The Canvasser

Community activist Cy Thao plans to tell the story of the Hmong people in a series of 50 paintings--and may one day speak for them in elected office

The stretch of University Avenue in and around St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood represents what's sometimes called a "transitioning" neighborhood. Here and there one finds nondescript, seemingly empty brick warehouses built at some point in the century well before the notion of urban renewal had taken hold. There are endless hardscrabble shopping centers and retail spaces filled with second-rate Targets and Kmarts. Pawnshops, auto-repair garages, thrift stores, and endless fast-food outlets fill many of the rest of the lots.

Yet despite this mass of mind-numbing ugliness, entrepreneurs of all sorts have moved here in the past five or ten years, filling dying old buildings with all manner of businesses. There are ethnic markets and restaurants, and specialty clothing, book, and video shops run by Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Somali immigrants. There is a Russian Piroshki and Tea House in perhaps the last ramshackle Victorian home still to be found on the street. There is a greasy-spoon café in an old auto garage. On one corner of University, in a plain and square brick building, commonly called the Sunrise Market Building after its anchor business, there is a bustling mall with shops of all sorts: a pharmacy, a restaurant, a clothing store, a music store, a chiropractic office, and a large open supermarket with brimming shelves of brightly colored pink and green and gold cans and boxes, aisle after aisle of Asian foodstuffs. All of which is pleasing to 29-year-old artist, politician, community activist, and new father and husband, Cy Thao.

"This area is growing. I want to help it grow further," says Thao on a recent Tuesday morning as we drive through the neighborhood in his red Toyota pickup truck, parking in the lot behind the Sunrise Market Building. Thao is relaxed and self-assured, wearing casual clothes--shorts and T-shirt--on a slightly stocky body. His head is round and balding, and he wears a goatee, which makes him seem much older than he is. He seems hardly to regret his loss in a November 2000 run for the Frogtown seat of the Minnesota House of Representatives--a race in which he pulled a surprising 25 percent of the votes as an upstart Independence Party candidate trying to unseat incumbent Andy Dawkins. "As a politician, I was aware that a lot of local businesses were started with no help at all," Thao explains, dusting off a few words from his stump speech. "They were just mom-and-pop shops. A lot of businesses never get funding from government agencies. I was interested in helping develop the area and putting folks in touch with funding opportunities."

Shaking hands, kissing babies: Cy Thao (second from right) with his wife and infant, along with friends, in a Frogtown restaurant
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Shaking hands, kissing babies: Cy Thao (second from right) with his wife and infant, along with friends, in a Frogtown restaurant

Though there are some historical examples of artists doubling as politicians--German art and performance guru Joseph Beuys, for instance, helped found the Green Party and ran for several offices--there is much about Thao that seems almost paradoxically non-artistic. Perhaps it was this kind of dual nature that led Thao to study both political science and art at the University of Minnesota at Morris, and graduate with a double major in 1995. Or perhaps his study of politics was to please his father, who was a naikong, or a kind of country governor, in Laos before coming to the United States, and who now works in a machine shop in Fridley.

Thao spent time as intern at the state capitol while a junior at Morris. "I got sick of it," he says, "and became an art student. I saw a lot of politicians who were paying more attention to wealth, and to people who knew the system. They never paid any attention to the little guys. I saw one state representative write a letter to a high school football star from his hometown who scored two touchdowns in some game. I just think that's not very important to government."

Yet despite this disillusionment, and his turn toward art, something restless in his intellect seems to have brought him back to politics. "I guess it's easy for me to jump back and forth," says Thao. "At school, I became an American kid; at home, I was a Hmong kid....I think that's a good description of what I'm doing."

A Hmong man, somewhat older than Thao, stops him as we walk through the Sunrise Market. The man shakes Thao's hand and says he hasn't seen him for a while. Thao smiles and says something to him that I don't hear over the music playing in a nearby shop.

For a time, we go upstairs to visit the offices of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), a nonprofit arts organization that Thao helped found a few years ago. The open studio has a classroom feel. Shelves hold students' early attempts at pottery and other art forms. Painted on one wall is a preliminary sketch of a mural--a landscape scene of St. Paul. Thao explains that the arts group creates a new mural every year as a way to teach students the rudiments of painting. CHAT provides art instruction to Hmong youth in painting, ceramics, and creative writing; publishes a literary journal called Paj Ntaub Voice; and occasionally collaborates on theatrical performances that run around town. On another wall, large photo collages detail the six or seven shows the group has staged in the past five years--pieces such as Hmong Tapestry and The Garden of the Soul, which have run at the Great American History Theatre, the Minneapolis Theater Garage, and at other venues across the Cities and in Wisconsin.

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