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Oskar Ly, Christina Vang, and Teeko Yang: The Agriculture Artists

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City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Separately, Oskar Ly, Christina Vang, and Teeko Yang each have impressive portfolios speaking to their respective talents in textiles (Ly), illustration/design/murals (Vang), and photography (Yang).

But together, they’re ArtCrop. And over the past three years as a collective, they’ve drawn attention to the Hmong community’s link between farmers and artists, bending the cultural landscape to increase the reach of these interlinked groups for generations to come.

The earliest kernels of ArtCrop were born of St. Paul’s original Little Mekong Night Market in 2014. The first version was more of a fusion between Minnesotan farmers’ markets and traditional Southeast Asian night markets – and included farmers selling produce.

“It really failed for farmers, actually. People were really into food and things, and some art.... So I was really interested in seeing the intersections between farmers and artists,” Ly recalls. “A lot of times in the Hmong community, artists are farmers and vice versa, and it just depends on the seasonality in the year.”

Already acquainted through the local arts community, Ly—a self-taught fashion designer who’s currently spending six months studying textiles in Thailand—secured grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs’ Artists Neighborhood Partnership Initiative, then brought on Yang and Vang to help with ArtCrop’s branding and project management. That the pair would become permanent artistic collaborators as well felt natural. Vang was raised in Milwaukee by a family of artists and farmers before pursuing formal art in adulthood, while Yang had lived in the Twin Cities as a kid before moving to an Oklahoma farm with her parents in middle school, all while using art in myriad forms as a means of self-expression.

All of ArtCrop together -- Christina Vang, Teeko Yang, and Oskar Ly -- in front of their mural at HAFA.

All of ArtCrop together -- Christina Vang, Teeko Yang, and Oskar Ly -- in front of their mural at HAFA. Courtesy of ArtCrop

Vang says that, from the beginning, ArtCrop has had two main focuses. First: that farming and textiles have “carried and sustained Hmong communities for generations, and it’s fading away,” she explains. “So part of it is, [how do we go about] sustaining that cultural aspect?” Second was discovering different revenue streams for farmers and artists outside the growing season. “Or, y’know, the creating season.”

Distilling this heady concept into tangibles has produced multifaceted, multidisciplinary work over the years. An “artshare” delivered intimacy through intentional craft that arrived alongside produce from Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) farmers in CSA boxes. In 2017, the art took the form of farmers’ stories woven into coasters by Ly. The next year, those goods were paired with illustrated recipes from Xee Reiter (who recently created all the art for TPT’s Relish series). Last summer, boxes came with hand-poured soy candles from V.Florals in St. Paul, peppered with blossoms from their family’s flower farm.

At the same time as these art-produce boxes arrived in kitchens city-wide, ArtCrop installed murals at the HAFA farm in Hastings and in St. Paul proper. “A lot of our history, documentation, and art has been erased, or destroyed, or we’ve had to leave that behind, because of war or fleeing persecution,” Ly says. “For us, creating [public] art is about creating evidence, leaving evidence of our communities, of the times that we’re in right now.”

As they approach growing season once more, Vang admits that their task remains complex—building bridges between agrarian life and art, combating cultural appropriation by building a public visual narrative.... “We’re dealing with so many different facets of culture… [But] everything doesn’t exist in silos.” 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.