translating with thread: an interview with Thương Hoài Trần

Grandfather at the Laundromat (2021). Handwoven cotton and wool. 16.5×28”.

Being her family history’s archivist while weaving a story of her own, Thương Hoài Trần (she/they) is an interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago, IL. Combining their training in printmaking with newfound skills in fibers, she documents a familial immigrant story told to them through word-of-mouth and old photographs.

Uncle Thuy II (2021). Lithograph. 11×14″.

How would you introduce yourself as an artist?

Thương: I’d start by saying I’m a second-year MFA student at the SAIC currently in the Print Media department working my way into the Fibers department. Kind of exploring other avenues of making work besides print.

I work with family photographs to explore what it means to revisit memories I don’t have, and to translate them visually.

I also work in a lot of ways to distort my images whether it’s Photoshop, the material itself, or pure translation of one medium to another. I think it is important to convey this idea of translation but also my interpretation of these images. Also “how does this dissonance from one country I once was from now removed” interpret my own identity. 

Tho Minh Trần (2021).  Painted warp, handwoven cotton, metallic yarn, and feng shui coins. 33×92″.

You started with Printmaking, moved to Fibers, and now you are finding ways to marry the two. Both mediums you’ve been working with they are labor heavy and meticulous; they require a lot of hand-eye coordination and time. What connections do you see from this focus that is required from your process and the emotional connections you have with your photographs/source material.

Thương: I found that I’m drawn to laborious ways of making as a way to create space. One person through the photographs I focus on is my grandfather. I’m creating a space to have conversations with people that aren’t here anymore which gives me time to reflect on how I’m trying to navigate the world. This time gives me a place in my head to create stories about what is occurring in these photographs.

I came across your old website and undergraduate portfolio. I found your oil paintings and saw it was the earliest of these “distortions” in an image. Like they are a fluctuation in time. Was that where you started adding this effect to your work? If so, what made you start using that stylistic choice?

Thương: It did start with paintings. It was my way of communicating the lens I’m using to look at my life. Like I’m literally pushing and pulling the world that I exist in. I also feel like I’m not fully connected enough to a place like Vietnam to truly be from there. Even when I go back it’s very evident that I’m American. 

With how I look here in the U.S., I’m easily spotted out in a crowd of people signaling “I’m not white.” There are a lot of feelings of “otherness.” Using the “distortion” effect was how I could channel my feeling of “otherness,” and instill it into my work.

Kỷ Niệm Ngày Cưới (2021). Video projection.

How did you start getting into weaving? Was that something that came out of your grad school experience?

Thương: I had no previous formal training in Fibers. So, this whole process has been overwhelming, fun, and great to try something new. I felt very over my head starting to learn the terminology like “warp” and “weft.” I started this project where I was deconstructing all these shirts that were made in Vietnam. Since I was working with articles of clothing, my school advisors recommended I take a Fibers class. I took their advice and here I am making these weavings.

I’m glad they spotted that! The work you’ve been making from it has been amazing.

When working with photographs/images in Printmaking I feel like there is a linear process to create an image. With weaving, how has creating your work changed? Or helped you discover new things?

Thương: With weaving, I’ve found that there’s a strong relationship between it and Printmaking. Throwing the shuttle back and forth on the loom feels similar to counting the number of times your brayer goes through the ink slab. Both disciplines require a lot of repetition.

Made in Vietnam: Old Navy (2020). Found objects and acrylic on canvas. 9×12”.

I wanted to ask you about your show “Made in Vietnam” at the SAIC Incubator. How did you come up with the idea for your show and what do you want people to take away from it?

Thương: Initially, the staff at the Incubator reached out to me for ideas on a show. They were drawn to this video work I had of taking the previously mentioned shirts that had “Made in Vietnam” tags apart. 

What I want people to come away from the show is this idea, “these shirt tags don’t become recognizable until they start bothering us. Itching us. Or start to become cumbersome.”

I wanted to highlight the little details of the shirts we wear along with the invisible labor that is behind all the work in creating these shirts.

I researched conditions these factory workers in Vietnam faced. Some faced 16-hour shifts and only 30 minutes of break in the entire shift. I also saw photos of closed sweatshops that had piles and piles of clothes behind workers because they had to get through their work so fast.

I wanted to give extra care to all the threads, compartments, and parts that the shirts were made of. I wanted to highlight the idea that something as simple as a t-shirt has so many intricacies, is passed through so many hands, and has flown large distances just in the production and selling of it. 

That’s such a poignant and relevant topic to showcase right now with how thrifting has become such a buzz topic, and in turn, created criticism towards excess consumerism in the clothing industry/”fast fashion.”

It also creates another avenue for people to connect with your work that may not pick up  the personal-cultural aspect of it.

Thương: Thank you! I started this piece as a connection to myself. I consider it almost like self-portraiture.

I was looking for myself a lot of the times when I’d go thrifting, especially moving to Chicago from Emporia, Kansas when I’ve been with my family all my life. Something called to me when I kept rifling through shirts and would find the tag saying, “Made in Vietnam.” I was joking that “Ah, I’m also made in Vietnam.”

Yes! It’s such an immigrant experience when you’re just casually going through your day and finding something from your home country. There’s a moment of marvel like, “Wow we have both come so far to get here, and here we are together.”

Cao Đài Temple (2021). Handwoven cotton and metallic yarn. 53×28”.

A Vietnamese immigrant living in the United States, Thương Hoài Trần uses art to illustrate the physical and metaphorical gaps felt by diasporic communities. Their work can be found at and on their Instagram @cupcakes.