art.”

     So, just like that blues lyric, the purpose of Tran’s work isn’t to weigh us down with sadness. In fact, eventually it’s to pick us up. Think: in your deepest, most desperate moments that story is sometimes what you need – to realize you’re not the only person going through a particular situation. To know that someone else, whether they’re singing a lyric or in one of Tran’s paintings, is feeling the same way.

“I am really influenced with Gustav Klimt’s work and the importance of his shapes and symbols and decorative ornaments. There’s something about shapes that I find really appealing. Sometimes I’ll use them to help me out with the composition, or other times they’re more symbolic and they kind of represent a certain aspect or certain emotion I’m painting.”

     Those diamond shapes are bolder than you think, aren’t they? Some float above the scene, and others are set behind. One even allows a bird to perch on it. Things like this make me glad Tran chose art – as much of a risk as she feels it may have been. As a very young child she and her family moved to the US from Vietnam with practically nothing. Combine that with the inescapably high price of art school, and a culture back home where “artist” wasn’t (and still isn’t) a viable profession.

“In Vietnam, it’s still a developing country and over there you do not want to be an artist ‘cause you would be flat broke. It’s already hard making a living over there. You would probably starve – like, really starve – if you were an artist. So when I told my parents I wanted to pursue art they weren’t too happy, but of course they’re really kind and they’ve always supported me with every decision I’ve made. So, umm, I have to succeed. [laughs]”

     The reality is that art may not be the first thing on the mind of a developing nation. But the reality is also that art is an incredible vehicle for expressing what may be a growing voice. Speaking out with art. Positive energy is created and expression happens, and where art was once abandoned it eventually flourishes. And perhaps one day Tran’s work will be part of that motivational force.

     For now she’s happily out here in Georgia. But having completed art school, she’s no longer surrounded by such a creative community. Admittedly, it took some time before she found the right working energy again. But the inspiration does come, and it comes from sources inside and out.

“After a while it’s all about self-discipline; making yourself work, making yourself be inspired. A lot of it is also from emails I get from random people, like, ‘hey I just wanted to drop by and say I enjoy your work. It’s inspirational. It helped me with…’"

"You know, little anecdotes they add to the email. So those are really inspirational. They just motivate me to do more. People appreciate you, so that makes you want to appreciate your ability to help them out.”

     She really does seem at peace. And she’s enjoying how others truly value the therapeutic nature of her work. That’s almost all I could think about as we walked along the Savannah River, talking and laughing until the sun went down.

“You know that this painting you did touched someone so much and helped them. Like I said, I’ve had really caring parents and wonderful friends. They’ve always taken care of me, so I kind of want to give that impact to other people.”

     Tran has an incredible ability to turn her empathy into art. She paints so deeply and brilliantly for her young years. And she keeps challenging her ways of expression. I wonder about all that’s inside of her. It’s a tremendous thing to wonder about.

{september 2010}
(images c/o Tran Nguyen)