"I didn’t know I’d grow up to be an artist, to be a creative."
It was a Friday afternoon in February, and San Diego-based artist Uyen "Wednesday" Tran joined me on a video call from the parking lot of Market and 8th, a new food hall space in National City, California. Tran and their partner, fellow artist Koy Suntichotinun, were there to paint a slice-of-life mural for the eatery Weapon Ramen.
Born in the San Diego neighborhood of City Heights and raised in La Mesa and Lemon Grove, Tran toyed with several ambitions as a kid: an origami salesperson, a manga artist, an author of a science textbook, an inventor. Each one spoke to a common theme.
“My heart was always in creating stuff," said Tran. "Watercolor painting, origami, papier-mâché. Anything I could get my hands on, I would make.”
But despite vivid childhood memories of going to the College-Rolando Branch library with her father to check out how-to books of different arts and crafts, Tran didn’t yet think it was reasonable to be an artist full-time.
"I knew that, practically, when I got into my teens and into high school, I needed to be in STEM. I needed to be in business, just like my parents," said Tran, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam. "I grew up seeing all that they had to sacrifice, all of the late nights. In my heart, I just felt like everything I did had to be worth it, worth their struggle."
Nobody ever told Tran that an art career was impossible or that it was impractical. She just made that call for herself.
“Being the eldest daughter of immigrants, there’s a lot of weight that comes with that and a lot of pressure,” she said.
After graduating from Helix High School, Tran majored in Economics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and began accumulating work experience for their resume, including an internship in Washington, D.C., with former Congresswoman Susan Davis.
"That was when I had my worst mental health crisis. I felt really empty inside,” Tran said. “The culture of doing everything possible to make it to the top–that was just not me. I was in D.C., crossing the street without looking because there was nothing for me to be excited about.”
As she began to detach herself from traditional notions of success, Tran focused on making and mailing art pieces to Suntichotinun during their budding long-distance relationship. She embroidered him flowers and he made her illustrations. She drew in books she'd read, send them to him, and he would read them. In reconnecting with art-making, and having a supportive partner who was also artistic, Tran found solace.
"I felt like myself again,” said Tran.
From then on, Tran allowed her creativity to manifest, combining it with her passion for social justice and mental health advocacy. When she moved back to San Diego, she joined Ammar Campa-Najjar’s Congressional Campaign as a volunteer coordinator and the campaign photographer. Upon graduating from UCSD in her third year (2018!), she got her first creative job as a paid intern with Reality Changers, a nonprofit based in San Diego's Normal Heights neighborhood. She also made art on her own time to fundraise for other nonprofits, like when she used her illustration of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to raise money for The San Diego LGBT Center as well as the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign. Her art even began exhibiting in local and international events and galleries.
"One of the things I learned later on during therapy is that the things you’re complaining the most about in your life are the things you need to set boundaries around. What I needed to do was create a boundary within myself, with what I thought I wanted to do. I kept forcing myself into careers I thought I could be successful in. But in reality it wasn't those things that would make me happy," said Tran. "Creativity and being an artist has always been a part of me and no matter what space I was in, I always felt it pulling me back."