Interview and article by: Hope Ollivant
Artwork by: Aaron Tran
In Jan 2022, I had the pleasure of talking with Aaron Tran. Aaron is a Junior in the Communication Arts department, a member of the Asian community, and my friend. Aaron’s art often confronts world issues, in 2020, he made t-shirts using imagery from the Black Lives Matter protests and donated his profits to organizations that supported the movement. He recently participated in the Undergraduate Juried Show at The Anderson, a selective show for undergraduate artists at VCU. Aaron displayed beautiful work that conveys Asian and Asian Americans as the strong and courageous people they are.
Hope: How did you get into Art when you applied to VCUArts? Were you set on being a Communication Art major or have you always been open to the possibilities?
Aaron: I really always had a love for art. I think my mom really sparked that in me when she taught me how to make origami stars when I was really young. She made me fall in love with art, and I’ve taken art classes for the past 16 years, which is crazy. When I got to VCU I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I loved art and that this would be the perfect place to allow my creativity to blossom.
Hope: Wow, 16 years, that’s a long time.
Aaron: I know, right! Since preschool, that’s pretty insane for me to think about.
Hope: Damn, I didn’t even really start art classes till my senior year of high school.
Aaron: And you went straight to art school which is crazy
Hope: yeah I know, crazy crazy. So, A lot has happened this past year: the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and rallies to stop Asian hate. How have these events affected you as well as your artwork?
Aaron: I’d say they’ve had an immense impact on my work. I used to have this feeling where I didn’t know what I wanted to communicate with my work but I think this first year at art school opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you can do and say with art. When those movements happened I had no doubt in my mind what I wanted to say.
Hope: Love that, could you tell me a little bit more about your inspiration and your thought process behind selling the protest t-shirts?
Aaron: As a POC myself I wanted to be as helpful as possible to the Black community because I experienced racism and hate, and I want to be an ally to others who have been oppressed. I started with a design I made for this protest which is this pig head being held up and it says “No justice, no peace” That was the first one I started with, and then I had an oil pastel drawing of a burning cop car as well. So I took those two designs and put them on shirts. I saw other artists doing it. I took all the profits, which were over 400 dollars, and donated everything.
Hope: Where do you donate?
Aaron: I donated to the American Civil Liberties Union, some bail funds, and Black Lives Matter but I heard they are kinda iffy with how they spend their money.
Hope: That’s great, that’s a lot of money.
Hope: I saw your oil paintings at the undergraduate juried exhibit at The Anderson were so personal and powerful. I’m really interested to hear more about how your art could possibly help you to process all of these events and your overall process for creating them.
Aaron: I think powerful imagery is something I love to include in my work. I want my work to be able to put my message out clearly even without words. For those pieces specifically, I chose images from the Rodney King Riots where Korean Americans were defending themselves and their businesses during looting. People were burning down businesses and they were just defending themselves. I wanted to show strength and courage and contextualize how Asian people are portrayed in the media.
Hope: You have such power as an artist to send messages and get people’s attention with your pieces. What does your artwork aim to say?
Aaron: I want my work to show that my people are strong. Since Covid has started, hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans have skyrocketed. I think in March it was the highest it’s ever been. People are getting beat in the streets in broad daylight and nobody is stopping anything, it’s really sad to see. I don’t want to continue the media’s narrative. We’ve been portrayed as weak and frail and it’s always a nerd or a frickin kid getting bullied. I don’t want to continue that, I want to show the strength and bravery that I’ve seen in my community for my entire life and that everybody is equal.
Hope: Very nice, that’s a good answer.
Aaron: I took my time.
Hope: I’m glad you’re prepared. I am seeing a theme of these world issues throughout your pieces. Will we be seeing more of that from you in the future? Are you interested in creating work that exists outside of these issues we have regarding race in the world and in America?
Aaron: I have so much I want to do in the coming months and even years. I do want to continue the series that I’ve done. I’ve painted the Tiananmen square, the Tank Man, I did those two for the exhibition, and then I just recently finished one of my grandpas. So I feel like that all fit in the same realm of strength and courage. I also have countless other ideas I want to go for outside of those themes. I’m just going to continue working, I’m not really putting myself in any box.
Hope: I hate boxes, they’re the worst. I see your work in a lot of different mediums: oil paint, gauche, pen, graphite. Do you want to keep experimenting and playing with all of them? Is there one you want to focus on and master?
Aaron: I do really want to focus on oil painting because I really don’t feel like my skills are where I want them to be. I’m also a person who likes to explore different things so for the rest of my life I’m going to be dabbling in anything I can get my hands on really.
Hope: Same here.
Aaron: I’m going to start sewing.
Hope: I definitely won’t be doing that. This next year is going to be your senior year. Do you have any post-graduation plans? Where would you like to see your artwork and career go?
Aaron: I will be happy for the rest of my life as long as I get to create. I actually took this semester off so I can focus on myself and my personal work without having to worry about school and academics. I do want to get into content creation because I want to be able to propel myself as a business. Whether that be on tik tok or youtube, I’d really like to make videos to go along with the things that I do. I enjoy telling my artistic story through those videos and I want to connect with like-minded individuals. I’d like to do what I want to do forever until I die.