We had the good fortune of connecting with Trinh Mai and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Trinh, what do you think makes you most happy? Why?

I find it interesting that so many of us have the desire to be happy. From what I’ve learned and experience, happiness seems to be temporal. The things that make us happy aren’t necessarily the things that truly fulfill us, and neither are they the things that are necessarily good for us. For example, I’m not happy when I’m racing toward a deadline (but I’m grateful for the work), or when I’ve run out of titanium white (but I’m enthusiastic about the vision), or when I’m stuck on work that I’ve been staring at for months (but I know that this is a necessary test of patience in art and in life), or when I say no to that second piece of chocolate cake (but I know that it will help me achieve my goal of cutting down on sugar). Not being happy doesn’t necessarily mean not being fulfilled. I feel like we might be able to find more insight if we ask ourselves, “What fulfills me?” This question has the potential to lead us to great discoveries into what is truly important to us, if we sincerely ask and seek the answers.

The things that fulfill us are the things that give us cause, the things that drive us to help heal a broken world, the things that provide us with reasons for striving to comfort those who are suffering, the things that keep our eyeline on potential and on the good.

I think it’s fulfillment that we hunger after. There are so many people who are hurting because they haven’t realized the value that they can offer to the world. (Gentle reminder for those who are reading this: You are priceless. Invaluable.) We are not happy when we’ve hit a stumbling block, but if we are fulfilled, the circumstance does not move us, and we will recognize those stumbling blocks as stepping stones. While happiness is paused during times of discomfort and disappointment, fulfillment will sustain us.

What fulfills me is a consistent search for meaning, the ability to use my art practice to document that search, and to share the profound insights that reveal themselves through the search. For me, art serves as an offering to honor life, to purge heartache, to plea for justice, and to celebrate the beauty that exists bountifully in a chaotic world. What fulfills me is to share in love, in faith, in truth, and in beauty. (I am not claiming that I am in this space at all times, as I am an utterly flawed human being. But, I do find fulfillment in striving for it.) Sharing in these very important things reminds me of how privileged I am to have these freedoms to do so.

Flesh of My Flesh, 2020
Flesh of My Flesh, detail

Can you tell us about your career, what you are currently working on, and anything else you’d like to share with our community?

I am so grateful for the many who have helped advance my career—the ones who believe(d) in the work, who guide me in wisdom, who nudge me into unknown territory, who invest in my work, and who have helped me to help carry on the family and Vietnamese American history that I hold onto closely.

I believe in the invaluable uniqueness in each of us. The world tends to lie to us, claiming that there is only a certain number of slots for which we are to fight, so we witness people feeling like they must claw their way upward. In hope and in faith, I refute this claim. I believe that when we remain true to ourselves, and look for inspiration from the things of substance, this allows our true, unique voices to emerge. This unique voice comprises a life experience that can only be lived by, and processed through, the individual. Therefore, I want to encourage the ones who are searching vigorously for their place in the world. There is a great potential in you, in those around you, in each of us, and perhaps it’s this potential that intimidates us—it’s so great, so grand, so undeserving, so overwhelming when we touch this potential. If we can just keep our potential in our periphery and move toward it, this may be the most creative act of all. This teetering on the cusp of the known and the unknown can lead us to great discovery. These discoveries then lead to more curiosity, and it helps keep the momentum and excitement. And the doors that are made for us, will surely open for us. (You’ll see.)

Currently, I’ve been reveling in the discoveries made as I continue introducing into some of my work fragments of my Bà Ngoại’s (Grandmother) handwritten letters, which I inherited in 2014. I have been experimenting with them for the last several years. These are letters that she exchanged with her family members from Việt Nam after she had arrived in America. She was throwing them away because they were “too personal”, but after I begged her, she agreed to let me keep them so long as I promised not to read them. This is why they’re introduced in fragments. I’m very excited about this this loop hole that I’ve found to share them, without sharing their content! And I think she would laugh at this. (Thank you, Bà Ngoại!)

I’ve arrived at this stage in my career by putting in the good, long hours in the studio, and working with in faith that opportunities will come. I continue believing that if I can offer art as a service (to empathize, to share in personal experiences, to document history, to sow seeds in love and truth), that the blessings would follow. This has proven time and time again to be true. But it has not been an easy feat. I’ve struggled with confidence, getting lost in the work, not knowing which way to go, unsure of what exactly I’m doing (a testament to how art so closely parallels life). I think that confidence is something that we all have struggled with at some point, in whatever vocation we’ve been called to. I want to encourage others to persist in making that good, honest, wholehearted work, and keep believing that our labor will bear fruit. Our duty is to just keep sowing seeds, and eventually, some will sprout. They always do. (Sometimes so much, in fact, that we can’t harvest quickly enough, so we ask others to join, and everyone gets blessed. How wonderful!) One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that faith works wonders. Creatives are among the most faithful and optimistic creatures because we believe in a thing that is not visible, not tangible—the artwork begins with a thought. And then we carve away at that thought with a faith in its potential. Then we tinker in hopes of bringing that thought to life. What an enduring act of faith this is. I think that creativity is among the most hopeful and faithful acts of humanity.

Flesh of My Flesh, detail of hand-fletched arrow
Seed, 2022

If your closest friends were visiting the area, where would you choose to take them to help create a memorable visit? Say it was a weeklong trip. Where would you eat, drink, visit, and hang out? Give us a little itinerary.

If Belle and Jenny were still here with us (Rest in peace, my loves), I’d take them to Studio ACE for their Saturday afternoon life drawing sessions. We’d absorb the sounds of charcoal scratching the surface of paper, and the warmth of Julia and her lovely team. After a few hours of deep study, we’d prance out of there with charcoal on our brows and birdsong in our hearts. Then, we’d head over to Mission Ave for their blood orange IPA. Oh. So. Good. We might end up staying for some hours, since the folks there are extremely hospitable and have always allowed me to post up at a corner table for hours as I work on smaller art projects while watching the games. (We’d be rooting for the Warriors since we’re Bay Area girls 🙂 ) We’d have our watercolors spread out, jars half-filled with swirling teal blue water as we’d reminisce about our time together in the San Jose State studios. Then, after a shared ahi salad and some burgers, we’d head to Oceanside Museum of Art for an opening reception, and meet up with some of our kindred Artist Alliance members. We’d most likely get immediately stuck in front of one or two artworks as we tried figuring out the artist’s process, or ranting about some color, before urgently dragging each other across the museum to share some of the must-see pieces. Kelly and I might be scribbling in our sketchbooks frantically of inspired concepts, materials, and images, while Jenny might be scrawling lines for her next poem or words to include in the next chapter of her memoire. We’d most likely be the last ones to leave (Katie, Maria, and Drei know this to be true). Then we’d meet my husband Hiền at Sunset Cliffs for lobster fishing by moonlight, and marvel at how our quickly our eyes adjust to the dark. We’d snag some rock fish and eel in between the lobsters. And once our eyes grew weary and the sky began to reveal her tint of blue once again, we’d head over to Roberto’s in Ocean Beach for some rolled tacos to eat on the drive home. And that would be Day 1.

Seed, detail of heirloom chicken egg
Things Hidden, 2022

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?

With an exuberant shout, I want to acknowledge God, for whom I depend on for the hope and strength that I desperately need to navigate through this life that is full of loss and hardship. My husband, whose heart for humanity has helped turned my focus on the things outside of myself, which has made me into a much less selfish person (how fortunate for me and those around me!). Friends of Huế Foundation and Jenny Do, who taught me that art doesn’t just serve as a healing balm in my own life, but that it has the power to make great change in the lives of others, specifically the underprivileged. All the people who have stood alongside us through the trials of life—their love has flushed us with the endurance that we need to triumph. We love you.

Things Hidden, detail of mother’s Việt Nam identification card

Website: http://trinhmai.com/

Instagram: @trinhmaistudios

Facebook: Trinh Mai Studios

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHdeFtQbdCHQZjGyYIUIsjg

Other: Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/trinh-mai

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutSocal is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.