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Friday, September 11, 2020

Talking with the Southeast Asia Artists-in-Residency Program Alumni: Richard Streitmatter-Tran

We wrap up our special weeklong feature on the Southeast Asia Artists-in-Residency Program (SEA-AiR) with Rachel Parikh, WAM’s Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art, speaking with 2019 participant, Richard Streitmatter-Tran. 

Richard was born in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. Adopted by an American family in Massachusetts, he grew up on Cape Cod. He moved to Vietnam over 15 years ago, living and working in Ho Chi Minh City. Richard established himself as an international artist with his solo and collaborative work featured throughout the world. To learn more about his artistic practice, visit http://diacritic.org

2019 SEA-AiR alumnus, Richard Streitmatter-Tran. 

Rachel Parikh (RP): Why did you want to participate in WAM’s SEA-AiR Program?

Richard Streitmatter-Tran (RS-T): Although I was born in Vietnam, I grew up on Cape Cod as an adopted child in Massachusetts and my formative memories during childhood were created there. The Northeastern accent, the particular smell of the ocean, and the history and culture of the state are all familiar to me. Except for a few years in the U.S. Army and two years of college in California, I returned and completed my BFA at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. It was there that I met David Thomas, Director of the Indochina Arts Partnership (IAP), and, through the generosity of this organization, I received a scholarship to join the MassArt study trip to Vietnam. This was my first time in Vietnam since my birth. It was such an amazing experience that, a few months after finishing at MassArt, I relocated to Vietnam in 2003.

I approached this residency as closing of a circle. My experience as a professional artist has been solely in Vietnam, although the images I grew up with and have a great affection for are painters from my childhood. I remember my grandmother had a painting in the living room that was either a copy of or a derivative painting by Winslow Homer—fishermen in yellow raincoats battling the choppy, dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean. 

I had been focusing on watercolors for the last couple of years and wanted to look at three painters in WAM's collection that evoked the images and environment of growing up in the 1970s and 1980s on Cape Cod—Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper. I hoped to learn more about their processes and techniques to determine if they might be useful to me when painting on silk or watercolor ground.

It also coincided with the end of the IAP after more than 30 years. In a sense, my career began with the opportunity afforded me to visit Vietnam through the IAP. Coming to the Museum also allowed me to mark the ending of the IAP and, by returning home, to understand the many entanglements between my life as a Vietnamese adoptee and Massachusetts citizen. 

RP: I think that is such a beautiful way to look at the residency, and such a personal one too. It must have been such a profound experience. Any highlights for you?

RS-T: I cannot say there was one highlight, the entire experience was amazing! To me, spending a lot of time in the Higgins Education Wing studio was invaluable. And that was made possible because of the amazing WAM staff, from security to the curators and the front desk who extended the hours I worked into the evening whenever feasible. Everyone was so helpful. I even created a series of  WAM staff portraits.

The residency allowed me to meet several people from the community connected to the program as sponsors, including the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts. I highly valued my time at WAM as my wife in Vietnam was pregnant with our first child, so each day away needed to be spent well. I completed many works at WAM from painting to sculpture culminating in a public exhibition at the Worcester Pop Up and later at the Midway Artist Studios in Boston.

Oh, and I was able to taste Chinese American food and authentic clam chowder once again! You do not find that easily in Asia.

Richard at work during open studio hours at WAM. The residency holds
weekly studio hours so that visitors can meet the artists and see what
 they are working on, and artists can engage with the local community. 

RP: That is great, and congratulations on your baby boy, as well! You mentioned wanting to study New England artists. How did the residency experience impact your art?

RS-T: I have a deeper appreciation for the history of American Art predating the advent of modernism and the contemporary period. It was somewhat meditative for me to focus on this again. I came away knowing what direction I wanted to explore further. Also accessing the paper archives at WAM and seeing the actual paintings and drawings from those aforementioned artists was something I never thought was possible.

RP: What about your artistic practice? Was that influenced by your time here at WAM and studying these artists?

RS-T: Yes, I came away with a broader appreciation for art. Rather than focusing on career-oriented strategies or new techniques, I could see a longer, larger picture of the history of art. I left feeling that someday I could tap into these experiences to create future works. By being in America for an extended period, the first in 17 years, I focused on my feelings toward America, both fondly and critically. In a sense, it made my new home in Vietnam feel more like a home. I could revisit my youth, explore some deep memories, and emerge more complete as a person and as an artist. On a side note, I brought back a lot of sculpture supplies and paints that I cannot find in Southeast Asia, which will certainly be used in my new works. 

RP: I understand those sentiments completely, also having lived abroad for a while. Apart from Homer, Sargent, and Hopper, were there any other artists or works that inspired you?

RS-T: I enjoyed the sculptures in the Southeast Asian collection. I also visited with the WAM Conservation Department to see the Museum's conservators working on artworks. This was something entirely new for me—the meeting of science and creativity. During the last days of our residency, WAM opened its With Child: Otto Dix / Carmen Winant exhibition with Dix’s grandson coming from Germany to give opening remarks. This was a unique opportunity.

Head of Shiva or King, Cambodia, 12th century, stone
on  marble base. Museum Purchase, 1923.1

RP: Do you have any favorite objects at WAM?

RS-T: I was amazed by the Chapter House (1927.46). How a museum could integrate this installation into its own architecture is mind-blowing. And, upon stepping inside, you feel the history of the space. I visited it often to admire its Gothic arches.

RP: What have you been working on since your residency?

RS-T: The residency was one of the last big periods of production for me. When it ended, I flew to Japan to install a work, which was in part created at WAM, for the Setouchi Triennale. I also had to prepare for my solo exhibition in Hong Kong for January 2020, after which I planned to focus on raising my newborn son.

Shortly after my Hong Kong exhibition, the world suddenly changed because of COVID-19, and most of my planned exhibitions for 2020 were cancelled or postponed. I am currently teaching children’s art classes until my galleries can resume their normal activities. It is hard to believe that less than a year ago I was at WAM—the difference then between Vietnam and Massachusetts is now as vast as the world a year ago before the pandemic! 

This painting is part of Richard’s series,
“Bless the Beasts and Children 2020” (2019-20), 
 which is made up of eight portraits of protestors from different
parts of the world.  It was on view at De Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong
 this past July. Image courtesy of De Sarthe Gallery. 

The Southeast Asia Artists-in-Residency Program is supported by the IAP Fund at WAM, the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts under Ahn Vu Sawyer, The Crawford Foundation, and Robert and Minh Mailloux.

—September 11, 2020

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