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

Thao first got involved with the theater group, which is called Pom Siab Hmoob (Gazing into the Heart of the Hmong) Theatre, in 1994, just before graduating from Morris. "It was the only arts group having anything to do with the Hmong community," he explains. With typical enthusiasm and organizational flair, Thao acted, worked on sound design, and did publicity and other odd jobs for the troupe. In 1998 the theater company began talking about the need for more arts opportunities in the community, and the group decided to turn the theater into an arts organization. Thao was the first director of CHAT, starting with a budget of $5,000. He worked tirelessly at raising money, a talent foreign to most artists. But Thao found he was good at it. "This year's budget is $300,000 and growing," he says proudly.

Thao has since applied his fundraising skills beyond the community arts organization: For his recent state House campaign, he raised $8,000 dollars in cash (in turn drawing $4,000 in state matching funds). With these funds, he mounted TV commercials such as the much-talked-about "Cy the Cleaner" ad, in which he carried a broom and chased after prostitutes in an effort to "clean up the city." He also was able to attract and motivate some 60 volunteers to work on his campaign.

And as an artist, meanwhile, Thao has won a $40,000 Bush Artist Fellowship, which explains why he's been keeping a somewhat lower profile in the community in recent months--he's been busy painting. Though there's probably a bit of wound-licking going on, too.

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

"It's a little strange," Thao says softly, thinking back on his run for office. "In the community, I got support from regular folks in the district....But the politically active Hmong were not supportive. I think it was because I was in the wrong party. They all support the DFL. Even many of my friends kept quiet and shied away from me until after the election. But I'm not discouraged by that.

"If I managed to influence the kids, to get them interested and involved in politics, then it's a victory. Maybe ten years from now these kids will grow up and want what I want. Maybe it's the start of a movement."


In a sense, there are two University Avenues in St. Paul: One is a stagnant strip of widely known national chains, the other a private realm of resourceful community businesses. This same distinction might represent the different sides of Cy Thao: His public side is as a politician and performer, his private side is as an artist struggling in his home studio.

A few days before our jaunt around Frogtown, Thao had given me tour of his domestic world by showing me his current project--an ambitious series of 50 paintings (of which he has completed 33). He spoke while his three-week-old daughter Cyanne slept in his arms. His wife, Lee Vang, herself an actor in Pom Siab Hmoob and now the current director at CHAT, works while Thao (who stepped down a year ago) stays home and cares for the baby, painting when he can.

We stand in the cozy living room of his simple Victorian house in a heavily Hmong-populated part of Frogtown, one block from University Avenue, as he pulls one painting at a time from a pile leaning against a wall near a small stairway foyer. Thao tells stories about the scene depicted in each painting--though, to some degree, the story is Thao's fusion of seemingly competing artistic influences.

On the one hand, he uses the very "Western" medium of oil paint on canvas, creating simple figures, shapes, and objects in bright colors. On the other hand, Thao draws on oral storytelling traditions, in particular Hmong story quilts, to document the culture and history of his people--delving into the most painful of political subjects: rape, terror, and community betrayal during the wars of this century.

Hmong story quilts are called paj ntaub, or "flowering cloth," in the Hmong language. Typically of modest size, about as big as an average TV screen, they are hand-embroidered in very small and precise stitches, usually by women who were taught the craft as children. Traditionally, in Hmong villages in Laos, a woman hand-stitched her family's garments for daily work and ceremonial occasions. Hand sewing was highly valued, and an ability to sew often determined a woman's suitability for marriage.

As the Hmong did not have a written language until recently, they expressed narrative through embroidered design. A few years ago, bolstered by a Jerome Foundation grant, Thao traveled to China to study the art and folklore of the Hmong. There he learned that during wars against the Chinese or other enemies in this century, hand-sewn Hmong clothing was used to communicate to villages the time and place for actions and uprisings.

Paj ntaub itself is something of a cultural fusion. While living in refugee camps in Thailand, Hmong women continued their sewing to pass time. "We did a lot of waiting in the camps," says Thao, who spent five years, from age three to eight, in a Thai refugee camp before his family was allowed to come to the United States. Aid workers in the camps suggested that the women transfer their skills to making flat pieces that could hang on walls or cover pillows. At the same time, the first "story cloths" were made, perhaps as a kind of therapy. Each depicted a different Hmong experience: life in a village, the animals and plants in the jungle, or the escape from Laos across the Mekong River.

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