Star Wars figures appear in art around the world. One artist, Hoang Tran, practices his own style of art with not only these characters, but also many more. Tran makes small, detailed sculptures from crayons. His style is distinct and growing in popularity. His work first began while he was in dental school, which he would later leave to pursue his passion of creating crayon characters. His work is still progressing today.
Tran states that he first started using crayons as a medium for an art show. He had always had an interest in art and creation. In his words, “About a year ago, my friend was putting on an art show and asked if I wanted to submit some art for it. I’ve always been artistic growing up, but I kind of peaked in middle school. While I’m better than the average person, I can’t really compete with people whose lives revolve around art, especially in traditional methods like drawing and painting. I still wanted to participate in the show so I thought I could perhaps do something more sculptural. That’s when the notion of carving crayons resurfaced. I had an idea that fit with the theme of the show so I carved out a test crayon which turned out well enough. I proceeded to creating my piece for the show and it was well received. I enjoyed carving the crayons and people seemed to like it so I just kept doing it.”
While Tran is no longer in dental school, it was a very influential part of his life. School introduced him to the tools that he uses today in his crayon art. Transforming equipment from a health tool to a hand-held sculpting machine, Tran saw more in his dental school than the average student would see, stating that, “In dental school, carving things out of wax is part of our coursework. The method of fabricating gold crowns (via lost wax casting) requires carving teeth out of wax. Diem’s (Diem Chau, crayon artist) work initially caught my eye because I knew I already had all the tools needed for it. Crayon wax is fairly different than dental wax but the general carving techniques are the same. So while I ended up leaving dental school, I probably would not be able to do what I do now without the knowledge and skills I gained there.”
While his pop culture sculptures are unique, the use of crayons as a medium has been used before. Tran took a style that he had seen and made it into his own, incorporating characters from Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Daria and many other figures from the current cartoon world into his crayon art pieces. He first saw crayons as a medium for art years before he began using them in his own work. Tran stated, “The idea to carve things out of crayons was not initially mine. About three or four years ago, I saw the work of Diem Chau, who carved various animals out of crayons. I thought that was cool and wanted to give it a try but I was just too busy at the time. However, the idea would stick in the back of my mind to eventually come to the surface years later. I would say Diem Chau is more of a serious artist especially compared to my pop culture-inspired work. She works mainly with normal sized crayons while I primarily use the large size. Working with the normal size is more difficult so she is just as good if not better than myself at carving. She also branches out to more mediums than I.”
Tran does not consider himself an artist in other mediums, but he would like to pursue working in other fields besides crayon art. He drew comic strips for his school paper in college, and dabbles in various other mediums, but nothing serious. He hopes to expand into other forms of sculpting in the future. He enjoys the work of Dalton Ghetti, an artist who carves sculptures out of the lead in pencils. Tran hopes to try this medium as well one day.
When choosing a subject for his current pieces, Tran enjoys variety as well as a challenge. His work can be custom-ordered, but he creates work of his own preference as well. Characters from South Park, Star Wars, and Despicable Me represent just a few of the pieces available on his site. When choosing a character, he states, “I tend to carve things I like. I draw inspiration from TV shows, cartoons, movies, comic books, etc. I’m sometimes limited by the shape of the crayon, so tall and/or narrow designs tend to work better. Initially, I was also limited by the color of the crayons and would only carve things that were entirely or mainly of a single color. However, now I work with multiple colors within one design by melting and applying wax from different colors. This more or less opens the door to carving any subject. Currently, I mainly do commission work or remake my older designs that customers want so I find less time to carve things that I want. I’m still enjoying it though because I never know what someone will request and what new challenges await for me.”
The choice to leave the stability of a career in the dental field was not an easy one to make. Much consideration went into his current path. Tran seems content with his decision. In his words, “It was well into my third year of dental school when the idea of quitting entered my head. It’s in the third year when you begin working in the clinic full-time with patients, so it wasn’t until then that I had a better picture of what being a dentist is really like. The idea of quitting wasn’t an epiphany but a slowly developing realization. I saw it like a scale with my fear of quitting on one side and my dislike of dentistry on the other. Quitting was a huge weight, but over time the scale began to tip and I knew I had to make a change. I didn’t quit school specifically to pursue art. I knew I wanted a career that was more creatively stimulating. I started studying computer animation and modeling before stumbling onto crayon carving.
“Quitting dental school wasn’t a tough decision to make, but it was a tough decision to follow through on. There were many reasons that led up to it but it can be simplified to the fact that I wasn’t passionate about dentistry and I just wasn’t happy. Each morning I would wake up with a groan looking forward to the end of the work day, and each weekend was spent looking forward to the weekend and a respite from dentistry. I simply knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life living like that.”
Tran’s decision brings him happiness, and his popularity is spreading. He does not have a stationary gallery, nor does he want one at this time. His crayon art sculptures are making their way into art studios and shows across the world. He hopes to continue to grow his popularity in galleries and art fairs, and eventually would like to have a working relationship with a large company like Crayola or perhaps Disney. He sells his work online, which still amazes him, he says. He has created a few pieces for some famous people, which is another factor that blows his mind. Tran may not make a lot of money right now, but he does not seem to mind. He knows that he will have to pay off debt from his first few years of dental school, but that he would not change his decision. He stated, “Years of my life were spent on a career I’ve turned my back on. Yet I wouldn’t want to change that because all those events led me to where I am right now. While I am making money off of my art, I’m not making a huge amount of money. I try not to focus on it too much but I do get concerned about my future. I’m the type the person who likes routine, knowing what will happen and being prepared for everything. Yet now I have no idea what my life will be like a few months from now let alone a year. I’m trying my best to grow my business and find stability where I can continue doing this for a long time.”
This young artist seems to have his head on his shoulders, and his eye on the future. He knows the sacrifices that are made for a life of happiness. He appears to be humble with his choice and hopeful for his future. A promising career lies in front of him, with Star Wars and cartoon figures already under his belt. His advice for all other artists out there is “If you want to be an artist, probably don’t go to dental school. You shouldn’t be afraid to pursue your dreams or change your career if you’re not satisfied with it. Everyone deserves to be happy and enjoy their work. However realize that it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy getting there. I feel very lucky to be getting the attention that I’ve gotten but I still have a long way to go.”
Hoang Tran is definitely an artist to watch.
Interview by Latasha Alvaro
Interview with Hoang Tran