Cuong “Mike” Tran

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Mike Tran interviewed by Clare Walker

I’ve always dabbled in drawing most of my life. As a kid I could look at a picture and draw what I saw. As I got older, school and work took priority; art was placed on the backburner. Forward some years and I find myself in prison. With a lot of time to sit and reflect, I picked up drawing again.

I’ve seen many talented artists in here working with graphite pencils and acrylic paints. I wanted to stand out, so I started to build and sculpt figurines out of whatever materials I could find. I didn’t have the faintest clue as to where and how to start. I fell back onto my mechanical background, constructing skeletal frames out of paper and cardboard lunch boxes. I then applied soap over the frames, creating “muscle and skin.” I would then paint over the dried soap using hand-me-down acrylic paints. Digging around, I was able to find scrap materials such as old t-shirts, silver burrito wrappers, and pen barrels (just to name a few things) and turn them into accessories for my figurines.

Things have snowballed from there. I’ve become more proficient at using the materials available to me (translation: junk) to make artwork. To date, I’ve made over 80 pieces here in prison, the major ones being a functioning carousel, a remote control go-kart, a scale sized Chevrolet impala, a 2 foot tall demon, and a post-apocalyptic diorama.

Always up to a challenge, I’ve recently taken up painting with acrylics.

I am not formally trained. I’ve never taken an art class. I’m completely self-taught, so I believe that my work is described as ‘outsider art’ (ironic, because I’m currently in prison). As such, I’m severely limited by the availability of material, workspace, and inspiration. I am forced to be resourceful and resilient despite the physical and emotional constraints. So I like to think of myself as a ‘shackled artist.

Art has been very therapeutic for me. It allows me to free myself despite being physically restricted. In an environment where my every move is monitored and controlled, my ideas, creativity and imagination are the only things that are limitless. Art is freedom; it allows me to put a part of myself onto paper or in a sculpture.

Art also allows me to show society that I am still a human being, that I am not defined by my mistakes.

Skills: I am not formally trained in any medium. However, I have found a natural affinity with graphite pencils and charcoal. Recently, I have started to paint using my acrylics. My sculpting abilities consist of forming skeletal frames using found materials and covering them with soap instead of modeling clay.
I have a strong mechanical background. I am also fluent in English and Vietnamese and am teaching myself Spanish through books and full immersion. I play the acoustic guitar as well.”


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2 thoughts on “Cuong “Mike” Tran

  1. Jennifer Kruzinski

    I am so impressed, Mike! My son, too, is an incarcerated artist. What is still able to come from the minds, hearts, and circumstances of individuals like you, is a testament to the human being. “Freedom” is ultimately internal. Only God truly knows and has the power to undo the damage. Be patient and keep creating!

  2. Carl Hunter

    What an interesting variety of subjects incredibly detailed. You are so playful. The dog is a Labrador–same as ours. Do you have other works displayed on this website? Carl

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