Le Tran: Teacher, Artist, Inspirer and Dragon

Le Tran is trying to arrange the start of her AP Art class when three young men bound in, seeking chocolate. Normally, there’d be some available, part of Tran’s stash that she’s peddling to benefit the National Art Honor Society, which she founded here at East Kentwood High School a decade ago.

But alas, the boys scatter to their next classes, because she’s out. Or is she?

Because in a sense, there is chocolate everywhere, the sweet essence of Tran’s fingerprints in every work rendered from this oasis of creativity, with this dynamo of a woman at its rich & gooey epicenter.

Le Tran models holding a guitar for Ben Ward’s drawing with Mary Moyer advising on proper guitar technique

“There is no secret,” she says of the success her students enjoy, and the way she’s helped them soar as artists. “It’s nothing more than hard work. They want to be done,” she says of the pieces they produce over the course of a semester. “But I train them to look at them from a distance, and they stand back and they say, ‘How did I not see this before?’”

Her room is nothing less than a bubbling vat, 16 young women and 2 young men involved in a meticulous melding of mind & media. Some hoist brushes, others a single stick of charcoal, still others colored pencils. Except for the strains from a Marvin Gaye compact disc, it’s fairly silent in the room, heads bowed in the disarming and torturous act of creating something from nothing.

There’s an intensity within the room, firm and palpable. Which begs the question from Tran as to how she earned the nickname “The Dragon?” which some students have heard about and others haven’t.

“I breathe fire when they don’t do their work,” she answers. “People know me as someone who holds students to high standards. I believe that they can do more, and it’s why I push them. Kids often aren’t pushed enough to realize their true potential.”

Tran was born in Vietnam and among the first batch of refugees who settled in Grand Rapids during the 1970s. She was just 10 when she landed here, and remembers meals provided by the Salvation Army comprised of bread and milk and little else.

♥She was driven at an early age to produce art, graduating in 1985 from Grand Rapids Catholic Central High and then wandering through Grand Valley State University and the Art Institute of Chicago, where at the latter she dismissed the instructors as “out to lunch most the time.”

She learned better through independentstudy, but eventually dropped out, got married, had kids, and helped them with their art, the whole time loving it and also agonizing over the fact her own artbox had gotten dusty.

In 2001, she finally graduated, from Aquinas College, and immediately had three offers to teach. She was enticed by Kentwood for a variety of reasons, including a culture that reflects hallways abuzz with dozens of languages.

Since becoming an instructor, she’s also made up for lost time as an artist herself, nabbing not one but two coveted Fulbright‐Hays awards in recent years to study abroad.

Inspirational posters line the classroom wall

In one instance, she tied her artwork to the writings of Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong, whose earthy and provocative verse includes the piece “Young Scholars:” “Jostling about by the temple door/ they’d like to be scholars but they can’t even talk/ Someone should teach these illiterate fools/to take their brushes and paint the pagoda wall.”

Tran’s own adolescence included large doses of hard work, and it’s imbued in her teaching style. But it also includes healthy doses of empathy: “Being successful at anything means never giving up,” she says. “So when I see a student struggle, I walk the walk with them. I’ll do whatever I can. It requires dedication. My own work week isn’t 40 hours; it’s more like 60. But you do that when you find a job you love, and this is what I love.”

Indeed, chocolate is everywhere. It’s in the glorious peacock being finished by senior Kay Anna Williams, which needs more injections of blue, and Tran is telling her just that, but with questions. “What else can you do here,” she asks Kay Anna. “Can we pull out some more blues and test that?”

Carlos Sampson works on a drawing during the Honor’s Art class

There’s chocolate in the self‐portrait being charcoaled by Amanda Le, a junior. To the casual observer, it might look finished. To Tran, not by a long shot. “If it doesn’t want to cooperate,” Tran says of a single stick of charcoal, “get a new piece.” Next comes the lecture on “contrast,” which students have learned to accept, but sometimes with a little roll of their eyes.

Tran is right, though. As she coaches Amanda through the process, the eyes come more to life, the lips blossom as though words might emanate, and the neck is now resembling the petals of a large flower. “I think you can go that dark and…LOOK AT THAT!” says Tran, “just by using the side of the charcoal.”

Amanda lets loose a little smile as Tran announces that “You’re 95 percent done.” And then the smile fades to a friendly smirk when she adds, “Just more contrast; that’s all.”

Student Mary Meyer is putting final touches on a watercolor inspired from a 19th Century Scottish fairy tale called “The Light Princess.” Of Tran, Mary says that “She’s definitely helped me a lot. I look at my old art work and I think, ‘What was I thinking?’”

Warning sign on Le Tran's classroom wall

A chalk drawing by Sydnee Semon is getting Tran’s attention next. It features a girl with a butterfly lying beside a bed of flowers. “I wonder if glazing a little bit of the pink would help,” says Tran. “The colors are going to bounce. Did you spray it yet? And let’s get some of that green into the blue. And you could exaggerate the shadows.”

Carlos Sampson, a senior, describes the class as “intense, hard,” adding that his instructor “pushes you,” and that’s difficult at times for him because “I like to take my time, but it makes me stay on task.”

When Tran isn’t serving as head dragon, she’s inventing ways to connect with students – and not just those who are artistically inclined, but those who might benefit from their creative bents.

She’s masterminded an ambitious mural that encompasses every sport played on the East Kentwood campus. Three other murals are in the works ‐‐ one made with ceramics, another tied to Van Gogh and featuring recycled wood, and a third that leans toward Monet and is comprised of painted squares of wallpaper.

Tran not only founded the National Art Honor Society here, but also the Advanced Placement art program, as well as a dual enrollment option in cooperation with Kendall SCollege of Art & Design, where she earned her master’s degree.

Le Tran in honors class

She’s also orchestrated eggroll sales to help finance trips with students to overseas destinations for study. She’s escorted her young artists to France, Spain, China and Italy.

Many of her students have gone on to excel in art‐related fields. One is employed with a nationally-renowned museum. Another snagged a $14,000 scholarship at Kendall and is now working with a prominent graphic design firm. Yet another is in wowing profs in Yale, as he majors in architectural design.

On this particular day at East Kentwood, it’s nearly quitting time – well, maybe for some. For Tran, the bell to dismiss only signals that it’s time for students to stay after and work – on individual projects, or perhaps another mural‐in‐the‐making.

She’s asked if she’s ever stood over a student’s work and pronounced it done?

“Oh, yes,” she answers, and recalls an ink drawing done by a young man who had wondered, “How are my mountains looking?”

“Perfect,” she answered.

So he was done?

Tran pauses. “With that part.”

Hershey’s kisses, everywhere. 

East Kentwood Honor’s Art class
 

Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio

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