Liz Tran is a color-loving, glitter-wielding, globe-trotting workaholic. An artist who studied printmaking and painting at Cornish College of the Arts, her studio is located in a spacious, converted garage behind her home in the Central District. As she walks us through, she apologizes for not cleaning up all the way. “There’s shit all over the floor,” she says, chagrined.
But the mess—a constellation of rainbow paint drips, piles of glittering glass and broken pottery amassed on the floor—is entrancing. Tran’s mixed media paintings bear a striking resemblance to a too-colorful crime scene, spattered with explosions.
“This is on canvas,” says Tran of one of many nearly completed paintings supported on easels. “I typically work on panel, but as I go larger I’m gradually switching to canvas because the panel is just too heavy. I apply layers and layers of really thin paper made in China (normally used for Sumi). Often it’s about three layers of paper, then millions of layers of acrylic medium and varnish. I’ll cut out certain pieces and then collage—I hate that word, but I can’t find a good substitute. This one has fancy glitter in it. I’m a total supply nerd. I like to put anything I can find into a painting, especially anything iridescent.”
The imagery for much of Tran’s recent work comes from creamic memorial wreathes common in cemeteries in France. “I love cemeteries,” she says, laughing. “You would never guess. My work is so vibrant, but yeah, a lot of it’s about death! I’ve been dealing with this concept for the last year or two: Cycles of life, death and remembrance. Who places these wreathes where. They’re really beautiful. Sometimes they’re mounted permanently, sometimes they’re just resting on the graves, sometimes they still adorn graves over a hundred years old. You’d think they’d be broken or vandalized but they’re not. I can only find one company in France that still makes them. Originally I thought I might find a company to make them for me, and I could finish them with my own decoration, then I started making my own with ceramic. Of course, mine look completely different.”
“I started learning ceramics about four years ago,” says Tran. “I was going through a tough time, having a sort of mental breakdown. I just couldn’t paint, but I had do something. I registered for a class at Seward Park Clay Studio. I had no expectations; I just wanted to play. Now I love it. My work tends to be intuitive and messy and childlike. They’re always putting my pieces on the shelves with the kids’ work, and I have to go searching for it! As for the forms, I’m not really interested in building complex sculptures—but the finishes are really complex.”
On her predilection for color: “I grew up in Eugene, Oregon around a lot of tie dye,” she says, laughing. “I was in denial about the influence of that place because I actually really dislike it there, but I’m sure that has something to do with it. It’s my natural palette. I don’t think about it much though. That’s true about most of my work: I don’t analyze it much as it’s being made. While it’s coming out it’s just intuitive.”
Travel has had a lot of impact on Tran’s work; her recent artist residencies include a month at the Babayan Culture House in Cappadocia, Turkey (see sketches from her trip here) and Baer Art Center in Iceland. Tran spent last November in Cappadocia. “It was amazing to live amongst cave dweller,” she says. “My studio was a 2,000 year old cave! Of course, it was retrofitted and had towel warmers, but the history there is insane. I did a lot of work on paper to flesh out ideas. I don’t frame most, but my flat files are full of them.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Iceland and I’m about to go back for my fifth time,” she says. “I can disconnect from the world there. It’s beautiful and odd and has this energy. It’s like a second home now. It’s gotten to the point that I walk down the street and people know me. I think artists like Iceland because it’s hard to not be creative there. They have 24 hours of darkness in the wintertime, so it’s a really good time to just hunker down and make work. I never go in the summertime—there are too many tourists.”
The sculptures in Tran’s studio reveal her penchant for beachcombing. “Depending on the tides, when I’m in Iceland I’ll visit the beach every day and pick up debris: Beach glass, fragments of pottery. These are from northern Iceland. I call them necklaces for fishermen. Everyday at the Baer residency I would wander the coast. Usually the pickings are rather sparse, but there are certain areas around lighthouses where there’s all kinds of things. Lots of weathered buoys. I string them together to make necklaces. It was fun because we have open studio events at the residency and all these old Icelandic farmers and fishermen who didn’t speak a word of English were putting them on. Super serious looking guys wearing these ridiculous necklaces. I have some great photos of them!”
Tran’s rope supply list. Since making her fishermen’s necklaces, Tran admits she has become something of an rope expert—or at least an enthusiast.
Horse teeth and whale bones worn by the ocean, picked up on the beach.
Upstairs, the home is lined with other artists’ sculptures and paintings that Tran has collected over the years: a faux nurse log creeping off one wall covered in a cluster of mushrooms by Rene Adams; plates painted by Faye Jones, Diem Chau and Molly Norris; an ethereal image of hammerheads rendered by Justin Gibbens. “All the paintings are crooked,” Tran says, “…but my house is crooked.”
Tucked away in corners, familiar fragments of sparkling glass are neatly piled alongside curios and souvenirs, like an unidentifiable object picked up on a beach in Vietnam. She suspects it came off a boat. As she picks it up and runs her fingers over the smooth surface, she explains that boats were the family business and she’s been building them since she was a teen. “My grandpa was a doryman. My dad was a designer and builder of wooden fly fishing river boats, so that’s how I grew up in a boat shop. That definitely has to do with my love of water, the sea.”