Why Simon Tran Paints in his Bedroom

Simon Tran, "🌀💦👁‍🗨⛰👁‍🗨💦🌀", 2021

We visit Simon Tran in his small, art-covered bedroom, which also functions as his studio. Tran is a Vietnamese-American artist who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UC Berkeley’s Fine Arts program as a painter. He gives us a tour of the old North Berkeley house he shares (built on top of a tunnel with a creek running through it), serves us strong coffee, and we huddle around the mics together, talking about how terrible his friends are (they’re all comedians), how much he admires architecture students, and how he is, in Svea’s words, ‘just a failed modernist’. We’re crazy about him.

Simon Tran on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ghostghostteeth
Simon’s website: www.ghostghostteeth.com
Simon’s partner, Kari Simonsen, is extremely cool: https://www.karisimonsen.com/

Listen to the episode

Transcription of Simon Tran's interview

 

Abbreviations

cl - Craig Langdon

jb - Jozefien Buydens

st - Simon Tran

sv - Svea Vikander

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jb: Good morning everyone and welcome to ART CRUSH on this beautiful Monday morning. My name is Jozefien Buydens.

sv: My name is Svea Vikander.

jb: And, in ART CRUSH we take you into artist studios around the world, because artist studios are wonderful places to be in. So, Svea, tell me, who do we have a crush on today?

sv: Today we have a crush on Simon Tran. Simon Tran is also known as ghost ghost teeth and if you open your app called Instagram and look up ghost ghost teeth you will find his account and many quite beautiful, very detailed abstract or abstracted India ink and acrylic paintings.

jb: That sounds exciting!

sv: So, Simon Tran invited into his house and outside workspace in North Berkeley.

jb: Let's go and visit Simon Tran.

sv: Let's go!

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st: I’m Simon Tran, I’m a painter, my work is all like: “psssshhhhh” and stuff, that's kind of awkward, right?

jb: I like that!

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sv: I first interviewed Simon Tran for the radio in 2015 for Arts in Review with Gregory Sharpen.

Not this one, but the next one.

We listen to the interview as Jozefien drove us to Simon’s house.

st: Hello hello!

sv: Hey!

jb: Hi!

st: How’s it going?

sv: Good. How are you?

st: Good to see you. Do you need a hand or…?

sv: I’m ok. I can’t really give you a hello hug ‘cause I’m carrying this box… Hey, how are you?

st: Good, good.

sv: This is Jozefien.

jb: Hi!

st: Jozefien. Simon. Nice to meet you.

jb: Simon, nice to meet you. Thank you for having us.

st: It’s really cramped, it’s mostly just a bed in there, but…

sv: Simon welcomed us into his old Berkley house and showed us to his bedroom, which also doubles as his studio. It's brightly painted with his paintings covering most of the walls.

st: … I can’t really have too many people come by.

sv: He shares it with his partner, who also seems to share his aesthetic. Bright colours, retro themes, lots of records. You know, like, the room of a cool person.

st: This is my room / studio, so, I keep all my paints under the bed, here. I share this with my partner Kari Simonsen, who’s a painter as well and, so, we just collect like colours, so, yeah, that's all over there, got the record player over here. Part of my record collection is here, the other half is at my my parents’ garage, ‘cause there's obviously no space here to kind of store stuff, so, I've been kind of forced to, to put a lot of it in storage. My partner and I like to collect video games, it's a big, it's a nerdy thing and that's one of the anxieties that I had of you folks coming into my room, is seeing, like, how much time and investment I put into, like, collecting video games. I…

jb: That’s cool!

st: Shut up! I mean, like, but yeah…

sv: She’s European, they don’t even have those kind of things over there.

st: You don’t have TV’s! That’s what I’ve heard.

laughing

st: But, my daughter plays video games and I encourage her playing, to play video games ‘cause that was something that I was encouraged to do when I was a kid and parenthood is all about what your parents will let you do, so, you let your kids do and you vicariously live through that, but, I don't live vicariously through my daughter, because we both play video games together, so, it’s fine. She does sports with her mom and all that stuff and she plays video games with me and that's how we bond, over Kirby which is like a character.

sv: Do you want to show us outside?

st: Down the stairs here.

Susan…

sv: Simon lives with two older Berkeley artists, Craig Langdon and Susan Brooks, who are tinkerers and inventors and creators of electronic music.

st: It's just nice to be able to grow up with my Berkeley parents, basically.

sv: The house is vibrant coloured, kind of labyrinthine.

It’s awesome, and, your house is beautiful, I love it.

We came across Craig who was also building his own synthesizer, steaming milk at a very fancy looking espresso machine.

st: So, how would you describe the your work that you're doing, your pedals, and…?

cl: Oh, electronic music?! 

sv: The house is decorated with Simon's own mural like paintings. There’s one on the front door and one on the outside back wall. The house is also situated directly on top of a creek. Simon told us that it was Strawberry Creek, but according to my fact-checking, which is also my husband, it’s Cordonices Creek. The creek runs through a tunnel underneath the house and Simon often works outside. He took us for a tour of his backyard, which is hundreds of feet of creekside, huge eucalyptus trees and a small bridge, reserved exclusively for the deer.

st: Yeah.

sv: This is amazing!

st: I know, it's really great.

sv: Do they own this place?

st: Yeah, they own this house. It’s been, I mean, it’s very influential on the work as well just like a representing that kind of fluidity of the stream, you know, in the work there's a lot of movement that I try to work with.

sv: You work on this table?

st: Yeah. I put on a tarp and then put on, stretch canvas over it and then I start pouring paints and then like playing around with it back here. A lot of times, like, seeds and bugs get into the paint and I'll just paint that into the, the composition there.

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sv: So, of course we record the interview in Simon’s very lovely and very small bedroom and it’s a really tight squeeze, because we have two chairs, three mic’s, one laptop and two TV dinner tables in the say three feet between his bed and his closet. Simon sits at the foot of his bed, but first he brings us some really, really good coffee.

jb: Thank you!

sv: Oh, this is so good, thank you! And, it’s so tasty. That’s when you have when you live in a small space…

jb: This is so efficiently! There all these efficient furniture pieces.

st: In a way and in another way it’s just crazy, because everything is just…

sv: In terms of your current art practice, how long have you been working out of your bedroom?

st: laughing. You say it as if it is, like: “Okay, Simon, like, you work out of your bedroom?!”

sv: No, I work out of my bedroom too.

st: Oh, OK, cool, so we’re good, we’re good. Yeah, and you're here in my bedroom right now.

sv: It’s also, It’s also, I work in your bedroom.

st: It may be close to like 10 years, I’m just like: “Okay, this is what I’m gonna try to do”. Previous to that I was working as, like, a commercial actor, I did a lot of improv, like stage improv and I think the spontaneity in the work comes from being an improvisor.

I feel like ‘improvisor; is kind of a dirty word, comedians, improvisors in general are just like, just like: “Turn it off, man! Save it for the stage, let’s not do this in the grocery store where you have to make fun of everything”, and, you know, but that's inside of me, I've been doing that for years and my friends are horrible people, that are improvisers, they're horrible people, they're horrible people, you know. They think they’re funny, but, they just, they just, you know, gotten to the point where they tell jokes so much that it's just poo-poo and kaka that makes them laugh.

I feel like my work is about mistakes and covering up your mistakes. A lot of these organic shapes that I paint is because I've made some sort of mistake behind it and then I'm layering on top of that, but then that becomes the thing, so maybe purposely making mistakes, which I think my my ex-wife would probably, like, say: “That's true. It's like you're just making mistakes and making things harder for yourself”, but there's a certain density to it that I think represents labor.

I come from a working class family, my dad was a tool grinder machinist and my mom worked in preschools as a preschool teacher and being born here in California and raised in California and raised to be an American but also being a Vietnamese person, I can say it was hard, but it was definitely something I had a lot of questions about growing up.

I didn’t really have a lot of Vietnamese friends outside of family and I didn't speak Vietnamese, my parents were kind of learning English as I was learning English, so, I think it just kinda English stuck more. So, there's this kind of detachment that I, I have to Vietnamese culture. I think I'm trying to regain part of that or like research that more, not like on a daily basis, but it's just something that's on my mind and I think I try to interpret that and process that in my work as well. You know, nostalgia.

I think my work has a lot to do with nostalgia in a lot of ways, like, the colour palette references things from my past and also, things of, like, a youthful nature perhaps, like, video games and animation, anime, manga, and…  My grandparents used to live in the backroom of my parents house or there was like a separate room and the walls was this ugly teal colour and I just, it was just too much for me at the time, but now it's just like, every time I see that colour, which has become like a favourite colour of mine, it reminds me of my grandparents, so, it's things like that that I'm really drawn to with colour and I like how we associate memory with that, with colour, so, yeah, that's a large part of the process for me, kind of reacquainting myself with these lost colours.

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jb: I wanted to ask you about your school experience. Was that a good one or not?

st: Being from Long Beach and moving to, like, basically Daly City, you know, where San Francisco State is and being around all this grey that's over there, it was really depressing! And, like, I missed my parents and my family and my friends down in Long Beach, so, I moved back and I just went to City College for too long and I met my ex-wife at San Francisco State and she's from San Mateo, so, she moved down to Long Beach to live with me and we got married.

I felt like I got, I was a little self destructive. My uncle passed away and, yeah, he took his own life and it was just like one of those things where it’s just like, why, you go before your time, and there's a lot to process there and just trying to understand and my relationship wound up suffering.

I felt like having a kid would be one of those things where, just, like, I wanted to celebrate life versus mourning it, but, you realise mourning is part of life and you have to just go through it, and…  So, we wound up having a divorce, like, a year after my daughter was born and that was a really hard time. It’s taken a long time to kind of get through that.

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st: My daughter's 8 now. When I'm around her, like, I feel like I'm invincible and you know, so, it’s, she wound up being, I mean, she's a blessing of course and she's a good kid. She’s very considerate, she doesn't eat her vegetables but, you know, that's fine. I wish she’d listen to more, like, punk rock and stuff but she doesn’t, she doesn’t. But, she's cool, she's cool, she's very eccentric with her outfits and such and, like, I said, she's very considerate, so.

So, after the divorce I, I was just like, I need to do something different with my life, I need some direction, so, I decided to, you know, apply to school and I've always wanted to go to UC Berkeley and it was, like, the only school I applied to and I was, like, if I get back in, if I get into the school, I'll go back to school, and it might be weird, I'll be like the old man on campus, I wasn't the only old man, so, that wound up working out okay.

The faculty were really cool, you know, they were closer in age to me than the kids and what was funny was, like, some of the students, which I befriended, later said that I was, like, too cool for school, in the back of the class kind of thing, which I thought was very flattering to feed my ego: “Yeah, I am cool, I am cool”.

But, I did really well, like, I went back for, like, art practice and I was just, like, this is what I want to do, I just want to paint, I'm going to make work, I’m gonna figure out what all this stuff is all about and, like, have some sort of conversation with people that want to figure things out as well and it was a great community of people students and faculty alike.

UC Berkeley is a fantastic school, I can't gush about it enough, and I did really when I went back. I graduated and I had my daughter with me, so, she walked with me during the art practice ceremony and that was a great achievement and I felt like: Ookay, now I have some direction”. And then, fast forward to now, working at Berkeley High School and I'm just like: “Ah, this is weird”.

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st: I’m working as an instructional assistant in the special ed department. When they're doing what they need to do and they don't need me to be their cheerleader, I can just kind of kick back and draw and I'm working on a couple of drawing classes as well. So, I draw with the kids and I feel like that's modelling correct behaviour.

sv: Totally! When you were at UC Berkeley, where did you do your painting?

st: I was fortunate enough to get into the honors program there and they have studios that are in Wurster, so, all those like architecture kids that dress all black and really think they're too cool for school and they’re, but really they're just making these diagrams out of styrofoam, you know.

sv: Yeah, I know. Styrofoam is like the least cool material.

jb: Yeah.

st: Right?! That’s not sustainable, you know.

sv: That material is like… like, playdough is cooler than styrofoam.

st: Yeah, right. It comes in different colours and it's easier to work with. I mean, I was just, like, jealous of those architecture kids and architecture in general, ‘cause, like, you know, you take part in building buildings, you know, large things that was just something that I've always been…

sv: So, you’ve had a studio in Wurster?

st: Yeah. It was subdivided between six other artists I think, I think it was like 6 other people, and we kind of shared that space. It was nice to see other people working and, like, picking up on their studio practices. I took full advantage of that and I was working, like, day in and day out, it's like all the freaking time, and just made a bunch of work and at the end of my stay at Berkeley, like, I made friends with gallery owners of the Compound Gallery and invited them to come to check out my work in the studio and they agreed to that and they came and I gave them candy and…

jb: You bribed them with candy? That’s amazing!

st: That's what you got to do, kids. You got to have your Jolly Ranchers and your Dum Dums, if you don't got that you don't got no career to look forward to. Look at me, I’m like, I'm living a life, having an interview in my bedroom, working at Berkeley High School. Yeah, I made it. So, if you want to make it you got to get on that, that sweet tooth.

sv: What’s your relationship like with Compound Gallery?

st: They’ve been really good to me. They’ve been showing my work, they gave me a solo show shortly after I graduated. I showed a lot of the work that I was doing in the honors program and I think what they were attracted to perhaps was just, my focus on working and making work and just like, okay, I'm just gonna, I want to make work, I’m always going to be making work, so, hopefully we can establish some relationship together, which we have, I mean, I’ve been working with them  exclusively in the Bay Area for the last couple of years basically and I'm happy with that.

These works on paper are gonna be shown along with some other paintings and, and sculptural kind of pieces, sculptural paintings, I guess. And that’s, like, that piece over there…

sv: Yeah, I was looking that.

st: …which I titled ‘Dumb Architecture,’ which is basically me being jealous of those architecture kids, right. I’m just like trying to, like, I’m really bad at making a straight line or making right angles, which are essential in a lot of design, so. I think a part of my process is, like, okay, I'll try to make something and it's obviously not coming out, so, I have to cover it up with an organic shape.

sv: So, you’re just kind of a failed modernist.

st: Yeah.

sv: You’re just trying to paint this straight, simple lines and, then it, like, it doesn’t work, so. Okay, here’s this, like, very labour intensive, like, abstracted pattern, like, you know, here’s my hallucinating…

st: Yeah, here's my mistakes, which is also reflective of, like, the times too, right. It was just, like, there's a lot of mistakes going on in our government, the very transparent, and I think my work kind of reflects times as well. I see a lot of art that's being made right now that's just like really loosey-goosey, and, you know, wavy and, like, people just making these absurd things and creating these figures that are just like, it's weird, you know. What are you doing? My kid could do that, you know.

And, and it's just like an interesting time for art making, we're just like, yeah, we’re reacting to all this crazy stuff that's going on, which is basically just art making in general, like, the history of art has always just been a reflection of the times, I guess.

sv: If you could change anything about your working space what would you change?

st: Make it smaller! I don’t know, I think, maybe, having more space. I mean, I’m adapted to it, just like, I make sure I don't drop or spill any paint, you know, which helps you create a certain kind of shape and a certain line and that you have certain painting techniques to reflect being meticulous in a way, right.

jb: Yeah, I was wondering how that works, working out of your bedroom. Do you sit on your bad while you paint and draw or do you stand?

st: Yeah, you would think it would be more comfortable sitting in bed and painting, but oftentimes, like, I'm hunched over and the brushes are working well and I'm making these lines and I'm concentrating on that and I'm kind of just, like, really kind of focused and not…

Sometimes it's not comfortable, but there's a certain intimacy with the work that I have, you know, you literally wake up and you look at the wall and it's something that you're working on and you see these mistakes you need to paint over and it's just like: “Ugh, back to work”, you know, but it’s, it's also kind of this living thing in a way, but I would like to work, like, on a larger scale and just, like, have that kind of, be, at the ready…

Sometimes it's a chore to go outside, I’m having the back yard and it’s cold, like, today it’s super windy, I am not going to go back there, but, yes, I guess just more space is always… But then, you know, do you want to be that person where you’re just like: “I just need to make bigger and bigger paintings”, and be that, a person that just really has to do that, I don't know.

sv: And as we’re wrapping up, Jozefien’s putting away the mic’s and the cables, I realise that there's one thing that I have to do. It’s not a nice thing, but it has to be done.

singing. Hello, my name is Simon and I like to draw, draw rings.

st: Yeah, what’s good is that, like, none of the high school kids know that, that reference, so that never comes up, thankfully, yeah yeah yeah.

sv: But it did when you were in high school?

st: Well, I wasn’t like … yeah, it did.

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sv: You can find Simon Tran’s work if you go to www.ghostghostteeth.com

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jb: Thank you for joining us to Simon Tran’s very special art environment.

sv: That was fun!

[Our Beautiful Online Thing of the week is “With Love from Nowhere” by Ellie Niblock and Alaa Tarazbouni . https://www.withlove-nowhere.com/.]

sv: Next episode, we have a crush on our friend Tramline de Senna, who is from California but lives in Belgium and makes sculpture that is so lush and gorgeous and kind of disturbing.

jb: That sounds great!

sv: Find her on Instagram at tramainedesenna for more information.

jb: I’m really looking forward to seeing her space. My name is Jozefien Buydens.

sv: I’m Svea Vikander.

jb: If you enjoy this show and the artist we interview, please consider telling a friend about it or leaving a review on iTunes

sv: Or, falling in love with the artist yourself.

jb: Indeed.

jb & sv: Bye!

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