Tracing Roots: Trinh Mai Finds the Beauty in Life through Honoring Cultural Heritage
Heart first, Trinh Mai aims to bring people together through art. Finding comfort in
color and peace in faith, her multidisciplinary works honor her Vietnamese cultural
heritage and shine a light on larger stories
of shared humanity.
“We have to draw strength from our community work, the people we love, art, and hope. We are drawing from a transcendent source. All beauty comes from that process of discovery.”-Trinh Mai
Trinh Mai’s love of art is deep, rooted in family history, connecting past and present. As Trinh describes, she thinks in branches—uncovering stories—in search of healing, hope, and community. Her art is a prayer, a process of discovery, honoring her cultural heritage and family.
Shaped by her family’s experience escaping Vietnam during the War in 1975, Trinh uses art as a language to connect hearts to the stories of loved ones. Having passed through many countries, including the Philippines and Guam, on their journey to the United States, Trinh’s family arrived in Pennsylvania at one of four refugee camps in the US at the time. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Trinh moved to Southern California at a young age and lived with extended family while her parents moved to Silicon Valley during the ’80s tech boom to find work. Trinh attributes her creative energy to her parents, who were both very meticulous, creative, and clever. Her dad nurtured a green thumb and loved cultivating bonsai trees. Trinh’s love of nature and desire to connect to the land threads through her work in symbolism and materiality. Trinh co-creates her art with history, informed by the heirlooms and stories of her family and the deep feeling of responsibility to honor her culture and share that love with the wider community.
“One of the things that the elders and people in general fear is being forgotten. And not just that they are forgotten, but their history is forgotten, the history of [their] people, the ways that [they] arrived here, traditions, food, family lineages, and the sacrifices they made. What a shame it would be to forget about the sacrifices that were made for us to be here. My fear is that their fear will be realized. It’s both a blessing and a burden to carry this responsibility to share. But one of the things that has encouraged the elders through my art is not just that they see themselves and I’m honoring their lives, but also knowing that the younger generation cares and wants to carry on the history. When families see heritage being passed down and honored, it takes that fear away. And it’s not just descendants that are inheriting that culture, it’s also the wider community that we are sharing it with.”
Trinh’s favorite mediums are oil paint and charcoal, but oil on canvas is her first true love and how she found her voice. Trinh’s love of oil painting began at San Jose State University (SJSU), creating abstract paintings. Painting on large canvases felt like creating an all-encompassing environment that she could step into. During her studies at SJSU, Trinh encountered a Mark Rothko painting at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Initially skeptical of his work, seeing it in person was a very pivotal and transformational experience for her. It opened her eyes to how art could convey spiritual essence through color and form. Finding herself standing in front of the Rothko painting, Trinh was “consumed by the cadmium red.” Describing the experience as deeply real, it opened her heart to what she wanted her work to accomplish.
“I wanted to make paintings like that, so true to what they are that they speak for themselves. I would like for whatever spirit is living inside the painting to speak. I don’t need to be a part of that conversation, but I think maybe my role is to have an intimate relationship with the work, and then the work has its own relationship with the viewer.”
Trinh describes her relationship to art as “salvation to the fullest,” born out of a desperate need to find comfort through life’s hardships. Through abstract art, Trinh found her footing and fell in love with the comfort, light, and life that art brought about.
“As I started maturing in the art and really taking it seriously, I realized it’s teaching me to see, the art of observation. I realized that was the main lesson, and once I embraced that, I saw how free I could feel painting boxes and spheres.”
As a multidisciplinary artist, Trinh describes her use of various mediums as a beautiful and fulfilling symbiotic relationship, with each medium teaching her unique lessons. She appreciates the labor and lessons that each provides, allowing her to excavate ideas by digging deeply through experimentation. For example, stitching teaches her to slow down, be careful, and have patience. From painting portraits to writing poetry, Trinh creates her work from a place of deep intentionality. Art has opened doors for Trinh to speak to universal truths of unified humanity. “I started discovering things about my family history that are shared by so many other people, not just Vietnamese refugees, but people all over the world.” Motivated by a desire to serve the community, Trinh finds purpose in discovering the beauty of life that can arise despite tragedy. “I feel that my responsibility is to offer life to stories to give comfort to other people.” Art gives life back to objects and stories and sows seeds for future generations. Sharing these stories cultivates a shared cultural heritage.
Driven to discover what it means to have an intimate relationship with God, Trinh is deeply thankful for her faith and the peace and purpose that it brings her in daily life. For Trinh, it all comes back to an essential question: “In the midst of life’s trials, where do we turn for strength? We have to draw strength from our community work, the people we love, art, and hope. We are drawing from a transcendent source. All beauty comes from that process of discovery.”