City maker Thanh Tam Cao

Capturing dualities in light and location, night and day

The all-too familiar Golden Arches of McDonald’s fronted by a bulging, rubbish bin and ibis hovering, pecking, hoping for food scraps. A fenced-off paddock, a stationary white car with its headlights on and, in the distance, rolling hills, a peaceful scene tinged pink by the sky. These unlikely juxtapositions mix the imaginings and reality of Thanh Tam Cao’s work, a selection of which will be on show as Night & Day, at Gallery 371, September 15-28.

I first met Tam in a Sydney pub at a meet up of what were called Momentum Warriors (now retitled Authentic Influence Warriors). They were mostly keen mid-20s to 30-year-olds, digital, marketing, creative and social entrepreneurs full of ideas and promise. Tam fitted in perfectly. He was excited about the series of pastel portraits he was preparing for the inaugural Art on the Walk Competition at Henry Deane Plaza in Central. (He took home first place.) My sense that he would be an ideal City Maker was further confirmed when he gave me his business card, illustrated with a pen and ink drawing of a heritage pub in Parramatta. He said he worked out of Pop Up Parramatta Studios. I met him again in August, first in a café near Parramatta station, and then at his studio, where work was in progress for his first solo exhibition.

Art is his life-blood

At high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I had sketched a lot at primary school, drew and painted too, mixing ideas from my imagination and from what I could observe.

I went to public schools in Smithfield. I had a few friends who could also draw and we were always trying to outdo each other. One was so good with colour and comic book characters, Spider Man and the like, that I spent my lunch money buying his work. We were still very young. I asked him if he had copied it but he said it was all freehand and from his imagination. I was inspired and felt I had to try it myself but was so frustrated that I could not do it properly.

I met him years later, and reminded him about this time. He vaguely remembered. Then he told me that it was not his own work (Tam guffaws at the memory of this revelation). Still it helped me develop my own eye and believe in the possible, especially as I thought he had done it his own way. So, I was kind-of tricked into drawing from my imagination, with the realistic images around me helping me hone my eye.

What has most frustrated him

I always knew that I needed help but didn’t know anyone who could teach me. I was working out what the obstacles were, trying to develop artistic fundamentals on my own, such as understanding form, perspective and tone. I just kept drawing. I had had a couple of art lessons at primary school and my parents probably made some sacrifices because they knew I really wanted to draw. They supported me.

I’m lucky by default. I have lots of brothers and sisters and think that if I was an only child I would not have had the chance to draw.

(Tam was born in 1985. His parents had left Vietnam two years earlier on one of the last boats to leave during that time. An Indonesian woman picked them up. They were processed there and then had to choose between going to Australia or Canada.)

I am so happy they chose Australia. I can’t bear the cold. I have four sisters and two brothers, all born in Vietnam. They all have responsible jobs, accountants, a banker, property manager, community services worker, a housewife, and one who is also a comic.

As for me, being an artist, left-handed and vegan makes me feel different. I’ve had lots of odd jobs, and my first job where I could work five days a week and earn quite a bit of money was as a bartender at an RSL club.

Serious about his art

It may be a cliché but I think it is important to know the rules before you can break them. The very foundation of drawing and painting is to transform something three-dimensional, whether it be what we see or what we invent, and put it onto a two-dimensional surface. Before you can do that, you must understand what it is you are trying to say, and then you must know how to express it. Without a classical training, your work can lack substance and depth despite having the stories to tell.


It may be a cliché but I think it is important to know the rules before you can break them. The very foundation of drawing and painting is to transform something three-dimensional, whether it be what we see or what we invent, and put it onto a two-dimensional surface.

I started my training at the Julian Ashton Art school in the Rocks in 2007 and received the John Olsen Scholarship in 2010.

I sketch first and draw to work up the composition. If doing pastels, my medium of the moment, I go straight for colour and then move the scene. I fix up the painting, brushing as I go. The amount of time this takes varies.

I wonder if it is ever possible to nail it straight away but my strike rate is getting better, the amount of good work to bad work. I put the painting into Photoshop half-way through to better work out colour and so on. I do like traditional methods though, the tactility. I can’t go straight into digital. I am not ready for that yet.

My artistic influences include artists from the Romantics era, such as Caspar David Friedrich (19th-century German Romantic landscape artist). His landscapes are so beautifully painted either day or night, you don’t know whether the sun is setting or rising. I love his work purely aesthetically. I also like Tim Miller, an Australian artist, who lives in a rural town, Rockley near Orange, and Sam Wade, a former teacher at Ashton.

I have lived in Sydney all my life, with my parents, in Marrickville for a couple of years and then out to a larger home in Smithfield. It was comfortable living in suburbia but a bit boring. I love Parramatta and Sydney because it’s big and haphazard, not like Melbourne with its grid system. Compared with other cities around the world Sydney is a liveable city.

I empathise with refugees and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I am not sure if that affects my art but it makes me want to paint and draw all the time, and not be in it for the marketing side of things. You may not always know their back story but you must fill the void which I often do with something ambiguous, a lonely landscape, or subtle narrative about people that have lost connection.

First solo exhibition draws on different influences

I hope my first solo exhibition will show where I am coming from. It’s called night and day, a polarised view, a duality between night and day, between good and bad, right and wrong, one can’t exist without the other, I can’t paint the day without understanding its opposite. Half the scenes are at night, and half during the day, including transitions from one to the other. I like twilight, but I don’t want to call it that. Transitions, I think, better implies the shift in light and mood.

I hope my first solo exhibition will show where I am coming from. It’s called night and day, a polarised view, a duality between night and day, between good and bad, right and wrong, one can’t exist without the other, I can’t paint the day without understanding its opposite.


I paint all types of scenarios, capturing light at different times. Edward Hopper’s paintings of urban scenes conveying themes of alienation have helped influence some pieces in this body of work.

I’ll paint a night scene with a headlamp and a fluorescent light. I realised that the night scenes draw on the time I worked in restaurants and RSL clubs, which was often at night. Perhaps I saw things that were not very nice but looking back I mostly think of how I can incorporate this into my painting. The people you meet at night are different from the people you see during the day. I never thought I was in danger but there is a bravado mainly among the men but also the women these days, and an undercurrent of grittiness that is not there during the day. I like both times and it all makes for good stories, and has inspired me to want to become an artist.

I like to go on location. Sometimes my work can take weeks or months, sometimes it is very quick. The exhibition mixes urban and rural settings. I am drawing lots of rubbish bins at the moment, green bins, skips and others. I love the shining plastic. Someone’s rubbish is an artist’s still-life.

Someone’s rubbish is an artist’s still-life.

Everyone knows what a bin is. We’ve all taken out bins. It’s something people can relate to. Perhaps it’s an environmental thing as well. As long as we have had civilisation we have had rubbish, and the best thing we have learnt to do with it is dig a hole in the ground and forget about it, without thinking about how consumptive we are.

I am also composing animals, like the ibis, in my paintings. They are easier than people because you don’t need to make them as different as you do with people. As with the ibis. You can repeat them in a pattern around the bin. People like repetition and the familiar.

Why choose Gallery 371?

It is a relatively new gallery and I know the owner, Louise Beck. I met her a while ago at a Branding artists life drawing group, specialising in impressionistic figures and portrait art. Louise was always the one organising us. She’s a go-getter, very passionate about being an artist, entering competitions and being active in the art scene.

She had sold her house and was doing up this dilapidated terrace with a shopfront. I was driving past one day and saw her canvases. I pulled over and walked to the gallery space. We were surprised to see each other. She explained that this was her new home and gallery. I was so impressed and immediately thought, ‘why am I not doing anything with my art and my career?’.

I had wanted to be one of the first artists exhibiting there but did not produce enough work in time. She’s shown several artists already and has become quite popular. I love her location, right across the road from a nice park (Enmore Park). Marrickville has become more gentrified but I just love that park.

I plan to do workshops and landscapes there for people coming to the exhibition. If it rains, it rains. There will be a space indoors where people can come in.

What lies ahead

I teach drawing and painting at the Julian Ashton School and the Sydney Art School. I also work in an art shop in Parramatta and have done some commissions. But I want to pursue my career as an exhibiting artist. It’s about finding what I want to say with my work.

I’m also getting married later this year. I may visit Vietnam later too. I went to Japan with my fiancée this year and feel like now I have someone I can go to Vietnam with (his partner’s parents are Chinese but they also lived in Vietnam). I have travelled by myself but you have to be the right kind of person to do that, and I more appreciate having someone there to bounce ideas off.

Forget about cost when measuring the value of your travel

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by data? Do analytics enthral or bemuse you, those algorithms lurking in the background measuring your private insights, your searches, the where you go to and why?

I took two overseas trips in the last 20 months, as for many of us mixing sight-seeing and visits to family and friends. What ways could I bundle together my memories (still fresh), structuring them for later poignant, but practical, recollection?

Choose your destination

Sounds obvious but unless you are completely footloose and fancy free, having an idea of where you want to go is bound to scope your journey.

October 2015: I went to New York. Since my parents passed away, most of my closest blood relatives live there. I have visited several times over the years and identify with its block-on-block walkability. I stayed with my aunt in her New York state condominium, travelling in to my favourite station, the beautiful, effervescent and well-organised Grand Central Terminal. I also went to Philadelphia, and stayed with an old schoolfriend. We talked and talked, reminiscing about hilarious and embarrassing moments, of teachers who mattered, and about pivotal experiences such as seeing Monty Python live at London’s Drury Lane in 1974.

May 2016: My partner and I visited the UK and Germany. Manchester, my home town is as galvanised as travel articles (and then news pieces a year later after the explosion) have indicated, and was the setting for more recounting with friends. London is where I went to university, got my first proper jobs, still have friends and an umbilical cord I cannot quite break. And also to Southampton to visit my partner’s family; Edinburgh for heritage and bagpipes; Glasgow – four rushed but vibrant hours learning that People Do Make Glasgow; a mini-bus tour through the Highlands’ twisting roads and glorious scenery; and Germany, to university town Gottingen, Berlin and Dresden, renovated, historic and the throbbing, modern.

Breathless and vowing not to rush around so much next time, and to pack less, I wanted to think of a matter-of-fact list, full of holiday emotion without the frills, the more ordinary the better.

Daily shopping

We stayed in self-catering apartments reckoning they are better for our health, finances – eating out every night gets expensive – and flexibility. The location and stock of the nearest supermarket or fruit and vegetable stalls was both an entertainment and a practicality. There were lots of students and travellers staying in or living near our apartment in Edinburgh so the shops had cold meats, tinned fish, small portions of cheese and laundry packets so you could buy for a day or two. In Manchester, we were down the road and up a ramp from the main city station which had the full range of outlets. OK they were not as cheap as in the suburbs but stocked everything we needed.

The closest supermarket to us in London stayed open late, and was always packed. Southampton’s Marks and Spencers had the usual, convenient lunch ingredients and gamut of ready-made meal packs; Berlin’s Lido chain was serviceable but not a match for Rewe, my favourite, across Dresden’s cobbled inner square flanked by imposing churches. The carbohydrate, protein, fruit and vegetable staples lining the wide aisles were matched by liberal supplies of natural food, meat substitutes, grains, pulses and fresh German breads.

Airport food

Airports, overall, were functional rather than spectacular. Berlin’s Tegel and San Francisco’s stood out for choice of food. Tegel had an outlet with natural, healthy and filling snacks and San Francisco, where due to a diversion from Los Angeles en route to Newark, I had a couple of jet-lagged hours, let me wander around buying up sesame creations, an udon and vegetable box and a tofu bar that lasted me my entire US trip.

Warm welcome

Always important at hotels and hotel apartments (we did not stay at any Airbnb places), the busy Hatton Cross Heathrow Airport hotel, is a fair walk from the left luggage area (we downsized for our side-trip to Germany). People milled around reception. The computer was down and we were waiting to check in but the Spanish receptionist was unflappable and efficient. We rarely ate in hotels but here enjoyed the roast parsnip, sweet potato, lightly roasted chicken and crunchy salad, tasty and light by any standards. The place cheerfully thrived on fast turnovers, something never to take for granted on holidays.

Our best linguist was at an Aussie-owned hotel chain in Berlin. It was in a renovated former East German school still with huge stairwell mirrors, while the entrance had statues of Berlin bears covered in Aboriginal motifs. They were not as kitschy as they could have been. This was the only hotel we stayed at without free Wi-Fi in the rooms. It was only in the lobby, which understandably was packed.

Living up to its reputation, Manchester’s foyer was the noisiest (or should I say liveliest?) with soccer on the television and background rock ‘n’ roll in the bar.

Room facilities

We did little clothes washing, and that was mostly hand washing. Washing machines in Edinburgh were out of order and we had neither the time nor the motivation to go to the launderette. We arrived too late to take advantage of Hatton Cross’s plentiful, communal washing machines and dryers, prioritising eating over washing. Berlin came to the rescue as we did a load or two while watching the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest, proudly supporting Demi and missing Julia and Sam’s commentary, so much fun compared to the far more serious German presenters.

For washing ourselves, bathrooms were up to scratch though we only had separate shower rooms in Germany. In Gottingen, I kept tripping up on the tiny step up from the bedroom when I was tired. Washrooms, generally, are an intelligence test; do you turn, point, wave, push, spray? Do it once and then follow the routine.

Edinburgh had the best cooking utensils and sturdiest saucepans, and Berlin the most compact kitchen table and chairs for eating and watching TV. Dresden’s coffee-making machine was the fiddliest (I much prefer cafetieres). Mini-bar contents were stored in the fridge which, alongside our food, made it very crowded.

Temperature and power

All room windows opened except at Hatton Cross (for acoustics as much as anything as we were on a major road).

We stayed in renovated industrial buildings, many with latch-windows, but as it was early spring, temperatures were fine and generally we preferred to open the windows rather than use the air-conditioning. The German rooms impressed with their double or triple glazed smooth-handle openings, reliable and so stylish.

All rooms had enough power points. Manchester’s, in fact, was overpowering when we first opened the door as the central heating had been on for hours beforehand. This did not happen in other places.

It was hard to follow the instructions for switching on the television in Dresden; my partner understood the German but we had to ask housekeeping for help. No wonder. They explained that one remote switched on the power and another was for changing channels. Elsewhere, the remotes were much easier to work.

Sleep well

London had the biggest quilt. It had to be bunched up to fit on to the bed. Quilts everywhere came with the now ubiquitous strip of material for feet, which was great for the time of year in which we were travelling. Most places also supplied blankets and lots of pillows, Germany’s feather being the softest.

We slept on different sides of the bed in different places. I am not sure why but it was all harmonious. I was often trying to shield my partner from the light as I read or watched TV late. In Dresden, luckily, I chose the side with a direct view of the historic square at night.


My right leg is a bit stiff from a bad bout of cellulitis a few years ago. Climbing stairs can be difficult, especially if the tread is high. I look out for sturdy bannisters to haul myself up. Lifts and escalators are not always available and trying to get as much exercise as possible, I opt for stairs anyway. Dresden’s formidable museum entrances are a testimony to hardwearing stone, and London’s tubes rely on hundreds of steps, even on the escalators.

Above-ground station exits and entrances in the cities we visited mostly had ramps and lifts so they were accessible.

We caught taxis to and from public transport and accommodation where necessary. Taxi drivers in London told us that Fridays and Mondays were good as so many people work from home those days and, true, from my experience going from South Kensington to Waterloo on a busy Thursday and a quieter Friday that is exactly how it worked out. Gottingen was pedestrian bliss. The station to the hotel was across two roads and a bicycle lane with its own set of traffic lights and courteous cyclists who wore civvies, not lycra.

Valuable extras

Free seating on platforms is at a premium, so once found, enjoy. Treasure any storage on trains. There never seems to be enough of it and you often end up sitting a long way from your bags.

And at museums keep a sense of humour. A group of senior tourists at a major Dresden art gallery gathered around the sofa on which we were sitting. One of them plonked herself down on my partner apparently without realising what she had done even when we burst into peals of laughter.

Special cases

We stayed in a renovated, historic hotel in Gottingen. Breakfast was included. I love German breakfasts – the buffet range of sour dough or wholemeal or rye breads and rolls, the thinly sliced meats and cheeses, muesli, crackers, jams, mineral waters, splendid breakfast coffee, and now natural yoghurt (not sour cream as in the past).

I also enjoyed the former East German traffic lights in Dresden and parts of Berlin, the stubby red and green men striding out as stop/go signs (see them in Sydney at Dresden spectacle shop on Newtown’s King Street). At Edinburgh station (and possibly others in Scotland), the public toilet signs show men and women and a kilt-wearing Scotsman.


I will say it again. Combining architecture, structure, accessibility, Grand Central Terminal, my New York commuting arrival and departure point, has the grand stairs, information desks and fantastic signage clearly showing which track you needed and which walkways to get there, to be my travel joy. The affable tour guide who took a group of us around including a bunch of lively 10 and 11-year olds from a Queens public school typified the station’s atmosphere and pride to make it my most indelible memory.

Other blogs coming.

City makers, city off-beats and city thinkers coming.