March 25, 2022 • By Christine Pasalo Norland

Head and Heart

"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."

Photograph collage of Sua t-shirts, gold mooncake dangling earrings, and Cozy Affirmations" woven blanket on a couch.

PHOTOS FROM TRAN'S @WHALETRAN AND @POMPOMMKT INSTAGRAM FEEDS.

Be it a t-shirt featuring a milk carton with the word “Sữa” (Vietnamese for “milk”), a pair of dangling earrings the shape of mooncakes, or a cozy woven blanket featuring affirmations one can wrap themselves in, Tran's appealing kawaii style radiates bright colors, uplifting imagery, and relatable subjects. True to the inner child who'd make anything they could get their hands on, Tran's choice of art medium is a spectrum, ranging from analog and digital drawing tools, fiber, photography, resin, paints, and more.


“I want to spread the message of abundance and positive-thinking and manifestation. It’s weird saying that because I struggled with depression my whole life,” Tran said. “It’s just so powerful when you start believing in yourself and pursuing what you feel is right for you.”


Today, Tran is a creative lead at Passion Planner, a San Diego-based company that produces organization planners encouraging a balance between productivity and self care. She, Suntichotinun, and their friend Tommy have also co-founded Social Dropouts, an artist collective that aims to build an art studio in San Diego catered to neurodivergent people of color who are, or aspire to become, creatives. To help fund Social Dropouts, the three artists are also developing a digital retail space called Pom!Pom! Market.


“The moment I allowed myself to become my most authentic self and just leaned into that, I started feeling better. I wasn’t constantly fighting myself. I wasn’t waking up dreading my life. I wasn’t crossing the street without looking,” said Tran. “I am looking now.”


•••


Follow Wednesday Tran on Instagram at @whaletran. Visit Pom!Pom! Market at www.pompom.market and follow it on Instagram at @pompommkt. Visit Social Dropouts at www.socialdropous.me and follow it on Instagram at @socialdropouts.me and on TikTok at @socialdropouts.

Do these stories matter to you? Become a Barkada Backer and support independent arts journalism and programming. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about arts & culture, help support our comics series and livestream programs, and much more. Become a Barkada Backer today!


Find out who we're profiling next when you sign up for our newsletter!


TAGS: PROFILES

Text in black says "You May Also Like" followed by a black line break.
White text says "Whale Rider: 20th Anniversary. Our latest Word Search centers this moving intergenerational story of family, community, and acceptance. Released in 2002, the film is adapted from the novel Whale Rider by Māori author Witi Ihimaera. Read our movie synopsis and see the original trailer!" Text on a darkened color film still featuring the young girl Paikea in Maori regalia speaking at a school cultural event.
Darkened collage of screenshots taken of Steenz from the second episode of Allowed. White text reads, "Allowed, with Steenz! The award-winning cartoonist discusses their new book Heart Takes the Stage and the ways they infuse their style and perspective into the 'Heart of the City' comic strip."