When was the last time you stared at an artwork? And really examined the strokes and color variation; you get so close you can smell the paint.
No, not the ones you have to pinch on your screen to see the details. We’re talking about an actual tangible piece you and a few people your range can exchange thoughts with, something you would find interesting from afar and appreciate as you get closer.
Let’s talk about mural art.
By definition, mural art is a communal art intended to be experienced by everyone who sees it. And to Thao Huynh French, it can be used “to send a strong message and even better to bring awareness to the public to solve a social issue or to make an overlooked community feel seen.”
Thao is a Vietnamese American artist and muralist born in Cam Ranh Bay, who sought refuge in the Philippines with her family, flew to the US, and settled in Fresno, California. As a kid, it was an exhausting journey. “My childhood was different from most kids because my family and I were still trying to figure out life in America,” she said.
“Life at home was rough and strict, so I spent a lot of time drawing, playing sports or video games, watching kung fu movies, or being outside playing with the other kids in the neighborhood.”
Growing up in a Vietnamese household in America, Thao had a unique childhood that allowed her to explore her artistic side. Although being an artist was not openly encouraged in her culture, Thao continued to use art as a form of therapy and escape.
It wasn't until her late 20s, when she fell into deep depression, that Thao turned to art again to heal and found it to be the most rewarding and most challenging thing she's ever done. “I felt like I had wasted so much of my time grinding so hard to turn a profit for a horrible company,” said Thao. “It was a few months before I picked myself up and looked to art to start healing.”
Thao's current stage in her career involves reconnecting with her cultural roots and memories, which naturally appear in her artwork. Despite her challenges, her greatest strength lies in her work ethic, passion, and creativity, which sets her apart from the rest.
“I start with the message I want to convey to the masses and I let that guide me during the development process. This is my usual process, especially in my social justice work.”
Thao Huynh French, who’s widely recognized by the Vietnamese community abroad for her dedication and talent, shares with Vietcetera the conflicts she faces and the inspiration behind some of her favorite pieces.
What was your proudest moment, and how did it change you?
My proudest moment was when I was doing a TV interview with a Vietnamese News Channel to promote my “Year of the Tiger” Mural in San Diego and as I was doing the interview via Zoom at home, I looked over in the corner of my eye and my husband had tears running down his face. I think that means he loves me and that he’s proud of me.
How has being a Vietnamese American influenced your identity and sense of belonging?
Narrative scarcity is something I still struggle with, which is why I am using as a form of study in my artwork now. It’s helped me feel more in tune with who I am and it’s attracted the kind of people I want to be a part of my life. Before this, I’ve never actually felt like I belonged anywhere, not even at home
Many of your murals explore themes related to Vietnamese culture and the immigrant experience. What’s the significance of these themes to you as an artist?
I choose to emphasize these themes in my work because it is where I come from and it’s what I want to study to have a better sense of self identity. I know how it feels to not have a home, not have a sense of belonging in America. My art helps me process these emotions and when people react and tell me about their refugee stories, it makes me feel like I am not alone.
How do you see your murals fitting into the larger context of public art?
Because street art is accessible to everyone, it can be used to send a strong message and, even better, to bring awareness to the public to solve a social issue or to make an overlooked community feel seen.
Cultural representation is vital in all aspects of a functioning society, and making that bold statement in my mural work is incredibly special. I’ve seen its effects firsthand, and it’s powerful and can foster pride within a community. Now with tools like social media, my art can reach places I can’t reach, and that is invaluable and everything I’ve ever wanted as an artist.
Can you describe a project that best represents you?
My latest mural at The Flower Fields, commissioned by the San Diego Museum of Art, shows where I am at artistically. Every mural painting was an opportunity to get me to where I am now and it’s still nowhere close to where I want to be skills-wise. I still have so much to learn, but I am proud! I created a convergence of flowers and petals, darkness and light, intertwined with sharp black abstract lines. It’s supposed to be a battle between good/evil, light and dark, that peace and joy can also come from adversity; a metaphor for life. I hope people get what it gives me; a moment of solitude.
Is there a particularly memorable mural you've created and what made it stand out?
A memorable moment was when I unveiled the Year of the Tiger Mural in Little Saigon, San Diego, in January 2022. It meant so much to me to paint the first mural representing the Vietnamese community here. To see how many people showed up for it was so crazy, and I couldn’t believe it. It was a magical day. I also got to share that with my family which is very rare. I got to show my little nieces all of my hard work, which made me so happy. People still send me messages today about it, but one moment that really touched me was how an 85-year-old Vietnamese woman living in the area told me that the mural made them feel seen and how the woman I painted looked like her when she was younger. I bump into her occasionally, getting bun bo hue in the area. She asked for my number so she could call me sometime and we could catch up, but she hasn’t called. Now I worry about her when she doesn’t call, haha. That was a precious moment for me and I’ll never forget it.
How do you handle creative blocks or periods of self-doubt?
Let’s start with creative blocks: I struggled with this very heavily for years with finding my style, medium, and just about everything. Just begin anywhere is the best advice I can offer anyone struggling with this. Don’t overthink it too much; just start. Who cares if what comes out first sucks? We all start somewhere, and those hours you have to put in before you find your style is long, at least it was for me.
Every single day I struggle with self-doubt. You must get out of your way and stop robbing yourself of amazing opportunities. If you catch yourself talking out of something before even beginning, you’re letting your fears control the show. For a long time, I never went after what I wanted because I was too afraid of failing. Now that I’ve made all the mistakes, I can confidently say it is a necessary part of your growth.
For three years, I said these words out loud (and in private), “I love myself. I accept myself. I will transform my life.” Words and thoughts are powerful, which is why I even made it this far in my career.
How do you select a location and develop a concept for a mural?
There are too many different scenarios to list out that I’ve experienced with finding walls but to offer a simplified version; sometimes if I walk past it and it feels right, I’ll take a picture, get measurements, and put together a design proposal and find out who to contact for permission and find sponsors or donors. Other times, people contact me with a budget and approved wall location before I start outreach and design work.
What has been your most challenging project so far?
The toughest projects I’ve had in the past were when there were difficult clients who did not respect my time or boundaries. In the past, I would just keep my head down and keep doing what I had to do and please the client, and now looking back, I feel like I should have walked away.
There was a challenging project happened last week when a big travel company reached out to hire me quickly because their last artist had dropped out. A bad contract existed; the budget wasn’t the greatest, and the deadlines were intense for each design delivery due date. We didn’t have a contract finalized yet, but I worked on the design anyway because I knew if I didn’t start, I wouldn’t have made the deadlines. I had my attorney look at the paperwork and we negotiated for a few days, with me going back and forth from design to intense contract reading. We ultimately could not agree on a legal clause, so I walked away after putting in roughly 16 hours of design time. I don’t feel bad about it because if it compromises my mental health, no amount of money is worth that. Besides, I can be proud of my work and maybe sell it elsewhere.
What impact do you hope your murals have on the communities where they are displayed?
I hope that it inspires, connects, and makes people feel like they are safe and that they belong here. I hope more Asian artists will be born from my work!
Can you share any upcoming projects or collaborations that you're excited about?
I’ll be working with Disney next month. That’s all I can say for now. :)