Check out our week-long series on Shann Ray and Trinh Mai's collaborative work, Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God.
DIERDORFF: I’m drawn to the lists of materials that accompany your artwork—thread, tree bark, stones, egg shells, scripture, fish bones, family photos, your own blood, hair, and tears. These lists feel like poems to me, providing me with a story and dimensionality that transform the way I view each piece. Can you talk more about the significance of the materials you use? How do you think about this relationship between the parts and the whole, your materials and your created product?
MAI: Hannah, it warms me to know that the materials invite you deeper into the work. This is my hope.
Everything in this world has a significant story. When I think about the history of the materials I use—the way they have been shaped and nourished by sun and earth and water and human, the enduring path from earth to my very hands, this transformation from thought to life, I recognize my privilege to handle them, much less introduce them to my work to express love, and then share in this love with others.
While the materials help tell the stories of people, of hope, of struggle or of fear itself, the narratives also bring to light the history of the media. I cherish this symbiotic relationship. It heightens the awareness of my relationship with the things around me and enriches the creative experience.
My desire is to sink deeply into the process. As I relive the stories, thinking patiently through them, weave heart into them, connect with the materials, and submit myself to the One who grants me the gift to do these things, I know that the work has a better chance of remaining, or becoming, more honest. This is my aim. The created product is essentially a bi-product of this process. Sometimes the work finds its way out into the world, but more often, it remains an in-progress pondering in the studio—a stack of river stones planted in a tray of rice, a humble swallow’s nest that my husband found, fragments of scripture pinned to a block, the bone of a crow’s wing bound in gold thread, a tea box full of Grandmother’s private letters, most sent from the motherland, shredded before she gave me permission to retrieve so long as I promised not to read them. One of the most exciting things, though, is when these inquiries lead to other works, like when a phrase finds its place in a poem.
DIERDORFF: I love how you describe your creative process as anointing or meditation, drawing our attention to the physical rhythms and gestures that breathe art into being. These rituals feel so integral to your work’s ability to remain powerfully grounded in materiality while simultaneously reaching for what’s unseen—hope, light, love, courage, and compassion. Do you consider your creative process to be a spiritual practice? How do you think about the relationship between the material and the spiritual within art?
MAI: Oh, the creative process is surely a spiritual practice for me. It is active prayer, an awaiting for things to be revealed. My laboring hands are essentially acting out questions. More often, I’ll discover the answers to questions that I hadn’t even known to ask. Sometimes, the answers lie in more questions. I’ve learned to be patient, even if it leads me down this meandering path. I do enjoy the scenic route as it lends me more time to ruminate on the subject/idea at hand (except, maybe, when there’s a pressing deadline). I cherish the task of plunging into the unknown with the hope of beckoning something into the known.
The ability to bring thoughtform into lifeform is a characteristic of being made in God’s own image. It is a great responsibility to bear, but perhaps it is our commission to serve others by bringing about a beauty that offers meaning to, and expresses love for our grieving world.
I see myself in these materials, in their history and physicality. The stone that has been etched with laceration. The cotton that has been called by fire to blossom, and then harvested by suffering hands. The tree that sheds its old skin so that it can more easily absorb the light of life. I believe it to be a spiritual practice to see ourselves in these things, and to carefully witness these events that bind us one to another.
DIERDORFF: Ovals appear prominently in your art as lacerations in paper, as tombs or vaults in an installation, or as bullet wounds torn in a photo, and the spaces within these ovals bloom with scripture, colorful threads, hand-written scrolls, and green plants. I find such hope in this gesture, in this picture of pain opening a space for new life, yet confess I often struggle to find such openings in experiences of violence and loss. How does the shape of the oval illuminate this relationship between affliction and growth? How can woundedness open us to see meaning and beauty?
MAI: I love your insight, Hannah. Thank you for bringing the ovals to my attention and encouraging me to reflect on this.
My husband has a significant scar on his left forearm that I often touch. It’s a beautiful oval-shaped scar, smooth and thin-skinned and glossy from an unstitched wound. It may have seeped into my subconscious to affect the way I associate wounds with ovals.
[A print of Hiền’s scar that will be part of a larger project with the working title Flesh of my Flesh]
These shapes first appeared in my work while I was creating the Beauty Marks series in which I tore lacerations into paper before physically mending them with my grandmother’s thread. After some time, I opened these wounds even wider, allowing other elements to peek from beneath the surface. This led to the War Wounds installation wherein I treated the museum wall as the epidermis that had been pulled back to unveil layers of hidden wounds. Our wounds have a way of revealing what we are made of underneath the surface, even down to our core. They allow for us to measure our strengths and gauge our weaknesses so that we can see ourselves for who we truly are. This self-evaluation can lead to the refining of character and perhaps even uncover the virtues that we may not have known we possessed. More so, it can force us to examine the virtues that we severely lack, and hopefully drive us toward them.
[Two of over two dozen War Wounds]
Although growth can be a response to affliction, it can also be the very cause of affliction.
Life is birthed from this very shape. Wounding our Mothers is the first thing we do as we come into the world (Another heart-wrenching revelation that weighed heavily upon me during the creative process).
Yes. I, too, must confess to having struggled with finding hope amid suffering. Therefore, I rely heavily upon the creative process, which I liken unto necessary prayer, to strengthen my spirit by revealing the ways in which growth can occur not only from these afflictions, but concurrently with these afflictions. Some of my strongest works began from a place of immense pain, and then somewhere along way, ascended to a place of radical hope, and the work born from the hands becomes the documentation of this extraordinary process. Despair in crisis engaging with hope for potential to forge meaning, spiritual and tangible. How can this be? It is peculiar and wonderful.
We revisit Hannah’s conversation with Trinh Mai tomorrow on The Waking.
Born in Spokane, Washington, Hannah Dierdorff received her BA in English from George Fox University and is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Christian Century and The Worcester Review.
Trinh Mai is a second-generation Vietnamese American visual artist who examines the refugee and immigrant experience, then and now. Through a vast breath of media, she helps tell the stories of we, the enduring People, focusing on our witnessing of war, the wounds we’ve survived, our collective need to heal, and the custodial responsibility to which we are heirs. She is an alumnus San Jose State University and UCLA, actively exhibits, and has works taking residence in public and private collections internationally. Seeking hope within humanity’s struggle in war and hardship, she has exhibited in support of numerous humanitarian organizations, including the Friends of Hue Foundation Children's Shelter in Việt Nam and the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia, also partnering with Oceanside Museum of Art, MiraCosta College, Community Engagement, and Bowers Museum in developing socially engaging projects with survivors of war. Her artistic journey has been documented by TAO in Honoring Life: The Work of Trinh Mai, which brought home the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film at the 2016 Viet Film Festival. Mai is a recipient of the University of Washington’s prestigious Walker-Ames Fellowship, and continues to visit numerous academic and arts institutions to engage the community in creative storytelling and to speak about her art practice. www.trinhmai.com
American Book Award winner Shann Ray’s work has been featured in Poetry, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Ruminate, Big Sky Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Diode, Poetry International, Narrative, Prairie Schooner, and Salon. He spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana and has served as a scholar of leadership and forgiveness studies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ray is the author of Atomic Theory 7, Sweetclover, American Copper, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, American Masculine, Balefire, Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity, and The Souls of Others. He lives with his wife and daughters in Washington and teaches at Gonzaga University. www.shannray.com
With a foreward by:
Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD candidate in English Literature at U.C. Davis. Her poems have recently appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto Del Sol, and other journals. Her two poetry collections Fossils in the Making (Black Ocean) and Diurne (Tupelo Press) were published in 2019. She was the senior poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine from 2014-2020. More at kristingeorgebagdanov.com or @KristinGeorgeB.
Image by Trinh Mai.
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