The art and craft of Nhat Tran 

The uppermost surface of Nhat Tran’s lacquer paintings is the end. What’s there is a kind of cartographical data that evidences a lengthy journey. Her abstract images and sculptures range from the geometric to more rounded, organic forms. These forms and vivid colors reward the viewer who gets close enough to the paintings to investigate the dimensionality of the surface, and witness it come alive with subtle shifts in color, transparency, light and texture. But, what is visible is also proof for what is not seen. Colors remain hidden and inlaid fragments remain buried in her paintings.

In creating these works, Tran doesn’t “paint” in a Western sense but creates urushi lacquer paintings, which employ techniques and materials that have been used in China and Southeast Asia for over 6000 years.

Tran carefully documents each step of her work, not only so that she knows what layers of colors exist in each painting, but so that she can record the locations of inclusions in the paintings, like duck egg-shells, mother of pearl, glass beads, extra firm tofu, gold and silver metal leaf, organic seeds and tree roots from Vietnam.

“Keeping a journal of my painting process has helped me a great deal in understanding the complexity of urushi. For example, urushi lacquer tends to react quite differently in different atmospheric conditions, and one needs to pay attention to them and adjust the technique accordingly,” Tran said.

Despite the fact that a record exists of how each painting was prepared, Tran works without a rigid idea of what the piece will become. In talking about her massive 27-piece project “On the Tips of Our Wings” for the new Indianapolis Airport Terminal, Tran described how her pieces come into being: “Each of the wings has its own destiny and yet has to play a certain role with the others. In other words, it is not enough to consider the individual outcome of one piece; the real test is in observing how it fares in the context of all surrounding pieces.”

To make the 27 pieces for this project Tran converted her studio into a kind of factory, a factory with one employee — herself. There she works on all of these pieces at once, a process she enjoys not only for the sake of having the chance to complete a major commission in Indianapolis, but also for the thrill of honing the craft of making urushi objects: “I believe that mastering techniques is the best way to turn them into a great vehicle for artistic expression. I much enjoy exploring and testing the medium in many different ways, and I have found that its possibilities are truly endless.”

When asked to discuss the difference between a work of ‘fine art’ and ‘decorative or craft art,’ Tran responded with clarity and purpose: “I strongly believe the difference of genres between decorative works of art and fine art is not as crucial as their quality. People would label a piece of art and understand it according to their knowledge background. I myself would appreciate a craftsman’s work over a careless execution of a fine art painting.”

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