FK talks to Sydney based artist Kevin Tran. Kevin is the featured artist of our new Sydney markets flyer and will be having a stall at our upcoming Sydney event!
How long have you been an artist and how did you start?
I’ve always liked drawing, painting and making things. When I was a kid, I drew ninja turtles mostly and sometimes power rangers, but they were harder.
After high school, I decided to study Visual Communications at University of Technology, Sydney because graphic design seemed like the safer option over fine art. Mid-way through the course, I got myself a sketch book and started drawing again. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, they were just scribbles or marks I’d make before I went to bed. I didn’t put any pressure on what I drew because I knew no-one else had to see them. Then, for my final year major project, I created my first series of illustrations titled ‘Home’ which I collated into a book. The feedback was really encouraging and I liked the fact people were enjoying my images.
After I graduated in 2008, I was offered a position art directing/ designing a short run, street-press magazine at a publishing house in Bondi. After a few months here, I realised that making images and sharing them with other people was what I found fulfilling. So I decided to look for a studio space and was lucky to find a place near Newtown in a run down warehouse. It was a cosy space to hang out in, with an old couch, art and design magazines lying around and my drumkit in the corner. The studio doubled as a rehearsal space for my band at the time, Goldenwood. We’d wait until nightfall, when everyone else left the warehouse and write songs. After 6 months experimenting with different techniques, I began pulling together my first body of work.
Explain your work and what areas you love to explore?
My work is pretty straight forward really. There’s a giraffe, a couple of owls, a whale and a guy wrestling a bear. For me, it’s not so much what the subject matter ends up as but rather how I stumbled on that particular composition and the textures, shapes and colours that give it character and personality. I like to experiment with different mediums, that’s why I didn’t limit myself to the pencil drawings I started back at uni. I muck around with gauche, watercolour, oils, crayons, ink, charcoal and collage- basically anything that makes a mark. I get bored quite quickly so like to switch back and forth between something intricate like a pencil drawing and something a bit more raw like a collage or gestural mark making. For my next body of work, I’m keen to try a bit of clay or sculpture and see what comes out.
What is your creative process and how do you find inspiration?
My creative process isn’t very methodical or strict. When I draw, it is quite an introverted experience – I’ll start with a line and just let it go. I try not to think about what it will end up as, but rather focus on completing detail areas of patterns or texture and branch off them. My worst images are the ones I plan or over-think because they feel forced. I enjoy not knowing what it will end up as because there is no pressure. When I’m not sure where to take it next, I’ll turn the page upside-down and work from that.
The way I make my paintings and collages is a bit more physical. I’ll stand back and start with a few quick, heavy gestural marks while layering bits of scrap paper. I like sticking awkward shapes or patterns down and forcing myself to work around them; applying thick blocks of colour and eating back into them, pulling thick lines across the surface, getting in close and working up intricate patterns, and ripping up then sticking down random things like bank receipts or band aids from my wallet or the bin. It’s a much more aggressive and carefree process – just seeing the image as a combination of lines, shapes, colours, and textures.
It can be a frustrating process because sometimes it simply doesn’t work out, and the piece might sit in the corner of my studio for weeks while I decide whether to throw it out or not. But when it all comes together and I see something that excites me, it’s like cheating death – an exhilarating high.
Who or what inspires you as an artist?
The way certain people live their lives inspires me. When I was younger, I’d read about artists, musicians or people who were doing creative things and admire their determination and grit to back themselves and believe they could make it one day doing things their way. I guess I’m inspired by the romanticsed view of the struggling artist and it’s that freedom and lifestyle I want. Whenever I see or hear about people that earn a living off what they enjoy and doing it on their terms, it just proves it can happen.
Oh and also, my girlfriend asked for a bit of credit. So yes Denise, you are my inspiration. Forever and always.
As an emerging artist in Sydney, how has your journey been so far?
I think I’ve been extremely lucky so far. I definitely have to credit my high school art teacher, Johnny Romeo, for supporting and guiding me through the path to exhibiting my own work. Johnny helped me book my first show, promote it and assured me I had a good thing going on when I started doubting myself. Johnny is a selfless, giving person and I’m lucky to have him as my mentor and friend.
I’m also lucky to have really understanding work colleagues. I still have to pay rent and all that, so I work on a freelance basis in Surry Hills with Paul Clark and Tim Kliendienst at Alphabet Studio. I honestly can’t believe how they put up with me sometimes. I’m a handful to employ and I know it, but they constantly show me they care about what I do outside of work, even when I’m a brat. They’ve also taught me a lot about working for myself and being independent, and without their patience, guidance and flexibility, I know the road to where I am now would have been much harder.
You had your first solo show at the start of the year, how was the response to your work?
Yep, I held my first solo exhibition ‘Between Two Worlds’ at Regard Gallery earlier this year and the response was a bit overwhelming. I was surprised with how many people came out to see the show, and even more surprised at the nice things people said about the work. One highlight was a kid who started crying and ran out of the gallery when his parents told him they couldn’t get Batboy Blue. It saw it as a huge compliment and ended up giving him the picture signed with a personal message.
Shortly after the show, I was approached by Tim Brady from Freshly Baked Gallery to have my work exhibited down in Melbourne. He was nice enough to fly up to meet me and see my work in person, and since, we’ve developed a really good friendship. It’s great to see a gallery owner who not only genuinely cares about the artists he exhibits, but also makes time to hang out and have a drink after the show. I’ve also recently been working with Retrospect Galleries from Byron Bay, and am planning a few exciting things with them next year. I’m definitely happy with how things are going so far and can’t wait to see how my next body of work turns out.
What drives your work when things are tough?
I’ve never wanted to see creating art as a job or career, but rather a lifestyle. I make images when I feel the urge to create something new and experiment with something visual, not to meet a deadline or when someone expects me to. So if I’m not feeling right or my drawings/ paintings feel strained or forced, I’ll see it as a chance to take a break and hang out with friends and family. Usually things aren’t working because I’m exhausted, over-thinking the process or taking myself too seriously.
My family are my rock and I know I need to keep them close. Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of how things were much simpler as a kid and even if the projects I’m working on don’t fly, they will still be there. My high school friends keep me grounded. They don’t know me as Kevin the artist, designer or whatever, they know me as the skinny kid who played handball and tried to chat up their mums. They are all my brothers and I know they will never let me get too big for my boots. And my uni mates are great too. Surrounding myself with people who are passionate about what they do creates a good vibe that just ripples, and they are all genuine people too. The people in my life give me perspective and remind me that my creative ambitions are not the only things important to me.
What are you working on now and what is in the pipeline for the future?
In terms of my art, I’ve started collecting materials for my next body of work. I’ve decided to take my time with this one and just focus on one image at a time- not be rushed by an exhibition date. The big plan is to move overseas mid-next year to work and live for a while, so I’m aiming to pull it all together before then.
My other main focus at the moment is launching a fashion label I’ve been planning for a while now called A Monograph of Yesterday. Even though I had been working on ideas throughout the year, it all kicked into gear a couple of months ago when I teamed up with my good friend Mark Soetantyo. After working by myself for so long, it was good to have another source of energy and enthusiasm onboard. We plan to start with a collection of custom cut t-shirts and singlets, focusing on minimal lines and shapes, textured images and bold typography. And if things go well, move into other items like jackets, jeans and maybe some mens jewellery. We’ve already launched the website, commissioned a great UK photographer, Harry Bloom, for our hero image, designed our custom cut tees and are just starting to look into fabrics and the logistics of getting something manufactured from scratch. It’s funny because Mark and I are pretty clueless but have so many talented friends helping us, I’m sure we will have everything ready for the launch early next year.
The next big project I have planned after that is recording my solo project. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been playing around with a few ideas just recording them on Garage Band, and I’m really keen to bring them together and get it all down properly. I’m hoping to relax a bit after the launch of A Monograph of Yesterday and then knuckle down on this project early in the new year.