Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open. My name is Mike Sakasegawa. For this first episode, I’m very excited to share with you a conversation I had with artist Trinh Mai. Now, I first met Trinh and saw her work last year at an open studio tour of The Artist Odyssey studios, and I was immediately drawn to it. It was just so full of love, compassion, just genuine emotion, and I was completely blown away. Trinh’s art incorporates painting, drawing, sculpture, even photography, and she uses different media and combinations of media to look at—to reimagine, as she puts it—aspects of her life, her relationships, her family history, in a way that is both highly personal but communicates something universal, something that certainly I found resonant. So I was thrilled to be able to sit down and talk with her, and in just a minute we’ll hear that.
First thing, though, I wanted to just take a quick moment to introduce myself and the show. I’m a photographer and writer based in San Diego, California, and what this show is all about is, well, what I’ve found is that the most interesting conversations I ever have are with artists. And, more than just being interesting, talking to artists about their work, about their perspective, how they think about the world, it’s really helpful in being able to put their work into context. I think that for a lot of people, art can have this sort of aura of impenetrability, like it’s something that’s just too hard to understand, and that’s a shame because it ends up putting people off. But I don’t think it has to be that way, that sometimes all you need is just a little bit of a way in, and then a whole new world can open up to you. At least, that’s how it’s been for me, and so I hope by sharing these conversations with you, maybe you’ll find your way in as well.
Now, some of you might be wondering about the title of the show, “Keep the Channel Open,” and this comes from a passage I ran across a while back, something that for me was really comforting. See, like a lot of artists, I can get a little down on my work, feeling like it’s not getting anywhere, especially when the rejection letters are piling up. And I was in the middle of one of those down times when I found this bit from a book called Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes de Mille. So Agnes de Mille was a famous choreographer starting back in the early 40’s, she choreographed the ballet Rodeo—the Aaron Copland ballet—and also, early on, the original production of Oklahoma! And Martha Graham was just a giant in the world of dance, also a dancer and choreographer; a lot of people considered her to be “the Picasso of Dance” for her influence in developing modern dance. Anyway, the quote goes like this:
The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have a peculiar and unusual gift, and you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”
“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
“No artist is pleased.”
“But then is there no satisfaction?”
“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Alright, so there it is. Keep the channel open. not always the easiest thing to do, especially for me, but, just remember it. Keep the channel open.
All right, so let’s get to my talk with Trinh Mai. Just so you know, we reference a few different bodies of work in the conversation, particularly two of them. One is a series of sculptures entitled “Bone of My Bone” from 2014, which, I’ll just read the statement from her website here:
This spring has been a time of healing and growth, and while we fought alongside my beloved friend, Kelly, during her battle with cancer, I too, found myself healing beside her. Inspired by the tremendous love and support shrouded upon her by the community, I was reminded of our need to heal, and the importance in healing together.
These “bones” have been crafted with fragments of tree branches and found string which I have collected during my walks in nature, the place where I most often find my own healing. The strings bind the broken bones, looking to mend that which has been fractured by our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual struggles.
And then the other body of work that we mentioned a few times was an installation called “Quiet,” from last year, 2015. This was a series of ink transfers on white sashes—portraits—and I’ll read part of the statement for that work as well:
One of the funeral rituals in Vietnamese tradition is for the family members to wear white sashes upon their heads to signify their relationship to the departed. I have recreated these sashes to honor the lives of our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, daughters and sons, who were lost during the war. This piece was originally inspired by a collection of letters that I discovered at UCI Libraries Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center, letters that were written by family members, pleading for help to find their loved ones who went missing during the escape. Each portrait is raised up in respect for those who did not survive to see the new shores, and upon them, I have typed excerpts from these letters as well as my own musings to them.
You can find galleries of both of those bodies of work on her website, trinhmai.com, and I’ll include links to both of those in the show notes. Now, here’s my conversation with Trinh Mai.
Mike Sakasegawa: Alright. So I was really excited to talk to you. So we met at one of the Artist Odyssey open studio things. When was that, last year some time?
Trinh Mai: Yeah, about a year ago.
MS: Yeah, something like that.
TM: I lose track of time. [laughs]
MS: Yeah, me too.
TM: Yeah, about a year ago, maybe.
MS: One of the things that really struck me when I got to see your work that day was just how—like if I was going to sum it up in one word, it would be “empathy.”
MS: That when I looked at all the stuff you were showing that day, and then recently I also got to see the Artist Odyssey short documentary that they did about you, and that just seems to really be so present in all of the different work that you’ve done. And you do a lot of different kinds of work, both in medium but also in theme and subject matter. So I guess what I’d want to talk to you about first is just sort of where that impulse comes from for you.
TM: Oh it comes from everywhere.
TM: I’ve heard artists saying that they have painter’s block or writers saying they have writer’s block, and my issue is that I am so inspired by everything. I mean, just driving down the 15 today, it’s overcast and there’s a slight haze and I was just so overwhelmed with the beauty in this world we live in. I think that’s one of the things that really moves me in my work, is finding that beauty. Because it’s everywhere. It’s not—I really don’t have to find it
TM: But just kind of taking it in, because life is so—it can be so difficult. And so, for me, finding the beauty and being inspired by that thing, whether it’s this physical beauty of the landscape or like I spent some time with my friend yesterday and our godson, and just seeing how she’s raised this little boy, and how difficult that is to do. But watching her raise this child, that is so beautiful to me. I mean, we were college friends, so we were completely lost, and now she’s helping this young boy find his way navigating through life. [laughs] But, yeah, finding beauty is what I do in my work, and when you talked about empathy, that also comes in striving to find the goodness in a bad situation.
TM: Or a trial that I’m going through, or someone else is going through.
TM: Because I think that’s where hope comes from is that being able to see and really believe that things will be better, and that all this—and I’m a strong believer that everything that happens to me or for me or because of me or whatever it is, it’s all for my own good.
TM: No matter how difficult the situation is, I know that these struggles are to build my character. It’s to test my patience. It’s to teach me forgiveness.
TM: Or just to strengthen my faith. And that’s what really drives me, Mike, is my faith. And not just faith in God—and this isn’t a religious thing, and a lot of times I think people—and I always really, in college I was kind of, I would be kind of… My work wasn’t taken as seriously, I don’t think, by some people because of my openness about faith.
TM: And then, again, once I started painting and showing there were some gallery owners that wouldn’t want to put my statements up, and the statements, for me, is a huge part of the work and my process—
TM: —so I’m sharing that, too. And, I mean, viewers don’t have to read it, but it’s available to them if they—because some people want to know.
MS: Well, it provides a lot of context, right?
MS: It provides a framework for understanding what it is that you’re trying to communicate.
TM: Yeah, yes.
MS: And it really seems like with your work in particular, that you are—it’s not just—not that there would be anything wrong with something being purely aesthetic, but that your work really is trying to communicate something.
TM: Yeah, yeah I want to tell these stories, and the stories that inspire me, and my own stories, stories that I’m curious about, maybe, that I don’t quite know yet. But, yeah, I think that faith is what really drives me, and just believing that belief in something better, that belief that I can be better, that belief that somebody can be healed, that we all can be healed, because that’s a major component of being human, is that need to heal.
TM: We’ve all suffered through afflictions of some sort, whether it’s emotional or physical or spiritual. I’ve suffered through all those things.
TM: And then having that faith in other people, too. Because often as artists we feel like we’re doing it ourselves. You know, when we start a project it’s like… And then I think for me there’s a sense of control that I have so it’s hard for me to let people in to be involved in my process. Although, these past couple years I’ve been learning and really enjoying partnering with other people and just really collaborating with people. I’ve really been enjoying that. But before, I always thought it was up to me, and it really was when I started painting, because if I never made another painting in my life, who would really care? Would anybody care? My husband might care, my mom might care.
TM: [laughs] You know? But would anybody notice? No.
TM: Maybe somebody might think, “What happened to her? Is she still making work?” But nobody really cares. So the work is—it’s important for me to make these things so that I can live, really. To continue my life and to explore those things that I hold dear to me. You know? And honor those things that are important to me. And just search for whatever it is, you know, whatever it is that I need to know about, or I need to express. It’s just life. And paint or charcoal or whatever I’m using just happens to be my language at the time, right?
MS: Mm-hm, yeah.
TM: So I’m telling these stories and… So that’s why my work, going back to your question about how I’m using so many different mediums and themes, the themes change because I change, and we’re constantly evolving, and so I’ll allow the inspiration to really take over. And that’s an issue I have, is I have so many projects started.
TM: You know, so many. And I mean, spanning all different mediums. I don’t really consider myself a writer, but I have to write to make sense of things. I kind of do it hand in hand, so my sketchbook is mostly writing. I’ll start with an idea and then I’ll take some notes and write a little bit about it. And then I’ll start the painting. And then the painting will reveal something to me, and then I go back to the writing and just jot down more notes. And so it happens hand-in-hand, it’s part of the process.
TM: So I’ll have these ideas that I’ve started writing about, that I just haven’t finished, and they’re so important to me. Like this tooth extraction. That was the latest big deal. [laughs] Because I was like—first of all I felt like “Oh my god, I’m getting old.” Seriously, my tooth cannot handle Korean barbecue? How is… [laughs] So I went to the dentist, I got the tooth pulled, and as I’m sitting in the chair, I have two friends—Jenny Do and Kelly Clark, they’re both artists, they’re both amazing women, very accomplished—and I’ve known them for years, since San Jose State. And Kelly I studied with throughout my time there. And then Jenny, she offered me my first show. She invited me to show for the very first time. And that show was what set the momentum. When I sold pieces, being a student at that time, I could not believe that other people found value in my work.
MS: Yeah. Well that’s a tough thing for everybody, especially when you’re first starting out, right?
TM: It is. Yeah.
MS: I go through that all the time with myself, my own work. But so you mentioned San Jose State.
TM: Yes, San Jose State.
MS: And that’s where you went to school. Are you originally from up north or are you…?
TM: Yeah, I’m from the Bay Area.
TM: I was born in Pennsylvania. That’s where my parents had, after the war, they had arrived there in ‘75.
TM: So they lived in refugee camps in Guam, in the Philippines, and then eventually ended up in Harrisburg. And that’s where I was born. And then I went to school all over the Bay Area. I think as northern as Pleasanton and then south San Jose. I’ve lived in over 40 homes in my entire life.
MS: Wow, that’s a lot.
MS: I thought I moved around a lot as a kid. [laughs]
TM: And I’m not an Army brat, you know?
MS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
TM: It’s insane. But, yeah, so I’m from the Bay Area. Go Warriors. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Yeah, so one of the things that strikes me about the Bay—I didn’t know you were from up there. I’m sort of in that direction as well, I grew up outside of Monterey.
TM: Oh, OK.
MS: But one of the things that’s always struck me—when I was a kid we went up to the city a lot. We would go to San Jose to shop, we’d go other places in the Bay, because that’s sort of the cultural hub of that part of Northern California. But one of the things to me, like the energy of the Bay is so different from where I grew up. And it’s definitely different from Southern California, where we are now. Where I grew up was sort of a small-town, rural, and almost completely white area. But one of the things that always struck me, visiting the Bay, was that there’s this sort of mingling of so many different cultures. You have so many different immigrant groups that have come through San Francisco, and some settled there. Was that something that you felt part of your experience growing up?
TM: I honestly didn’t pay attention to that kind of stuff.
MS: Uh huh.
TM: I was very much alone a lot of the time. Even growing up, I remember—this is during elementary school through high school. We lived up in Pleasanton, and we’d always have to drive to Oakland to have dim sum. It was the best dim sum and my dad wouldn’t have it anywhere else, we’d drive all the way to Oakland. And I remember going to San Jose to go grocery shopping at the Vietnamese supermarkets. But I don’t remember being as involved. Even in college, when I discovered painting, that’s when I really learned how to be by myself. Because I remember always needing a lot of people around to feel important or to feel part of something. But once I discovered my work, I just didn’t even pay attention. My art world was in that studio at San Jose State.
MS: And how did that come about? You discovered your work. Everybody comes at it in a different way, discovers it in a different way. It kind of sounds, the way you’re talking about it, that maybe you came to a little later rather than having grown up artistic. Is that…?
TM: I grew up very artistic. I always had my art stuff with me. One of the first gifts that I really remember in childhood was this blue plastic suitcase, and it came with a “How to Draw” book, papers, watercolors, pencils, and it made me feel like a legit artist. [laughs] And I would carry that thing around. But I always had scratch paper. Even in fourth grade I was trying to sell my work. And I went to Catholic school, so Sister Barbara was always reprimanding me because I was trying to sell my drawings. [laughs] For like a quarter each, you know. But I was always very creative. And I was a latchkey kid, so I’d come home from school, take that hidden key, since fourth grade. I would be home by myself until like seven o’clock when my parents would come home from work. That was every day for years, throughout high school, so I was always trying to keep myself busy. Or I’d be outside collecting rocks or whatever. [laughs] In high school I didn’t really take art seriously, I’d just kind of doodle. I’d make posters for football games and stuff. In my first two or three years of college I took drawing classes but I think I was still really lost. I didn’t really find my voice in art or anything, I was just… I took beginning drawing, didn’t want to be drawing cylinders and cubes and spheres and just got bored and was like “What am I learning here?” Just totally arrogant. [laughs] And then I realized later on that what it did was it taught me to see. I love studies now. It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I took my first painting class, with Tony May, and it was acrylic on paper. And, oh my gosh, just the feeling of that paint on paper, that in itself was so cathartic. Just that quality of this thick stuff—and that’s what we were doing in beginning painting, was painting spheres and objects, but I loved it! It just felt different from drawing. Then after that I took the intermediate painting course, which was, Robert Chiarito was my instructor. [laughs] The first class, he was like—this is the first painting class, he says “Just start painting, don’t think about it, you’ll figure it out later what you’re doing. Start. Begin.” And I was like “What?!” And that’s when I started painting abstract. I was just having so much fun with the color and we were working with oil on canvas, so that was my first time. And just the viscosity of the paint, and being able to not be wrong, because we weren’t supposed to be painting anything specific. He said “Find it later,” and so I wanted to search. I just got lost in that color. I realized, I found that abstract work was so purely… spiritual. And I didn’t know that that’s what it was at that time, I was just thinking “Oh my gosh, the fact that I can just let go and paint? And create this thing?” So I think from the beginning it started off being—it was already a search for me. That’s how I was trained, it was just, find it later on, and just let go. It was pivotal to my growth as an artist in the beginning, where you’re taught that it can’t be wrong. Just work, and find yourself.
MS: That seems like a really valuable perspective.
TM: So valuable.
MS: I never went to art school, but hearing other people talk about it, it doesn’t seem like that’s necessarily the approach that you always get in an art school setting.
MS: It’s interesting, too, to hear you talk about—like in both of those painting media, to hear the thing that you’re really… Like, your eyes kind of light up when you’re talking about the physical qualities of the paint itself. And that’s something that really strikes me about your work, is that it is all very tactile. That whether it’s the more straight paintings, or you have pieces where you’ve stitched into the painting, or the sculptural pieces with the sticks that you’ve wrapped with string and things like that, that they all—there’s a real sense of the piece having been worked with hands.
TM: Mm, thank you.
MS: There’s a sense of “somebody has touched this.” Which isn’t necessarily—especially for myself, as a photographer, and most of the people I know are photographers—for most of us isn’t really a thing, that real sense of the artist’s hand isn’t necessarily there for everybody. But in your work that’s a thing. [laughs] Is that something that’s… It seems like it must be part of your process, something that’s important to you.
TM: Yeah, I have to feel it with my hands. I have a hard time having the tool in between it. Paintbrushes are the closest I get. Even sports—I’m actually pretty good at football and basketball, but anything else involving something between the ball, like tennis, hockey, baseball, I’m horrible at. I have to hold that thing to understand it. And even in my paintings, I’ll put on gloves and sometimes I’m just working with my hands, because I want to move that paint around, I want to feel it underneath my fingertips and move it around. Thank you for saying that, that it feels like these things have been touched, because it’s important for my process, just to understand it, and to be able to craft something. I don’t know if there’s even a line between fine art and craft. It’s that human hand in something. I think that can be felt as well as seen. Sometimes it can’t be seen, but felt. With some work that I’ve seen. But I like that. It’s like leaving this human imprint in it, just being able to work directly onto it. And I like all the messy stuff, the charcoals. I love charcoal so much, it’s so messy. And pastel. And seeing the fingerprints left on there just from moving and rubbing the chalk on the paper. And just feeling the tooth of the paper and the scratching of the charcoal. [laughs] It’s all the senses, the touch, the smell of it, of oil paint, the sound it makes, a dry brush on canvas. I love it all. [laughs] I love it all, it’s just all my senses being involved. Even taste, actually. I’ve actually accidentally drank my watercolor rinsing water. [laughs]
TM: Just not paying attention. So yeah, tasting, I suppose. [laughs]
TM: And then I also use other materials, like food materials. So I’m actually physically tasting. Like I’ve used salt in my work, and sugar in my work, and have tasted it and used it in the work as well. If it holds a symbolic meaning, or if it makes sense to the work.
MS: One of the other things about your work—and I guess this would be sort of going back through your history as an artist—one of the really strong themes or subjects that you work with, a lot of your different projects have focused on the Vietnamese community, and on the experience of that community and the effect that the war had there and here. And a lot of that is clearly something that is really important to you. I guess what I wonder is, is that something that you always knew you were going to do art about? Or is it something that you kind of had to get to?
TM: I… While in school, I was encouraged to explore that. I was encouraged when I was taking Advanced Painting. Rupert Garcia, he’s an amazing artist and he does a lot of Chicano, very politically motivated art. And he was one of my mentors there, and he was like “Who are you as a Vietnamese American? And what do you know about your history? You should explore that.” And I just wasn’t ready. And I never did. And it wasn’t until I moved… No, no, no, it wasn’t until my great aunt had passed, when I found all those photos and thought… What struck me was that when I was in her apartment gathering her photos, she had them all organized. On the back of every photo, she had written who’s in the photo, where they were at, the date, what they were doing there, and any significant anything. Little notes. And every photo was documented. And I thought, “She really wanted to leave this story behind.” It was important for her. And I don’t think she wrote it to… For some reason I don’t feel like she wrote it to remember it. I feel like she wrote it for whoever it was that was going to see these photos. For some reason. And I thought, “I need to share these.” So that’s when it really started, and that was in 2011. I mean, I graduated in 2004, so it took me like seven years. I think I did one painting before that, when my mom had told me about she and her family getting on a boat and the boat breaking down in the middle of the ocean. I did one painting, and that was in 2003. And then I just put it aside because I didn’t know what to do with it. I ended up finishing it, but when I really started focusing on the work about my family history, that wasn’t until later. I started with only ten of those little family tree pieces, and I ended up with 63 of them. A little more, I think. Because I just couldn’t stop. I was like, “I’m just going to mess around with these,” and it was my first time experimenting with resin, my first time doing anything like that. It was all so new. And incorporating family photos. And I guess I just went all out. [laughs] It was… just go for it. And I could not stop, because there were so many beautiful images of these precious children, and just the way my great-grandmother is holding her kids, and just the life back then and how simple they were, and how in so many of the photos they’re barefoot. There’s something so beautiful about that. They’re barefoot on their front porch in Vietnam. Black and white. So that’s when it really started. And then through that, all these conversations began. I wasn’t making this work to search for anything, other than… it was just to share. And then through that, the search began. And so my grandmother would—for example, there’s this one piece that I did, it’s my great-grandmother and grandfather holding their children, and I had taken some tree bark and made a little house and coated it with resin. And I was so proud of it because I was like, “This is so cool!” Resin keeps anything, it preserves anything. So I showed my grandmother, and she saw that little house and she told me this story about how when she was growing up she lived next door to a church. And because of that, they’d always find abandoned babies on their front porch, because the mothers must have thought “Oh, they’ll be safe here, they’re next to a church.” And it happened so frequently that my great-grandparents had to build a makeshift shack in their back yard to house the children, because they couldn’t fit them all in their house.
MS: Mm. Wow.
TM: And my grandmother was in charge of feeding the babies, and then on the weekends they would take them up to the city. This is when they lived in [?], where my grandmother was born. They would have to drive them up to the city, where there was an orphanage, and deliver all these babies, and that’s what would happen on the weekends.
TM: And nobody knew about this story, Mike. How can nobody in the family know about this story? This is so… It’s so important. It just shows the heart that my great-grandparents had. And I knew my great-grandmother, but not very well. It just shows their love for humanity. And then I’m able to understand why my grandmother loved people so much, and why she was the way she was, and why my mom is so loving. She’s always doing charity work. And why I’m so sensitive, maybe, to other people’s struggles. It’s all passed down. It helps me understand who I am by learning these stories. And so that story came about from this little piece, this little four-by-five inch little piece. And that was happening so often. There’s another image I have of my auntie holding this little doll. It was just such a sweet photo of her, because she’s so proud of this doll. She’s got this huge smile. And I did a little piece, and showed her, and she told me about the doll and how my grandfather—he was a language arts teacher in Vietnam—he used to travel to the States. He used to travel to America and during one of his trips he brought home that doll for her. And it was so special to her. And I’m like, “So wait, Grandfather had been to America even before the fall of Saigon?” I didn’t know that. I thought it was a fresh, new land that they… I don’t know, I just… Those things would have never been told if it wasn’t for the arts. So it’s just been remarkable, the way it all comes together.
MS: It’s pretty amazing, there’s so much of the… Like in anybody’s family, right? There are so many stories like that. And especially when you start losing people in your family, you come to realize how little you might actually know them. It’s something that I think about a lot, especially given the direction that I have taken with my work so far. One of the things that I think about—and this relates to my work, but also relates to your work a lot—is that we’re both working in a space where we’re using our personal histories and our family histories. And so that makes it extremely specific and personal, but it’s also… These stories that you have are highly specific but they’re very relatable, and you do them in a way that makes… These connections that you’re talking about are universal. That’s a real hard thing to do, I think.
TM: I hope for that. I don’t think it’s anything I can plan. It’s nothing I mean to do. And it surprises me when non-Vietnamese connect with it. And I know that a lot of us have mourned a loss, a lot of us. We have our own families. I don’t tend to think that far ahead about who will connect with the work or how it’ll read, unless I’m doing something specific like being commissioned.
MS: But it’s one of those things where, for me anyways, that point of connection is sort of what it’s all about.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
MS: Yeah. So that’s something where… You talked about this a bit in the Artist Odyssey documentary, that in many of these things that you’re doing, you’re using… They’re stories that you have a connection to, but they’re not necessarily your story. And that can be a tricky thing to navigate. Can you talk a little bit about that? How you’ve dealt with that? Because these things—I can say for myself, I can’t speak for anybody else’s reaction, but in seeing your work, there is so much that I can connect with, even though I’m not Vietnamese and I don’t know any of those people. And so those stories are relatable just as stories in themselves, and they’re obviously highly meaningful to the people who were involved in them, but they’re also things that also, just as an audience member with no connection, we can still find something very resonant.
TM: Thank you. I think the.. When I do my work that tells someone else’s story, it’s also my story. If I connect so closely, I become a part of that story. I’m moved by that story and I’m inspired by that story, and I feel for them. I’m empathizing. And I think the work has really placed me into this really profound space of compassion. I think compassion is this word that’s used like it’s a virtue. This kind of light thing. I hear it used a lot, “compassion, compassion, compassion.” But compassion is a very heavy thing, and when I’m inspired by a story, most of the time it’s the story of the underdog, right? It starts with somebody really struggling through something, and they’re coming out victorious through all that struggle, and they’ve persevered and they believe in their strength. Maybe not. Maybe they’re doubting their strength but then the community gets behind them and they’re like “You are a warrior.” That moves me. And so when I find myself really thinking about these people, I’m like “Well, you know, I’m fighting right alongside them.” Or I’m walking with them. Or I understand what they’re going through. Or I’ve been there. When we tell someone else’s story there’s a different kind of respect. You can tell your story however you want, but when you’re telling someone else’s story there’s a certain reverence that I have. There’s more respect. I really want to respect the work. I spent all of 2014 pretty much making artwork about Kelly’s healing. And every time I made a piece I had to ask her for permission. Like “I have this idea and I need to do it. Do I have your permission?” And she was like “This is our story.” But I felt like every time I started something new I had to ask her about it and get her permission. And she knows how much I love her. I know that she knows, but still. I’d just be so careful with the way that I was doing things. And while I’m making it I’m really focusing. That’s what the art is. I think it’s this by-product of me focusing on this thing that I’m hoping for, or that thing that I’m just trying to make sense of. Why do good people have to go through such trying circumstances? And that takes me away from the whole “This is not fair” conversation” that I have. [laughs] Often. Like “Why?” and “What are we supposed to be learning here?” “Is this a lesson on togetherness?” Walking through it with each other like soldiers. Nobody’s fighting this battle alone. I think that’s an important reminder, too. Because sometimes we do feel like we’re fighting it alone, and that’s not true. [laughs] It’s just not true. There’s people that care. And there’s people that don’t even know you that care. Like the “Quiet” installation I did about the children that went missing during the war, I love them. They’re my brothers and sisters. They don’t know me, but I know them. And so here’s people that went missing in the 1980’s, so that’s like, what, three, four decades later? And they’re being brought back to the surface because we care. [laughs] It’s pretty amazing, you know? Telling other people’s story… Sometimes people have such important stories and they don’t feel like they’re important. That’s the whole thing about this Viet Focus show is that we’re telling the stories of ordinary people. These are our neighbors. They’re not high officials or people that have a certain status in society. They are our next-door neighbors that survived.
MS: Right. And those are the stories that are the most likely to be lost.
MS: And they’re also the ones that are often the ones that we can connect with most.
TM: Yeah, yeah. It’s such an honor. It really is an honor to help tell these stories.
TM: But it’s so stressful. [laughs] Because it’s like “Oh my gosh! Am I doing it justice?” Those thoughts come about, too, but I try not to think about it when I’m working. I just work. Because that puts way too much pressure. I don’t want to think about that, I just want to think about them. I want to think about who they are and how amazing they’re lives have been.
MS: I want to go back to something that you were talking about before. You mentioned that early on you had some trouble with the art establishment accepting some of your work, partially because of the emphasis that you put on faith. One of the things that also strikes me about your work is that it is—and you even spoke about this, one of the first things you said was talking about finding beauty. And it’s interesting, right, because when you look at the history of at least Western art—and I only say that because I don’t have as much awareness of other art traditions—but certainly in Western art we have a long tradition of spiritual art. And we have a long tradition of beautiful art. But sort of in a more contemporary art scene, a lot of those values are sort of passe, I guess? As you’ve progressed is that something you’re able to find a way in? That your work is able to get more acceptance? Because you have so much to say, but some of the language that you use, the visual language, are things that seem like they might have gotten pushback, especially when you were still emerging as an artist. How was your experience with that?
TM: I think the more… Maybe at first people were feeling like I was trying to make so much of a statement. And it really wasn’t about anything else, it was just about me. [laughs] Really, when you’re first discovering yourself in work it has to be about you, because you’re finding yourself, and nobody’s going to help you… That’s the subject matter. For me.
MS: Is that even possible? To not have art that’s about you, on some level at least?
TM: Yeah, yeah. So I think as I kept working and built my portfolio, and now I have this body of work where people, maybe they might be thinking “Oh, she’s serious.” [laughs] I really don’t know what it is. I’ve stopped thinking about it, really. Because I feel like I really put a lot of love into my work. So much so that when I begin I’m always really… I feel like I’ve forgotten. I feel like “Oh my gosh, how can I make a piece that’s comparable to the piece before?” And I try to put that aside, because the new one is always the most exciting. And when I’m making this work, I really feel this spirit moving through me. There’s a lot of work that I’ve made where I’m just like “Oh my God! How did this come from my hands? This is impossible!” Unless there was something greater than me moving through me. I mean, I can only take a portion of the credit. Yes, these are my hands, and, yes, I am a vessel, but I didn’t make these trees whose sound is filling me with this energy to paint them. You know? I can’t take all that credit. And so I’ve stopped worrying about that, now that I’ve matured in my work. I just accept that the work will take a life of its own. I put in the work and the dedication, and I’m just collaborating with whatever it is that’s moving through me. And moving me to make the work. It sounds a little romantic, I know. but it’s—
MS: There is a certain romance to the artmaking process, no matter who’s doing it, right? If it’s real. If it’s authentic.
TM: Yeah. I do it with a lot of love and respect.
MS: Yeah. And that’s really obvious in your work.
TM: Oh, thank you.
MS: It’s definitely there.
Mike Sakasegawa: So in the second segment I like to have people bring their own topic. And the topic that you had mentioned that you’d be interested in talking about is collaboration versus competition between artists. So why don’t you start us off? Give me what you’re thinking about that.
Trinh Mai: Yeah, I feel like in—well, not just in the art world, but in general—we’ll come across those who have that sense of competition. I’ve been on the other side of that. I really can’t say that I’ve had that attitude throughout my career. I never felt like I was competing with anybody, because only you can make the work that comes out of your hands. People can replicate your work but it’s just not the same, because that spirit is not the same. I believe that that voice is what speaks to people through the work, and everybody’s got a different voice. And if you try to copy somebody’s voice, you can feel it.
TM: I struggle with some of that. And I just don’t understand it, because I think that when we support each other and we allow other people’s successes to inspire us, it does such amazing things. Like I’ve looked at other artists’ work and their websites and been like “Oh my gosh, they’ve shown at the Smithsonian? I want to show there! They’ve shown here? Oh, that’s so amazing! I would love to show there!” Or “Oh that’s a really interesting subject matter they’re touching on.” And then I start thinking about what that might mean to me. This all fuels the work. Even it it’s a note, it might come back years from now, or I might start writing about it. The whole thing is, if you’re admiring it then there’s something in there that’s speaking to you. It’s important to allow that thing to keep talking, and have that conversation with it. Have that conversation with it and put it down on paper or canvas, or whatever it is. I think that when people have that sense of competition—and I think there’s also… It comes with insecurity, too. Maybe people are not feeling… I don’t know, whatever it is, insecurity.
MS: On some level it kind of seems almost sort of manufactured. You know? A lot of it seems like it must be a by-product of the more commercial aspects of being an artist. Like everybody wants to have a show and everybody wants to sell, and everybody wants to get to… Not necessarily everyone is motivated by prestige, but if you’re making something to be seen, you want it to be seen. You want to have the opportunity to make the connection, right? But there’s a limited number of galleries, there’s a limited amount of wall space, and there’s a limited amount of money that can be spent on things like that. It’s almost like focusing on the more capitalist aspects of the back-end side of art is what fuels that. Don’t you think?
TM: Yeah, I could see that. But that’s working in scarcity. Like you are really believing there’s a limited amount of galleries. Well, how are you going to open up your own gallery if you think there’s a limited amount of galleries? Do you know what I mean? That mind state is what makes it so difficult for artists to just focus on their work. Make that work, make that good, important, honest work, and good things will come. I really believe that. There’s been so many times when I haven’t known—especially after graduation—I didn’t know what to do with myself. But, you know, I just knew that if I could just keep working and just be involved as much as I was capable of, things would happen. Because you’re putting it out there just by making the work. And I don’t feel like there’s only a certain amount of galleries. Galleries are closing and popping up all the time. And now there’s art fairs, and now there’s online shows. There’s so many resources. And there’s Etsy. There’s so many resources for us! I don’t believe that there’s a limitation for what we can do and what we can achieve. I don’t think that I’m competing against this next person because, you know what? They have a totally different background, they have a different network, they have a different voice. How do you compare that? It’s like apples and oranges.
MS: Yeah, absolutely.
TM: So there’s no sense of that. And I think the more supportive we are of each other, the more we can collaborate and help each other out. Like I have no problem sending the curriculum I’ve written for my classes to someone else if they want to take a look. Or contracts I’ve used. Whatever it is. It’s hard enough making a life as an artist. It’s hard enough making a life. [laughs] And then you want to go ahead and make it as an artist? That’s crazy. So why not just pull together our resources and support each other, and help each other in whatever way we can?
MS: Yeah. I think it’s something that maybe is changing a bit. I’m still fairly new at this, but at least what I hear—definitely in the past maybe five, ten years, especially with online spaces becoming such a bigger thing—that it seems like you’re seeing a lot more collaboration and cooperation between artists. Whether it’s something formal like some sort of artist co-op, or even something as simple as Flickr or Etsy, and people being able to find ways to come together. I sort of wonder—maybe it’s just me being cynical—how much of that competitive mindset that is in a lot of—not just artists but in a lot of different people—but when you’re talking about artists, how much of it is driven from the outside. One of the main ways in photography, for example, that you start to gain exposure is by entering competitions. And that’s right there in the title of what you’re doing, is that it’s a competition. You’re submitting and you’re getting judged, and only some small number of people are going to be allowed through the gates. But more and more I feel like lately you see people rejecting that model, and saying “I don’t need the gatekeepers to say that I’m worth doing this, and I can find my own way.” Is that something that you’ve felt too?
TM: Yeah, definitely. I feel that when I’m rejected, every time. I have a stack of rejection letters and it really can break a person down. I mean, I’ve questioned, I’m pretty good at throwing that pity party sometimes—
MS: [laughing] Aren’t we all?
TM: Oh my gosh. There was one show that I submitted, and if I got in it would have traveled to three different places, one being to Italy. And it was put on by the Oceanside Museum of Art, who are an amazing group of people, but you don’t know who the juror’s going to be. I had slaved over this diptych of my husband and me. It was such a special piece, it was about healing, and we’re in this grove of all these plants that are California native. And I was so sure I would get in because there was so much heart that was put into it, and I just thought it was a beautiful piece. I was so proud of it, and it got rejected. “Nooooo!” you know?
MS: So much of that, though, is just driven by the fact that so many people are submitting to these things. I remember I got—one of the things that I really loved this past year, the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever gotten was, there’s a gallery in Richmond, Virginia, run by a guy named Gordon Stettinius. It’s called the Candela Gallery. Every year they do this open call, and it’s—I can’t remember the title of the show, but they just open it up and say anybody can submit. And every year they get more and more people submitting. The rejection letter they sent out this year was saying, “You should not take this as any reflection on your work. Almost all of the work that we received was really good, and almost all of it would have been great. But at some point we have to make decisions, because the gallery is only so big and we only do this. And we have to balance—we want to show new people, we want to maintain our relationships with people we already know and love, and we want to put together a show that hangs well together, and maybe your work might be wonderful, but it just wouldn’t sit well in this particular group.” They sent that out to everyone, but they also posted it up on their website as an open letter. I just thought that was so refreshing to hear.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
MS: Because that really does—it can be hard when you feel like you are spinning your wheels, to be able to celebrate other people’s successes, especially if you feel like they’re having more successes than you are. It can be for me, at least. But putting that kind of perspective on it, I thought was really useful.
TM: Yeah. And then going to see the show. I’ve attended the shows that I’ve been rejected from, because I want to know why my work didn’t fit in. Was it really that it wasn’t good enough? Or it just didn’t fit the theme well enough? Or maybe the juror just doesn’t like figurative work.
TM: I’ve heard people who enter competitions, what some of them have done is find out who the juror is, go look at—and sometimes they’re artists. You look at their work and then you figure out what kind of work they would like. And I’m like “Oh, that’s so limiting.” But some people do that.
MS: I do that, to be honest.
TM: Do you?
MS: Well, I mean, because at a certain point it gets expensive to keep submitting to stuff and getting rejected.
TM: Yeah. And then if you keep it your own, or find something from your collection that fits. Because I’ve made work specifically for a show. Not knowing the juror’s work. I just feel like it’s so much pressure to be making work from someone else’s eyes. That’s really hard for me to do.
MS: Well, I mean, you can’t do that. You’re not speaking with your own voice, really.
MS: But I think that being able to turn some of these rejections… Like these days, I’m—I’m sure this will pass, but lately I’ve been able to handle rejections with a certain amount of equanimity. A lot of times, because of the fact that I know a lot of people that work in the same genre that I do, and I’ve made friends with them because we have similar concerns as artists, that they’ll get into a show and I won’t, and I’ll finally get to the point where I’m able to be legitimately happy for them. That wasn’t something that I was always able to do, but I think, for me at least, having a certain amount of confidence in what I’m doing also helps a lot in being able to celebrate other people’s successes instead of lamenting my failures.
TM: Yeah, sure. And it really does help to see the show. Because almost every time, I’m like “Oh, OK.”
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
TM: You know, it’ll be mostly landscapes, or whatever it is. But I think the thing that you and I share in our work is there’s a certain sensitivity in it. And some galleries or some competitions just want work that’s strong, in your face, making a statement, and I feel like there’s a quietness that we share in our work.
MS: Well, thank you.
TM: I mean, really, your photography is really beautiful.
MS: Thank you, I really appreciate that.
TM: Even your bookmaking. I’ve only seen a couple pieces, but there’s a certain care. And it’s funny, because if you think of photography and bookbinding—very different art forms. But there’s a care to it. One of the photos that I loved of yours is, I guess one of your children had left a toy in a windowsill?
MS: Oh yeah. [laughs]
TM: And then there’s that translucent drape that covers it. It was such an intimate view of your life. All those photos on your site. There’s a real… It’s like this sacred space that you’re sharing with us.
MS: Well, thank you.
TM: Yeah. And so some of these shows are out—especially with galleries, sometimes they want to sell the work, so they’re going to just pull what they think is marketable. And with that kind of sensitivity, sometimes they don’t fully accept it. I’ve learned that about my work.
MS: Yeah. I could see that, and it’s something that I’ve heard a lot. A gallerist might say “This is really good but I could never sell this.”
TM: [laughs] God, it’s the worst. Yes, oh my gosh. It’s like “Well, can you show it?”
MS: Or even a reviewer will look at my work and say “Oh, this is…” You get a certain sense—I remember when I first started going to portfolio reviews that I’d take everything really personally. And, actually, you know when I first started I was really green and my work was really rough and probably not ready to even be at the point where I was trying to get it to. But when I would get a negative review, and most of them were negative, I would just get really downhearted about it. And now it’s to the point where, I have more confidence in my work and I can sort of see when… Because the question for me is always “Is what I’ve done, have I executed it poorly? Or have I done what I set out to do, and it’s just not to your taste?” A lot of times you can kind of see when someone isn’t responding to it, it’s just because that’s not what they’re into.
TM: Yeah. Or it’s not what they’ve experienced.
TM: It’s not necessarily—because it could be, like you said, a well-executed photo, but if it’s of your child, and maybe they don’t have children. Or maybe they don’t get along with [laughs] well, whatever it is that they’ve experienced. Because I really feel like with work like yours that’s true, that speaks to the viewer. And if someone doesn’t connect with it, they’re just not… It’s not that they’re not connecting with your work, they’re not connecting with you and your experiences and your view on life in general. So there’s nothing we could do about that.
MS: I mean, that must be something that comes up a lot for you, your work being very personal, very specific, very emotionally open. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, looking at trends over the past thirty, forty years, that, increasingly, especially starting from the ‘80s onward, that contemporary art that gets attention is very cerebral and kind of cold, very intellectual. And there’s been a real distancing from art with emotions in it. That was one of the things that really excited me about your work, seeing it the first time. That I feel like maybe the pendulum is starting to move the other way again. In the past maybe five years or so I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot more people who are not afraid to engage that aspect of art. That’s my hope, anyway.
TM: Yeah, mine too. Mine too. It has to be personal, I think. And there’s so much… We just all need to be searching. [laughs] You know? I mean, we’re all going to do it anyway, we might as well put it in the work, right?
MS: OK, so I think this is about our time. I think they’re going to close up here.
MS: Do you feel good about the conversation?
TM: Yeah, I do.
TM: I do, yeah.
MS: I’m really glad that we were able to sit down.
TM: Yeah, thank you.
MS: Thank you.
Mike Sakasegawa: Alright, so that was my conversation with Trinh Mai. I want to thank Trinh for sitting down with me, also thanks to the Escondido Municipal Gallery for letting us use their studio space to record in. If you’d like to learn more about Trinh’s work you can check out her website at trinhmai.com, that’s t-r-i-n-h-m-a-i dot com. Our theme music is by Podington Bear; you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. If you’d like to leave a comment, you can find me and the show on Twitter at ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at Keep the Channel Open, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just a quick note, my plan is for this show to come out every two weeks, but to get things started off I’m going to be releasing the first four episodes weekly. So thanks for tuning in, I’ll see you next week, and remember: keep the channel open.