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"The Hmong Migration" begins, in fact, not with an image of death, but with the Hmong creation myth, about a butterfly who lays eggs. From these hatch all the creatures of the world. Thao illustrates the story with disarming directness. The narrative's episodes are laid out in a clockwise circle: the butterfly falling in love with its own reflection in the river, the hatching of the tiger, and, finally, the birth of the Hmong people.
Some of Thao's paintings are impressionistic rather than strictly narrative. There is, for instance, one rather lovely picture of a Hmong woman standing shoulder-deep in a yellow- green field that stretches toward distant mountains. Even this serene image, however, reflects a complicated history: In French colonial days, Thao explains, Hmong farmers were forced to grow poppies to supply the flourishing French opium trade.
As Thao's project grew, he decided to include scenes from contemporary Hmong life. He painted a tableau of factory workers, inspired, he says, by the assembly line where his parents worked when they first arrived in Minnesota. At the back of the factory is a small door leading to a cool green landscape--the promise of an easier future, Thao says. There is a darker side to American life, as well: an image of a drive-by shooting, and a picture of body bags being removed from a family home. "There's a lot of medical needs," Thao sighs. "Suicide. Depression. Trauma from the war, or from being in a refugee camp for 10 or 15 years. It's a big social issue. People just get so lost in this system."
In 2001, after he finished "The Hmong Migration," Thao rented a big tent and held an informal exhibition in the parking lot of a University Avenue supermarket. He saw one man studying his painting of the infamous 1975 massacre near the bridge at Hin Heup, where government forces murdered many evacuating Hmong civilians. In Thao's painting, a haggard line of refugees in traditional Hmong dress winds out of the green mountains. As soldiers open fire, some of them flee into the woods; others leap into the river or fall dead in the road. The man at the opening, Thao recalls, pointed out the exact spot where his wife and children had been standing, and where they ran when the shooting started.
Later on, Thao noticed a different man staring silently at another of his paintings. "I went over to see him--not saying I was the artist or anything--and asked him, 'Of all these, what one is the hardest to look at?'" The man pointed to the scene of the burning village.
"I think the older generation appreciated the fact that someone else went through what they went through," Thao says. "And maybe this will be an opportunity to share with their kids, so the kids get to see the stories of what their parents went through. For me, when my parents talk about crossing the river, I was there so I can understand what they're saying. This is a way for younger kids to visualize their parents' stories."
He continues, "When I paint, the ultimate goal is to connect all these dots and then share that with the Hmong community. See, the young people here don't really know what happened to the Hmong in China, and the Hmong in Laos don't know what happened in China, and the Hmong in China don't know what happened to us here in America."
Thao even harbors hope that his paintings might eventually find their way to China, so the Hmong there will finally know where the long road ended.