2001 : First acquisition—The Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC
Toward the end of 2001, I received the wonderful news that A Bouquet for You had entered the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, and that I was the first Vietnamese-American artist to be so honored. Curator Kenneth R. Trapp shepherded the acquisition.
This was more than marvelous, because that painting, finished in early 1998, was one of the first lacquer paintings I had ever made. I called my father to announce this fantastic news, and the first thing he said to me, out of the blue, was that I should make sure that my name would be properly inscribed, following the Vietnamese order of the name’s four components: Tran Cong Hoang Nhat. The Renwick Gallery began showing A Bouquet for You a few months later (uncharacteristically, it was to remain on view for more than nine years). When I went to see it, I was so happy to see the correct inscription of my name on the label—I think it is actually the only place that ever displayed
it in that form. My father understood the deep significance of this event and made the long trip, across thousands of oceanic and land miles, to Washington, D.C. to see the painting hanging on the wall of the Renwick Gallery, almost across the street from the White House.
2003 : Acquisition by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC
The life of an artist has always been fraught with challenges, and especially the life of a female artist, no matter her century or her land. So I felt specially honored to become a part of a network of women artists that seeks to promote our voices. One event that contributed to anchor that feeling solidly in my spirit was the acquisition in 2003 of one of my lacquer paintings, Emerald Embeddings, by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. That museum’s gesture manifested significant support and recognition for my career as a woman artist.
Emerald Embeddings was created in 2000 during a stay of several months in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
2005 : Acquisition by the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis
One other event that confirmed the sense of being appreciated for a womanly approach to art creation was an invitation that came two years later in my home state of Indiana. I was invited to participate in an important exhibition of Indiana women artists from both past and present, “Whispers to Shouts,” organized by the Indiana State Museum and curated by Rachel Perry.
It truly meant a great deal to me when a few months thereafter, Fragile Words, a Vietnamese lacquer painting made in 2000, became a part of my own State Museum’s permanent collection. In March 2016, the Museum inaugurated a large exhibition celebrating “200 Years of Indiana Art: A Cultural Legacy.” That exhibition was part of many events across Indiana commemorating the State’s 200th anniversary. I was truly humbled by the honor of having had Fragile Words selected for it (March–October 2016).
2005 : Acquisition by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The eleventh day of September 2001 will remain one of the most somber in American history. Its senselessness and raw horror gripped the nation at the throat. Deeply empathic to the full gamut of emotions, artists, too, were seared in their sensitivities. Among the juried exhibitions that I participated in, True Colors: Meditations on the American Spirit continues to arouse poignant memories in my heart.
Begun in 2002, this unique traveling exhibition was organized by the Meridian International Center, a prestigious international exchange institution in Washington, DC. The theme, “Meditations on the American Spirit,” brought unity to the varied response of artists to the tragic events of September 11. The sixty-five selected artists came from diverse backgrounds, including a number of internationally recognized names such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Sam Gilliam, Red Grooms, and Jamie Wyeth. The result of the
exhibition was visually powerful and poetically touching. In his review of it, “America in the wake of Sept. 11” for the Atlanta Journal Constitution (Dec. 6, 2002), Jerry Cullum wrote: “Rauschenberg’s justifiable bluster stands in sharp contrast to the thoughtful grief and patriotism of Nhat Tran’s abstraction The Moon Drowned Yesterday and Points of Light, Points of Might.”
At the exhibition’s opening at the Allied Museum in Berlin, Germany, in August 2003, American Ambassador Daniel R. Coats entreated his audience in these words: “Listen to what Nhat Tran, a Vietnamese-American artist from my home state of Indiana, wrote about her painting Points of Lights, Points of Might: ‘Disasters enkindle our candles; we bring them to our windowsill for all to see. True might enlightens, true light empowers’.”
After traveling for more than three years through fourteen different venues in and out of the country, the exhibition finally completed its successful mission. As for my painting Points of Light, Points of Might, its journey did not quite end yet: it went on to reach its final destiny and destination at the Corcoran Gallery of Art where it joined the museum’s permanent collection in 2005.
2009 : Acquisition by the Museum of Art of Greater Lafayette, IN
I was especially happy when the Museum of Art of Greater Lafayette acquired What Are You Fighting for ? in 2009. I’ve always liked that little museum, well embedded in its locality and keen to preserve the artistic legacy of the whole region. That museum is after all the place where one of my works was exhibited as part of a local competition; it attracted the attention of a visitor who happened to be the Curator of the Renwick Gallery, and that chance experience ended up with the 2001 acquisition recorded above. I had other occasions of displaying work at Lafayette, and even of making a presentation on urushi art there.
The lacquer painting at right evokes the power of aims worth fighting for: their potency derives less from clarity than from the light they flicker at the end of oddly shaped tunnels.
2011 : Acquisition by Wabash College's Fine Arts Center, Crawfordsville, IN
One of life’s permanent lessons is that most of our actions fall within a continuum that extends between two signposts, one labeled “Right” and the other “Wrong.” We are long taught the expectation that we should always aim at the lighter side than at the darker one. My painting Between Right and Wrong suggests that the two poles of attraction, one negative, one positive, are unequally balanced, which is why the struggle for the right way of living is never easy. On the other hand, the unequal play opens plenty of options for transitioning from one side to the other, or vice versa. What makes life interesting is what happens in between, always.
Between Right and Wrong entered the Wabash College collection soon after a resplendent exhibition in their beautiful Eric Dean Gallery.
2013 : Acquisition by the Hubei Museum of Art, Wuhan, China
Peer review by professional experts is essential for strengthening one’s bearings in the art world. I have taken part so far in ten exhibitions in Asian countries, all by express invitation from curators, and all subject to review by committees. Five of them took place in China, two in Japan, one in Taiwan, one in South Korea, and one in Vietnam. Getting my work approved by experts from the very countries that originated urushi art hundreds and even thousands of years ago was the ultimate goal for me. How would those renowned and influential artists judge my work, the work of a woman artist living in the United States? Their repeat invitations to prestigious exhibitions, and the most generous welcome they extended me each time, were demonstration enough of their appreciation for my efforts. The icing on the cake came at the end of the 2013 Hubei International Triennial of Lacquer Art titled World of Great Lacquer: Origin and Flows, when the curators decided to acquire one of my sculptures, The Rule of Nature, for the permanent collection of the Hubei Museum of Art.
A lost but never forgotten child...
2003 : Acquisition by the Ohr–O’Keefe Museum of Art, Biloxi, MS
One of my favorite urushi paintings was the artwork shown at right: Conversation with a Child. Not long after the conclusion of a delightful exhibition in Biloxi, MS, that lasted from March to June 2003, an art patron bought that resplendent painting and donated it to the Ohr–O’Keefe Museum. Tragedy struck, though. While it was being shipped to the Deep South, the truck that transported it was broken in and its content stolen, including Conversation with a Child. That was almost like losing a child, one I had brought to life in my studio for many months. The painting has not been recovered, and we don’t know whether it was destroyed or whether it still exists, somewhere, hanging on some wall. Maybe someone is still having a conversation with that kidnapped child. It would be great if one day it was returned to its rightful owner, the beautiful Ohr–O’Keefe Museum of Biloxi.