Interview with Trinh Mai Thach

Artist Trinh Mai Thach’s work finds heritage in dusty photo albums and the lost memories of a country where she has her roots. It gives us Vietnam in a grandmother’s glance, in a mother’s ghostly face. Raised in the San Fransisco Bay Area, her artwork is thought-provoking and vibrant, and it has been my honor to interview her.

  Bà Ngoại (Grandmother) , 2010, oil on canvas, 48 x 48”, Collection of Dr. Tin Do, San Francisco, CA

Bà Ngoại (Grandmother), 2010, oil on canvas, 48 x 48”, Collection of Dr. Tin Do, San Francisco, CA


Yasmin Belkhyr: So to start, have any artists in particular inspired your work or influenced your creativity?

Trinh Mai Thach: Yes. While I was in school, I studied the works of the Bay Area figurative artists and was inspired by their use of color and loosely painted figures. I remember seeing Nathan Olivera’s “Spring Nude” and was stunned at how I couldn’t tell whether the color of the figure was red or green; his grays were remarkable.

Once I began growing in my work and exposing myself to more art, I found so much meaningful art that I know resonates within my work, whether consciously or subconsciously. Matisse’s color. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s charcoal drawings. The sacred spaces found in Rothko’s fields of color. And God. God has got to be the most amazing artist of them all. The way leaves gradate so perfectly imperfectly. The rhythm in the tides. I’m inspired by it all.

I’ll be sure to check out “Spring Nude” when I get the chance! So, how do you compare life in California to life in Asia?

Well, I’ve never lived in Asia, but I’ve visited Vietnam twice. I was inspired by the simplicity of it all. Families wake up early together. Mothers sell their vegetables on the corner and they bring their children with them. Bowls of pho are sold right outside on a neighbor’s front step. The days are so long. The streets are always busy.

When I returned to the States, I missed that communal quality. We were living in San Jose, where people wake up, drive to work, come home, watch TV, go to sleep; I could go days without seeing my neighbors. But in Vietnam, everyone always seemed to have time for each other.

I know in their eyes, as my family back in Vietnam had expressed, they didn’t have much. In their eyes, they struggled and were living in poverty. But I felt that they possessed a wealth that we seemed to possess less of  here in America. Family ties seemed closer there. Families eat together, they cook together, they work  together. And they take their time in doing so. That’s how it felt for me back in 2001.

Do you think moving/living there would affect your art?

Yes, absolutely. I hope to someday. I am a 2nd generation Vietnamese-American who is trying to make sense of my heritage, and I’m doing so through the stories my family and other families have shared  with me. I am doing my research through photos, written and oral histories. If I lived in Vietnam, I would be immersed in it and I could gain a better sense of the tradition, and surely, this would affect my art tremendously.  

How have family members reacted to your Family Tree project?

Oh, they loved it.

It was very special for individual ones to see me honoring them through my work. There were also so many amazing realizations that happened during the process of creating it. As I was staring at their photos, looking into these eyes, looking into the past, I began thinking about the relationships within the family. It started off being a project to pay homage to them, and then evolved into a method of healing for me.

I suppose all of my art does that for me, but this project was so special, and so necessary, because the Vietnamese tradition is not a very expressive one. So I felt like it took creating this series to really open up to various family members while allowing them to do the same.

When did you decide to pursue your Family Tree series? Was there any specific event that gave you the idea to celebrate your heritage through art?

Yes. My great aunt (my grandmother’s eldest sister of 12 children) passed away and she left a wealth of family history. Albums and albums of photos (some dated as far back as 1920, handwritten letters from Vietnam, written by and to various ones. The letters were amazing. They really showed each ones character..

The photos were just so precious, but I know that we would rarely look at them. Photo albums often stay on the shelf, and we seldom take them out, unless a long lost visitor comes. So I wanted to incorporate them into art so that we could see them all the time and remember. It’s important to remember. This is them. This is us. This is me.

I noticed that a lot of your work involves using photos with different mediums. Do you think your creative process changes when using mixed media, rather than just one?

Yes. Definitely. I feel that with mixed media, there are more options in trying to express an idea. This could make easier to resolve, or make it more complicated, depending on the day. J

Mixed media also gets me “out of my head” because I know I have several materials to choose from, and therefore, I don’t feel like it has be resolved immediately, which means I don’t have a problem letting it breathe for a while. Whereas with one medium, I am forced to commit to only that one, and sometimes become obsessed over “making it work”.

The more time I spend on a piece, the more the concept tends to evolve. This then requires me to introduce other mediums/colors/images which I may not have planned to use. I allow the work to evolve. It’s like a conversation. You speak, I speak, you speak, I speak.

Tell us a piece of artistic advice that you despise.

“If you do this or that, it will have a much better chance of selling.”

Seriously people, if the goal was to make a lot of money, I sure as heck wouldn’t be making art for a living! Not that I have much of a choice. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. And I wasn’t much good at anything else either. Haha

Another piece of advice that really had me shackled for a while is “If you’re doing everything, you’re not really doing anything.” I battled with this somuch for so(italics please) long. Because I graduated as a painter, I felt like I had to choose between abstract or figurative, painting or drawing. I have also found my way through other art forms like installation, poetry, dance.

Then I remembered a piece of advice one of my mentors, Professor Rupert Garcia, gave me while I was back in school. “Human first. Artist second. Painter third.”  This resonated with me so deeply. I just accepted that it’s all me, it’s all who I am, and with every day, every moment, every idea, each material, method, and expression has its own way of helping make sense of what’s happening within me and around me.

Wait. Coffee first. Human second. Artist third. Painter fourth. Haha.

Describe your art in 5 words.

Thoughtful. Spiritual. Quiet. Ancestral. Fulfilling.

And my last question is more of a request: Leave one question for us to ask the next interviewee.

How important do you think community is in shaping your art?”


To see more of Trinh Mai Thach’s work, check out her website and Facebook page, and be sure to order a copy of Volume I of Winter Tangerine Review! and