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.

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.

"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.

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).

"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."

On the whole, Thao pulls no punches in relating the stories he has heard or seen. There is much blood, decapitation, and violence in the war scenes, which span most of the century and include historical battles against China in the late 1800s, against the French in the mid-1900s, and against communists during the American war against Vietnam and Laos. (Hmong soldiers were recruited by the CIA to wage secret warfare against the communists, leading to civil conflicts in the Hmong community.) Given this history of bloodshed, there are scenes of Hmong-on-Hmong violence, of blond-haired French soldiers caught killing scarcely armed Hmong soldiers. And then there are the pictures of the aftermath--long lines of families fleeing through mountains or across rice fields or rivers, the dead bodies left behind on the paths or floating in the water. As mountain dwellers, the Hmong, according to Thao, generally never learned how to swim. In a final painting, then, small figures come out of thick green foliage, holding flotation devices made out of plastic bags or large bamboo tubes, on the way to crossing the wide and flat-blue Mekong River. Some of the devices fail, and these figures are then seen drowning. Also in the river is an overturned boat, its passengers flailing in the water. As Thao recounts, refugees would often be betrayed mid-river by the guides they had paid to bring them across.

Thao's family had to cross this very river. "We came very early, before the big problems occurred," he says. "But still I can remember going by car through a lot of checkpoints. At the river, we split into groups in order to fit on the boats. We had to dress as servants and told the guards that we were going across to work in the fields. My brother and sister went first. Then I went. Then my mother and two brothers." Thao's father went last, the rest of the family waiting for him for a week until he finally managed to cross. "It was pretty tense for a while," Thao says.

He pauses briefly, then continues: "I'm painting a lot of stuff that people don't want to acknowledge"--referring particularly to the betrayal of Hmong by Hmong, as not all sided with the U.S. in the war. "It's just the way we are. We're not good at expressing ourselves."

Just as Cy Thao's vision is expansive, his goals for the display of the work are similarly deliberate. He hopes to exhibit his completed series of paintings in its entirety, preferably at a venue on University Avenue such as the Sunrise Market. In this way, his vision of Hmong history can be visible within the community itself. Afterward, Thao hopes to find a buyer--perhaps a museum or a foundation--who will purchase the paintings as a package, so the story will always remain intact. If he can't find such a buyer, Thao says, he will likely store the paintings--bringing them out to show his grandchildren when no one bothers to remember the old stories and the old hardships any longer.

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