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.

1 Comment

  1. Louise Beck is a talented artist and a generous teacher. She taught me to listen for the “bells that still can ring”.
    This is a great article about Tan. I love his work and his outlook. Thanks for this interview.

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