Artist Spotlight: Cuong Mike Tran

By Clare Walker, JAC Intern

“Self Portrait”

Mike Tran has been dabbling in art and drawing his surroundings since childhood. At an early age he “cursed a dream that was imposed on [him].” His talent, he says, was acknowledged but never encouraged. As the years passed, school and work began to take priority and art was put on the back burner. 

Growing up, Mike was immersed in two cultural perspectives “...American and Vietnamese. I was confused as to my identity. I was both proud and ashamed of my ethnic heritage. I was often the ‘different’ kid in most settings. My novelty brought both praise and (more often) ridicule. Combine that with years of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and you get a pretty damaged person that didn’t see much value in art.”

“Mona Lunchbox”

Once in prison, the value of art began to grow for Mike. Drawing became a way to pass time and remain grounded. But as he began to realize his talent, it also became so much more: “as I learned my value and self-worth, art taught me the benefits of tenacity, determination, and hard-work.” Beyond these characteristics – which his steadfast commitment to art taught him – art became a true companion: “art is my best friend at times. I can express myself to and through art. Prison is an inherently controlled environment. When and where to talk, eat, walk, and sleep are often decided for us. Art is one of the few things that isn’t limited. What I cannot verbalize and where I cannot go is represented through my art. I am physically confined, but art allows my mind, heart, imagination, and soul to soar. With art, I am always free.”

“Tupak Shakur”

Mike’s art is characterized by an uncanny attention to detail and masterful use of color. His paintings are imbued with life, a talent which is not easily achieved and made all the more awe inspiring upon learning that Mike is a completely self taught artist. While he initially began creating using primarily graphite pencils, Mike then began experimenting with sculpture using found objects in prison. Most recently, in 2021 he focused on painting with acrylics. Forced to be incredibly resourceful to create his art: “Almost all of my art materials are hand-me-downs. When I run out of canvas, I will paint on cloth, hats, ceiling tiles, and (my personal favorite) cardboard lunch boxes.

We live in an information void. We don’t have the internet to look up reference photos or instructional videos. There is a lot of trial and error in my creative process. Often I find reference photos in random tossed out magazines and books. I treasure these. I painted strawberries from a picture I found, knowing that I might never see real strawberries again. 

“Strawberries”

I don’t know the difference between taklon and sable brushes or what glazing medium does. All I know is I like my worn out #3 round and #1 liner. It’s all I have to paint with. I use 5 different brands of paint alongside industrial primer, vinyl paint, tea, and coffee. Even outside artists are not this limited. So I like to consider myself a ‘shackled artist.'”

“One Day”

Mike draws inspiration from his emotions, a choice which translates to his work and the viewers experience of it. He writes, “I don’t have any particular preference for subject matter. I choose what to paint according to how a picture makes me feel. I can see a magnificent sunset and not find inspiration, but a simple lonely tractor in a field can elicit such emotion in my heart. My target audience often inspires me as well. I can be offered sums of money to create art and feel no motivation or inspiration. Often I will create art for others and gift it to them as a surprise. Challenge, innovation, and outside-the-box thinking also inspire me. I don’t want to paint inside my comfort zone, I’ll never grow that way. I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself or be ‘defined’ by a style. I paint what I want because I can. Ironic how liberating life in prison can be.”

In allowing himself to be guided by emotions, he has fueled an incredible range of subject matter. Mike brings to life cut strawberries just as he does an elf warrior. A hungry lion just as he does Rey from StarWars or Tupak Shakur. His pushing of boundaries, of style, becomes visible across his work. And in this way, his portfolio becomes a stunning, visual representation of him liberating himself from boundaries and limitations. Of creating beauty despite the limitations others may try to impose on him: “On my rehabilitative journey I have discovered that redemption is possible. I cannot erase my poor decisions, but I need not be defined by them. Serving a life sentence means that I may never again see the outside of prison walls. Despite that I have found value and worth in myself. I want to shout from the mountain tops that beauty can be found anywhere, even in a bleak prison environment.

Art gives me this voice. It allows me to reach across the razor wire. It allows me to transcend my prison identification number. Art is my therapy, my teacher, my message. Art is me. I am art.”

Cuong “Mike” Tran

To see more of Mike Tran’s work, view his full artist portfolio here!

One thought on “Artist Spotlight: Cuong Mike Tran

  1. Todd Hollfelder

    I find myself awestruck by the positive attitude you maintain through your isolation. My style, similar to yours, aims to tell prison stories, illustrated emotions and feelings. Personally, I found I gave away too much personal information, through the arts, I didn’t want exposed to others.Day by day, year by year, stay true to yourself. (Another similarity is that I’m White/Mexican). One day I hope to meet in person. I’m sure we could talk for hours. Thanks, Mike, for sharing with us. You affected me, and I’m certain many others.

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