CHAT Arts Festival continues to grow and while keeping community at its heart

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Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (C.H.A.T.), celebrated its 6th Hmong Arts Festival August 25 at Western Sculpture Park on Marion Street in St. Paul. The event added new highlights that thousands of destination seekers and happened-to-walk-by patrons enjoyed in perfect weather.

The Hmong Art Festival is designed to both increase the visibility and exposure of Hmong art to the broader community, while serving to bring diverse communities together in the St. Paul neighborhood.

Kathy Mouacheupao, executive director, CHAT (www.aboutchatorg), pulled together dozens of student and church volunteers to organized the nonprofit event. The 2007 festival once again exhibited dozens of visual artists in separate booths and the main exhibition tent was reserved for submitted artwork based on the festival’s “Dreaming in Hmong” theme. A special Masters Tent housed the winning artwork of Seexeng Lee, Kao Lee Thao, Thao Vang, Pachia Xiong, and Nikki Yang.

The judging panel reviewed the submissions for two weeks in July and announced the Masters List just prior to the festival. The panel included: State Representative Cy Thao (DFL-65A), also an artist; Robert K. Tom, an Assistant Professor of Ceramics, Design and Sculpture at Augsburg College; and Rio Sayto, an area artist.

Nikki Yang, a conceptual photo artist, strives to present her own experience growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where she earned a degree in graphic design and now works as a digital artist for Lifetouch. Her passions are photography, Hmong culture and history. She works as a freelance designer and photographer and recently worked with five other artists to construct an 8 by 20 foot puzzle mural, “Immigration Emotions,” for the Alley Art Gallery in Wadena, Minnesota.

Nikki’s fascinating gallery exhibition includes a three-photo piece of her father as a boy being processed as a refugee in Thailand; next to his U.S. citizenship photo as a teenager, and in middle age getting his passport photo to return to his homeland as a Hmong American. Another set of photos depicts the suffering of those waiting for change in the camps. The photos are moving and tell a story.

Her winning entry, “Silently,” is a photo-art piece with her own son dressed as a boy she saw in the Thai camps. It depicts the plight of the Hmong who had searched for a way out and remain as refugees without a home. It is impossible for the Hmong community to not feel their suffering, having gone through the same experience and were able to emigrate.

Over the past ten years, Seexeng Lee has grown from being everyone’s favorite art teacher at Patrick Henry High School, to a renowned Hmong artist who was both progressive and traditional, to a celebrated artist in the pan-Asian and mainstream community with a commissioned “Unity in Diversity” relief painting for the Dragon Festival and a sculpture at North Point Wellness Center.

Using his preferred gold-leaf and clay, Lee’s sculpture, “Ncas,” won a place in the Master Gallery for its depiction of the Hmong brass and bamboo stringed instrument that is used during courtship.

As a Patrick Henry High School art teacher, he has nurtured and encouraged many students to follow their creative passion. Some have now completed degrees in art at college and are exhibiting work as professionally trained artists.

Discouraged from pursuing art as a child, Seexeng pursued teaching and made art his specialty. His work takes cultural to a near spiritual level. He blends his exploration of his roots with a contemporary and universal approach that has brought him many mainstream commissions.

Kao Lee Thao, a psychiatry student turned artist, is a celebrated 3-D artists but enjoys her animation work. Her “Henna” acrylic work won a spot for its Hmong dream theme.

Thao Vang, a 24-year-old self-taught artist who enjoys digital art but dabbles in all areas, won for his airbrush on cedar work, “Eye Candy.”

Pachia Xiong, a 17-year-old Eau Claire artist, was honored for untitled mixed-media, acrylic on canvas painting where a dark figure plays the traditional Hmong qeej in the background of a dreamlike painting.

Xiong is a graphics editor for Hmong Artist Magazine. She is also one of the designers for the CHAT Arts Festival flier, and the youngest artist accespted in the Master Gallery.

Still at the heart of the festival is the Clothesline Project, a visual memorial for the victims and survivors of the genocide of Hmong in Laos. This community art project of tie-dyed shirts raises awareness about the situation and honors the suffering of people facing human rights violations and inaction from governments.

The t-shirts were made by refugee adults at the Hmong Cultural Center, youth at HAP, Lauj Youth Society, HAMA, and many other volunteers.

The entertainment venue was well organized and with a large and small stages for simultaneous performances.

Meng Yang directs the Art Saves Us (ASU) Choir for CHAT. They sang a Hmong language “Pre-College Song,” about growing up, moving to college, and realizing the important role their parents played in helping them reach their goals.

They followed with the 50s classic, “(In The) Still Of The Night,” and closed with an 80s U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

They have only been singing since April and they really had their act together. Meng credits the cohesiveness of a Hmong teen choir, where they also have the freedom to choose their material, mainstream or Hmong.

Some of the choir stayed on to perform their break dancing to more contemporary music, and were followed by a host of other performers.

Meng Yang later took the stage with his own rock band, “Watching Leona.” He is the lead singer. They have an introductory EP album of eight songs and are currently working on their first full-length album (www.myspace.com/watchingleona).

“Our summer was very busy with concerts,” said Yang. “We played for a music series for the St. Paul Parks and Rec. We played for “Hmong Night” at the Dakota County Fair. We’ve also played at local clubs, bars, and venues around the Twin Cities. This summer, we’ve also played for a venue called “Project Octane,” an organization in eastern Wisconsin that is trying to fuel a Hmong arts movement from Wisconsin.”

They next trip is to the Hmong New Year season in California. It will be their first time performing outside of the Midwest.

“We are very excited for that,” he added. “The Hmong Arts Festival in St. Paul marked out last performance for the summer, and it was very fitting for us. We’re just excited to get going on working on our album that we hope will come out next summer.”

Dyane Garvey, chair, Hmong American Institute for Learning (HAIL), known for its support for emerging Hmong writers and poets, has embarked on a similar path to provide exposure and opportunities for Hmong visual artists. Though HAIL is not a direct sponsor or organizer of the CHAT Arts Festival, she said the two organizations have a similar path in supporting emerging Hmong artists.