This content is also available in: Vietnamese

Photos and text by: Christy Au-Yeung

After growing up in Vietnam and moving to Canada at a young age, Toronto-based painter Manny Trinh is still deeply connected to his homeland. His paintings bring forth the nostalgic landscapes of Vietnam and express the sense of struggle he had growing up in a foreign country. In this exclusive interview with Culture Magazin, Manny reveals how his experiences as a third culture kid and his interest in skateboarding have greatly influenced his artwork.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Saigon and moved to Canada in the mid-80s with my family. We lived in Hamilton, Ont. Later, I decided to move to Toronto, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve had a studio for a few years now in the Junction. I went to art school at the Dundas Valley School of Art, in the Hamilton area.

When did your interest in painting start?

I’ve been interested in art since I was a kid.  Once I immigrated to Canada, I had to focus on learning English, figuring myself out and fitting in with the culture. So, I never pursued art until later.  During art school I was exposed to different mediums and painting was something I gravitated towards. Painting has not always been my medium. When I went to art school, I tried out different mediums to figure out what I was good at. I naturally gravitated towards painting because I like the idea of something coming at you slowly when you are creating.

In Asian cultures professions such as doctors and lawyers are often encouraged while careers in the arts/ services are discouraged. Did this stigma impact you in any way?

I went to college to become an engineering technician for a couple of years. That was basically to please my parents’ expectations. Later on, I realized I had no interest in that, so I tried to pursue art. When I went to art school, I figured out that art was something I really wanted to put myself into and spend time on.

Where do your influences come from?

Everything, really. My life, where I grew up and how I grew up. The two cultures in Vietnam (Chinese/Vietnamese cultures) and being Canadian. When I came to Canada, I didn’t speak a lot of English. I had to adapt to the Canadian culture and learn English. That was a little bit tough for me as a young kid trying to fit in.

What is your creative process?

If I see something that inspires me, I will do a little sketch or write down the idea. Then, I compose the idea in a thumbnail sketch and bring it to the canvas. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s how it goes. It’s part of the learning process.

How did you incorporate your passion for skateboarding into your art?

I started skating when I was really young. It is a form of self-expression. Skateboarding allows me to be myself and to figure out my own situation. I applied that to my art and life.

Skateboarding and being creative always go hand in hand.

How does your work mix memory, fantasy and reality?

My work is more about myself – where I grew up and how I adapted to the new culture. I really like the texture, colour and look of those shanty houses I painted. I haven’t been back to Vietnam since I left when I was 11 years old so when I try to remember what it was like there; it often comes out in my paintings. I guess that is the fantasy, trying not to forget what it was like growing up there.

Do your paintings reflect a state of mind?

There’s a lot of decay and unstableness in my stilt houses. They look like they are falling apart. I’m expressing myself through theses images – about me being in Canada. When I came here, I had a hard time fitting into the culture. I was unstable when I was a kid, and it was hard for me to find a voice.

What do you want people to learn or feel about Vietnam from your paintings?

I want them to feel a sense of struggle – the realness and rawness of people’s living conditions. I like to see the contrast and the differences between the two cultures. Where I grew up versus the part of the world that I live in today. I’m lucky I have experienced both worlds. This contrast reminds me of what I have today and what I didn’t have when I was a kid.

Was it a bad thing to live in such dense condition when you were young?

I wouldn’t say it was bad. That’s how I grew up and where my family was from. That’s why I incorporated what I saw and remembered into my art as a way to express my experiences from my childhood.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility to promote Vietnam in your artwork or is it merely a depiction of emotion and memory?

Not so much of promoting Vietnam. I just happen to be from Vietnam. I’m just using these images because I was born there. I think it’s more a depiction of my emotions and memories.

What advice can you give to Vietnamese artists trying to break into the scene?

I’m not sure if I’m in a position to give advice to anyone. If you have the passion and desire to create, just keep on working. Keep painting and focusing on your craft.