Pottery is one of the earliest crafts in Vietnam history. For Vietnamese, pottery is not just an artform, but also an important means of livelihood — an indispensable part of Vietnamese culture. Nowadays, Vietnamese ceramics have evolved refinedly to a full-fledged industry with dozens of pottery villages, factories and skilled artists springing up. Furthermore, Vietnamese ceramics products are now exported and can be found all over the world.
Nevertheless, while Vietnamese ceramics were mainly associated with mass and commercial production, there is a resurgence in consumer demand for unique, handmade goods over mass-produced items. Therefore, more and more individual ceramic artists are looking for ways of embedding their personal hallmarks into creating crafts while still conserving old traditions.
Among them, Portland-based ceramicist Thuong Tran (@hello.datset) and her playful ceramic balloons stem from her earnest desire to not only brighten one’s home, but also to promote contemporary Vietnamese ceramics to the international world.
“A good day is when at the end of it I find myself covered with clay.”
Today, Tran is a talented ceramic artist known for beautiful life-size “floating” ceramic balloons – which come in varying sizes, colors, and levels of inflatedness – as well as ceramic clouds and letters. With a talent like Tran’s, it’s surprising to find out that art wasn’t her first career choice.
Before ceramics, Tran already built herself a strong educational background and career in business that everybody would surely admire: after spending university years in Singapore, then to Israel and California for MBA and master’s degree in International Marketing, she worked as a marketing manager at a tech startup in the Silicon Valley. But long before that, she worked in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore for three years before founding bythuongtran, now known as The Planners, one of the first successful professional wedding planning firms located in Hanoi.
Not conventionally trained in the field, Tran’s journey into ceramics started quite late but grew intensively over just a few years. “It started on my 30th birthday. I wanted to do something new so I signed up for a pottery course over 8 weeks at a community studio. Those 8 weeks turned into a much longer journey, I guess it had been a while since I last felt that passionate about something.”
“Ceramics were getting fun — it made me curious enough to keep trying and making. A good day is when at the end of it I find myself covered with clay,” said Tran. “As the balloons took up too much space in my house, I opened an Etsy shop to sell them. For the following 6 months I took every order very seriously while still working full time as a marketing manager. On weekdays, after 8 hours in-office, I worked in my studio Dat Set there for another 4 hours. On the weekend I worked in my studio for more than 8 hours/day.”
“I started feeling stressed because I did not have enough time. I did not rest enough, I was behind orders, I became cranky: So I talked to my husband and he said “maybe it is time to work on your art full time — if that made you happy.” And we decided that starting in 2020 I will work full time at my studio.”
Tran’s international and multicultural identities of being Singaporean, Israeli, and American — paired with the Hanoian charm and grace that she grew up with and the extensive years of experience in business — equipped her a unique foundation as she approaches contemporary ceramics.
Ceramic is the art of patience and coping with failure
Ceramics can tell us a lot about a crucial characteristic that one needs to employ to be validated as a ceramic artist — patience. “No matter how much you might like to rush the process of making ceramics, it is simply not possible,” Tran has come to learn the process of patience in a hard way.
“When I cut out a slab of clay, I will need to wait for hours until I can start working. It takes me 10 days for wet work, and another 10 days for everything to dry completely before I can fire the piece. Once the firing is done, I have to wait for one day for the kiln to cool down before I can open it. Glazing and the second firing can take an extra 10 days, if you’ve heard the saying “watching paint dry” — you know what it is like to glaze,” Tran reminisces.
“If I rush the process, the balloons will break. It sounds easy to say “be patient” or “wait”; but actually it is not; you are always tempted to do the next step. But either you wait; or you will have to start the eight-week process all over again.”
Anyone working with ceramics knows that damages can happen at any time from start to end stages. Whether the piece will collapse because clay is too moist or the chemical reactions between clay and glaze can cause things like “shivering,” ceramists are not only challenged to achieve feats of dexterity and creativity, but also chemistry. Of course, even when a piece is complete, there's a possibility of the fragile material breaking.
Thus, every artist has come up with special ways to cope with failure. “I manage this problem by making an extra piece for every order,” said Tran. “Also, when I feel stressed and pressured during the technical process — the piece crack or the glaze did not come out right — I revisit my emotional process, remind myself of why I took this project, and that I should enjoy the process, not to stress out about it. It’s important to pause and reset how we look at things,” said Tran.
Representing the charm of Vietnamese ceramics through balloons
Just like every artist, Tran has her own distinctive style and manner in which she portrays her vision. “Happiness is an intriguing topic for me. I often ask myself: “What could be one simple thing that makes everyone happy?”
Tran chose balloons over traditional ceramics like mugs and plates for a very particular reason — balloons are an universal symbol of happiness and celebration. “I was looking for new ideas when I visited my family in Hanoi.The moment I saw street vendors with gigantic bundles of balloons walking around the old district — I knew this was it! It doesn’t matter where you’re from, which language you speak; when you see balloons, you have this lighthearted feeling of happiness in you. The extra happiness people get with ceramic balloons is when people see my ceramic ones, they’ll have a little surprise as well!”
Putting every day’s stress and complication aside whenever she enters her Dat Set studio, Tran indulges herself in this personal space as she materializes her imagination. Building things that bring back beautiful memories, make people excited and smile — to her that’s happiness.
But for Tran, happiness also comes from the pride of bringing Vietnamese traditions to the international audiences. “In Vietnam, very skilled potters typically work in ceramic factories. A small group of young folks who live in the cities have the opportunity to explore ceramic as a hobby, but I’ve only seen one or two studio artists who make, and sell their ceramic works on a regular basis; and not many pursue the pop art/contemporary style like I do.”
“Outside of Vietnam, I am very proud of having my ceramic work that people love in many states in the US as well as in some other countries. I found an opportunity to do more experiments and start incorporating traditional, Vietnamese elements into my pieces in a way that will be interesting to both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese audiences — that would be my dream come true.”
You can shop Tran’s ceramic balloons and other fascinating crafts here (And yes, she does international shipping!)