Kao Lee Thao turns Hmong folktales into art


Kao Lee Thao’s solo visual art exhibit, ECHO, opened at the Pioneer Press Gallery on June 7. Thao is a 3D animation artist whose hobby is visual art. She is female, young, and Hmong—which surprises many, said Thao. “It strikes me that it shouldn’t matter. An artist is an artist.”

Kao Lee Thao’s exhibit ECHO runs through July 31 at the Pioneer Press Gallery, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul. For more information, call the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent at 651-603-6971.

The beauty of the ECHO exhibit transforms the gallery space. In addition to the exquisitely framed watercolors, there are black flowered stencils on the walls, fresh-cut flowers in crystal vases in colors coordinated with her paintings, and a mobile hanging off-center in the room. The majority of the paintings feature an ethereal female face. Love, marriage, and family, themes that are very important in Hmong culture, are evident in the exhibit. “When I create,” explained Thao, “it’s based on the initial moment. Water and travel have become the central idea of my painting, infused with a fluid style.”

There is a large collection of folktales in the Hmong culture that have been orally passed down over the centuries to explain the origins of the Hmong people and also provide lessons on how to treat others and live wisely. Thao uses Hmong folktales as a tool “to echo those ideas in the present day with a slightly modern view to reach a broader audience and to give Hmong culture to the Minnesota community.”

“It’s okay to be a Hmong woman; we are beautiful.”

Born in Wisconsin to immigrant parents from Laos, Thao and her younger brother grew up in Minnesota. In her senior year of college, Thao decided to abandon her study of psychology and follow her passion for art and storytelling. She ultimately received her degree in media arts and animation.

Attending CHAT, the annual Hmong music festival in St. Paul, in 2004 was “eye-opening” for Thao. She saw artists with unique styles that inspired to paint and share her work with the world, and also gave her an outlet to relieve the stress from her animation career. She experimented with acrylics and oils and eventually settled on washes and watercolors, because “I can be really free with it, can coffee stain and it won’t ruin the painting.”

Like most Hmong folk tales, Thao’s exhibit has a moral, she says: “It’s okay to be a Hmong woman; we are beautiful. We can do great things if we put our minds to it.”

Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.