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 imagery in Thao's paintings draws on the folklore of the Hmong, on historical recollections of recent and more distant events, and on the artist's own observations from his life. In this mode, Thao flips to a painting he has made to document past years of the Minnesota Hmong Annual Sports Tournament, an event held at St. Paul's Como Park each year around Independence Day. The whole event is there on the canvas: hordes of people flooding into the flat lower soccer pitches of McMurray Field, painted as nothing more than a mass of tiny heads lining up at food-vending tents. Kids are running here and there on the fringes of the scene, while a soccer game plays itself out in the lower left-hand corner. In a display of honest verisimilitude, Thao has painted tiny squiggles and white blobs of trash on the ground at the edges of the crowds. He smiles when I point it out, saying that trash-collection is sometimes a problem at the event, which can draw up to 25,000 visitors from around the country.

I tell him he has captured a spirit of a large pageant. "Go there," he replies, "and this picture will come alive for you." (I do; it does.)

Thao's style of painting can seem unusual to Western viewers; while indisputably representative--these are story paintings, after all--it is not what would normally be called "naturalistic." In the sports tournament painting, for instance, everything is exactly represented from the viewpoint of someone hovering overhead in a helicopter. Yet the space is distorted; or rather, it is not organized according to some (persuasive yet artificial) approximation of the way the human eye perceives spatial perspective. That is, some objects or figures in Thao's scene appear larger than they might in real life, and the field seems to be tipped upward, as if at any moment the figures depicted could roll off the bottom of the image. Also, no one person could ever see so many things occurring at once (even in a helicopter).

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

"Each piece tells a story," Thao says of his work. "I grew up in a narrative tradition....The Hmong lack a written language, so a lot of their stories are hidden in their songs and poetry and their quilts. I want to bring our story cloths into a painting form and merge our own traditions with Western style. In this way I hope to talk about the 5,000-year history of the Hmong."

The merging of Western and Eastern art traditions is not wholly novel. Van Gogh made use of the traditions of Japanese wood-block printing in the late 19th Century to develop his own idiosyncratic style of Western painting. Van Gogh happens to be one of Cy Thao's favorite artists--he studied him in school--along with the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, who painted storytelling images similar to Thao's in many respects.

As the afternoon wears on, Thao dutifully shows each of his paintings one by one, reciting a well-practiced narrative for each. This play-by-play guide is particularly helpful because at this stage, all of his paintings remain untitled and unnumbered. "I sort of have in my head where everything will be [in the end]," says Thao.

Though the visual technique seems simple on the surface, the paintings contain a kind of compressed encyclopedia of the social pressures the Hmong have experienced through history. In one image, a long line of figures rises through mountain paths toward a bridge--the passage to Thailand. There a communist leader has directed his soldiers to open fire on the waves of people, and figures tumble off to the sides like rag dolls, bloodied and spent. The rest of the line of refugees quivers with despair and horror at the killing.

"When I saw scenes on TV of the war in Kosovo," says Thao, "I could identify with what people were going through. I was there, and I remember lots of fleeing."

Thao's paintings as a whole are meant to contain a collective history of his people, as filtered through his own perspective. In fact, Thao's most affecting recollections are events from his childhood--the trials and mundane suffering his family has endured. In one image, children play in the rain during a funeral festival, which Thao describes as a near daily event in the camps. So, too, Thao recalls that the camp lacked showers, and the only way to bathe was to wait until a rainstorm. In another image, people crowd wildly around a bus that will take them to the U.S.--though only if they claim to have taken part in the Vietnam War. During their five years in the camp, his family was often disappointed to miss yet another "bus to America."

The arrival in the U.S. would stand as something less than a docking at the promised land. Later images from Minnesota show the problems the Hmong have encountered adjusting to life in this country. Thao's family lived in the housing projects of north Minneapolis when they first arrived, which he depicts as a dreary maze of squat brick buildings with barred windows. (One of these, Thao has ironically painted as a zoo cage with animals behind the bars.) A car in the foreground bears a harsh spray-painted welcome to their new country: "Go Home Chink."

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