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a studio visit to Kieu Tran

The first time I saw Kieu Tran's black and white elegant sculptures, on Instagram, I knew I had to meet her and hear her story. Luckily she just had her first solo show at Local language in Oakland at the time, so I got to visit her both in her studio and at the exhibition.

Covid made her understand that this is her time to fulfill herself and truly do what she likes. After leaving her day job as a software engineer, she started to translate her feelings into clay. All the sculptures in the exhibition, together, tell her story and reveal her emotions. She created them in a very naturally and therapeutic way and they express her feelings in this big change in her life.

I'm really excited to share with you my interview with Kieu, so make yourself a hot tea or coffee and enjoy reading...

Where were you born and raised? and where are you based today?

I was born in Vietnam in 1988 and immigrated to the U.S in 1990. My family is based in San Jose, California, which has the greatest number of Vietnamese residents in any one city outside of Vietnam. I’ve been based in Oakland since 2013

Did your artistic path start at a young age?

Not at all. I was always interested in crafts and figuring out how to make things with my hands but it never occurred to me to pursue art or a creative career. When I was young, I actually thought I’d be working for NASA or become a dentist. When I was a senior in high school, I took Advanced Placement Art History and fell in love with art and critical theory which led me to study art history in college.

Tell us about your background and how you ended up being an artist?

I took a scenic route, but every stage was essential. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in art history from UCLA in 2012 and also studied art history while living in Italy and Germany, but was not making any art myself. I initially wanted to work in a museum or gallery, but struggled to find job in the arts, post graduation.

Intrigued by Silicon Valley, I learned to code in 2014 and quickly became a software engineer within the year. I interned with a tech company in Budapest for 6 months and eventually became a full-time engineer back home in Oakland, CA. I also developed a serious ceramic art practice around the same time alongside my tech career. Clay and wheel throwing became my escape and a form of therapy for me to deal with the challenges of being a software engineer.

In January of 2019, I took a 3-month sabbatical from work and did a 3-month intensive pottery program with La Meridiana, an international school of ceramics in Tuscany, Italy which changed my life. This chance to fully throw myself into the rhythm of making, with technical structure and rigor, for a stretch of uninterrupted time under the beautiful Tuscan sun, made me want a true creative career. When I returned from the residency, I rented my first private art studio and began making sculptures and realized I was always meant to be an artist. I officially quit tech in January of 2021 to pursue my passion of becoming a full time artist.

What influences and inspires you?

My work is deeply personal, but it mediates on universal experiences and emotions. I like to think of my practice as an archaeological dive into the caverns of my soul and being. It helps me shed light on what is the most real and authentic to me at that moment. I plumb the depths of my subconscious to hopefully encourage others to do the same and realize how universally connected we all are. The forms and shapes themselves are inspired by the human body, natural forms, and architecture. I am drawn to a balance of curves and edges. Some of my favorites artists are Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Helaine Blumenfeld, Henri Laurens, and Ruth Duckworth.

What does your creation process look like and what is your favorite part?

I am drawing and making connections in my brain and soul with clay. I work closely to my emotions and try to coordinate what I’m thinking and feeling with my hands.

I start with 2D sketches of shapes that I’m drawn to, aesthetically. When I start a new sculpture, I typically know the silhouette I want but the eventual form, curves, details are developed intuitively as I build. This gives me the freedom to work intuitively within a structure which I work well in.

I use traditional coil building techniques to make my hollow ceramic sculptures. It’s a technique that has been used for thousands of years. Coil building is an ancient ceramic process of rolling out “snakes” of clay, placing them in the desired shape, and smoothing them together. I blend my hand rolled coils together using my fingers with a hand inside to support the walls. I then use a variety of metal and rubber ribs to blend and smooth my pieces meticulously to the desired result. The meanings that I imbue in the piece become articulate to me after I’ve finished the piece.

The pieces are then dried slowly for at least 2-3 weeks, bisque fired to 1900 degrees Fahrenheit, glazed in black or white, and then fired again to 2230 degrees Fahrenheit.

I think my favorite part is being able to step back and realize what I needed to express is released into the piece. When I feel joy and like I’m taking a long exhale, I know the piece is done.

What will your dream project look like?

My dream project is to do a monumental bronze or marble public art commission. Everyone needs and has a right to beauty in their lives. Public art is an equalizer, bridging differences in socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds by essentially creating private emotional spaces for people to enjoy art in public places. I would love to be able to share my work with more people. I want people to one day be able to stumble across my work unexpectedly in a beautiful park someday and feel love, joy and connection.

Thank you Kieu for sharing your inspiring story with us. I wish your journey will be full with lots of creation, beauty and joy. Can't wait to see your next project!

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