In a special heat- and
humidity-controlled curing room inside Nhat Tran's Downtown studio, there are
racks holding 27 plywood panels -- each one covered in layers of a special
These are the components, along with a pair of sculpted fiberglass pieces,
that will make up "On the Tips of Our Wings," a mural that Tran designed for
the security area of the new airport terminal.
"I am a perfectionist," said Tran of the time- and labor-intensive lacquering
process she is using to create the mural. "The more doubt I have, the more I
Growing up in Vietnam, Tran studied art with a Western slant, meaning that she
learned to paint in a traditional European fashion. But that wasn't her
"I did not feel I was discovering anything," said Tran, 44, in a recent
conversation in her studio. "I had to find a way that my road is not common.
That is the way you discover things."
What she discovered, as she began looking for a new road to take as an artist,
was the ancient Vietnamese technique of lacquer painting. Involving the
application of layer after layer of a lacquer derived from tree sap and mixed
with pigments to create different colors, it results in paintings that glow.
"One layer means nothing," Tran said of the painstaking process. "It is the
collection of layers that adds up to something."
Between applications of the lacquer, Tran uses micro-mesh to hand-sand her
work, which allows underlying layers to peek through, adding both depth and
richness to the surface. The final step is several rounds of hand-polishing.
"When I am done, a painting will feel like stone," Tran said as she carefully
brushed a new layer of lacquer on one of the mural panels.
She learned the process by studying with masters in Vietnam and Japan. Her
approach is a combination of what she was taught and what she has discovered
over the eight years that she has been doing lacquer painting.
"I was born with no patience," she said, laughing. "But this art teaches me
And she is meticulous about her work. So much so that at the end of each day
she writes about what she has done, so she won't forget what she has learned
"The more I learn, the more I understand about the lacquer and the technique,
the more possibilities I begin to see," she said.
Tran arrived in the United States in 1996, moving to Indianapolis to join
other members of her family. Since then, she has introduced the American art
world to the potential of lacquer painting.
It isn't necessarily what her family envisioned for her.
"My father, who still lives in Vietnam, is a doctor," she said. "I was
supposed to be a doctor, but I was born with an artist in my mind and in my
Tran, who is married to Belgian philosopher Andre DeTienne, a member of the
IUPUI faculty, said she loves spending time teaching art classes for VSA Arts
of Indiana, as well as working in an orphanage whenever she visits Vietnam.
"I am interested in human feeling -- what is the relation between us as
humans?" she said. "My work is about the inner world of us instead of the
But the outer world does sometimes make its mark. The panels in her piece for
the airport, for instance, are based on photographs of the airfield that Tran
took while flying over it.
"Art is an adventure," she said, carefully placing a freshly lacquered panel
on a rack in the curing room. "I always discover something new that I did not
Reprinted from indystar.com