Vivian Tran’s Family Portraits

Those closest to her could feel the most distant. She used art to bridge the divide

Passion Projects is an occasional series featuring the cool things that Tufts students are making both in and out of the classroom. It could be a work of art, a research study, or a new club they are heading up. Whether through a tough slog or a labor of love, every day they are bringing ideas to life that reflect who they are and what they care about. Here they share some of their most memorable creations.

Vivian Tran, A25 (BFA+BS), grew up in Toronto, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who were the children of Chinese immigrants. The family coexisted in close quarters, but their distance—in language, culture, and understanding—was seismic. To bridge the gap, Tran began to paint.

At Tufts, she studies both art and cognition or, in other words, creation and perception, which come together in her austere portraits, stark in their simplicity and emotion.

What’s the idea behind your project?

How people interact and perceive the world is really intriguing to me, and it’s especially relevant to what I want to explore in my art: How do people perceive and connect in ways that aren’t just through words?

My family is a big part of my art. I grew up in a home where we were living in very close proximity—13 people in the same house, with four of us sharing the same bed. But we didn’t really tell each other “I love you.” We don’t hug or anything. We don’t really talk about our lives, or the trauma my family has gone through.

I grew up not really being able to vocalize feelings, stories, or histories, and not really having a shared language to do so. I’m not that great at Vietnamese or Cantonese, and my family doesn’t speak English that well. Not having a space to be vulnerable and connect was something that I always wrestled with.

In my senior year of high school, I decided: Maybe I’ll paint my mom and dad for the first time. I painted them on these really big canvases, greater than life-size. I was working on them throughout the summer, at home in our living room. I was going through that work, trying to reconcile what my parents went through to bring me here today and what I can do now to shed light on their stories.

a painting of a woman looking at a child in a bed


a painting of a young man looking at an older woman in bed

Vivian Tran, “Time to Let Go,” oil on wood panel

I remember one night painting my mom’s face and crying. And every day, before my parents went to work at 4 a.m., they’d pass by my paintings of their faces. I think that, even though we don’t have a shared language, they were able to pick up on my growth through this work. After I made those paintings, there was a silent form of understanding. I found that there’s so much meaning and love in silence and what’s not spoken.

Paintings and art are ways to use the distance between people as a means for connection—trying to find clarity in stories that aren’t always going to be shared through our voices.

In my work, I really hope to redefine what love means. What does it mean to exist with each other in the same spaces? What are the risks? What is the history that has led us all here, to be in this moment, with each other? How does that relate to love? What does it mean to be human and be alive? With every piece I make, I really consider that.

Why does this project matter in today’s world?

This work really motivates me to keep going back to the community I grew up in.

When someone grows, the people around you also grow. I felt like I was able to heal some sort of generational trauma through making art and being vulnerable. That’s why I want to continue making art, because I want to reach people in my community who also might go through the same thing in their own immigrant households.

In a word, your project is about …


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