In the Spotlight with Elisabeth and Kao Lee Thao

On Saturday, April 12 CHAT had the privilege of hosting a wonderful installation facilitated by two unique and amazing Hmong artists. With assistance from Springboard for the Arts and Irrigate, in partnership with the Sunrise Market building, and as one of the many art activities happening along the anticipated Green Line, this project was one of the last installations to be shared.

The weekend of April 12 occurred amidst a confused mother nature as she presented a delicate mix of snow, rain and sunshine. It was difficult to predict if and when we could expect the sun, so Elisabeth Thao and Kao Lee Thao got together and organized an indoor picnic. Interweaving visual art with behavioral art, and even culinary art, one could feel the collective warmth in Studio 220. Strewn on the floor were plastic weaved mats, the type you’d find in many Hmong households, and warm blankets creating a cozy, comfortable environment. Wooden baskets and fresh flowers lined the floor, bringing the flowery scent of spring. Home-made organic snacks and beverages were provided and were laid out elegantly (and deliciously).

On a table lay a large canvas with an array of colorful painting supplies. Artists and non artists gathered around the table, chatting while they contributed to the collaborative portrait. Painting flawlessly as if the paintbrush was an extension of her body, Kao Lee made strokes and swirls that resembled a contemporary, fantasy version of traditional Hmong designs. I was in awe observing until my eyes became dry; at which point I was politely snapped out of my daze. Elisabeth approached me and instructed me to pick a piece of paper from a tin can; the piece of paper had the question, “Do we think of Art or does Art make us think?” This began our conversation. My perception of art as a healing method began to shift as we discussed the mind, body and spirit’s inclusion in the arts. We touched on how energy was more than just the effort in doing something, as it is also the mental belief and spiritual drive in one’s self to make an idea become real and tangible. I left with the understanding that in order to lead a healthy life I would have to exert positive energy in all that I do.

Days later, after much reflecting, I was finally able to understood what she meant about each of us becoming the artist of our universe in order to visualize and manifest our dreams.

As I was given a breath of fresh air from our conversation, Kao Lee’s painting was also coming to life. The beauty and complexity in the simple strokes and colors reminded me of the simple yet deep conversation I just experienced. I now realize the arts bring together community, allowing the the artist in all of us to live. It’s important for the artist to live in you, in me, and everyone around us. Why? Because the artist brings to life, life. Art Heals the Soul wasn’t just an art installation, it was a spiritual experience. By providing a safe and creative space to dive into the complexities of the human mind, body and spirit I was able to connect the artist and the arts to the essentials for reaching your greatest potential.

I sat down with Elisabeth Thao and Kao Lee Thao a few days after soaking in all that I experienced. – Christopher Yang

C: As difficult as it is to describe life through mere words, share with us a breath’s length look at your life story.

L: I live a creative, mindful and loving life that leads to constant mind blowing moments. I’m privileged and fortunate to wear many hats; an Integrative Health & Healing Specialist, a Shades of Yellow Board member, a Hmong Health Care Professional Coalition member, an organizer for the Center for Hmong Arts & Talents, and an exhibit developer for MNHS. I’m a daughter, a sister, an aunty, a partner, a friend, a woman, a refugee, French, American, Hmong; I am me, and I love and embrace every step of this journey called life.

KL: Allow me to tap into your subconscious and release your Inner Swirl as a painting. I’m Kao Lee Thao, a visual artist and animator. I paint to unlock inspiration and transport viewers to a world of fantasy, reminding us not to forget what imagination can accomplish in life. I challenge you to let go and explore…

C: How have you been affiliated with CHAT, and/or the arts?

L: We’re all artists. In human form we’re naturally creative beings, manifesting our perceived realities. We’ve yet to fully appreciate and comprehend how the arts allow us one step closer to our higher self. I always felt CHAT was an organization that values the process to this understanding. In essence CHAT has been helping make dreams accessible.

KL: I was inspired to pick up a paintbrush after attending CHAT’s Annual Hmong Arts & Music Festival, 9 yrs ago. Every year I look forward to this event. It connects us all in creativity.

C: Art Heals the Soul wasn’t just an ordinary art installation. I really liked how you both intertwined public art with collaborative art with healing arts, culinary arts and even behavioral art. How did you come to collaborate with each other on this event “Art Heals the Soul?”

KL: I always wanted to explore my love of psychology with my passion for art. Though Elisabeth and I come from two different artistic backgrounds and mediums, we share one passion -the art of healing and healing through art. Not only that, but I feel collaboration sparks inspiration, pushing us to our limits. With our shared connection through this appreciation of healing, the collaboration was a great fit.

L: It was a universal alignment that brought Kao Lee and I together to collaborate on this installation. Her love and appreciation of visual arts resonates with my passion for the healing arts. I believe the collaboration for this event gave participants a much more clear understanding of how powerful art and collaboration can be.

C: What did you want participants to take away after having participated in Art Heals the Soul?

L: We are the artist. Life is our medium. We are the creators of our universe. What type of art do you create?

KL: Your passion can, and should be your career. You choose your path. Don’t concern yourself with how much money you’ll make. Figure out what you can do on a daily basis, do it, and share it with the world. Stay true to yourself and your craft, and others will follow and support.

C: So, what’s on the horizon for you? What are you currently working on?

L: I’ve been working on a blog so I can begin to share my experiences, epiphanies and ideas on this popular thing they call the world wide web. I’m still working out the kinks, but keep your eyes and ears out! I look forward to meeting and connecting with you all!

KL: I recently finished a wood cut installation piece called Seeds of Inspiration. This was commissioned and installed at the headquarters of Habitat for Humanity on University and Prior in St. Paul. I’m currently working on a “village life” Mural at Hmong International Academy Public School. I’m also very excited as I have a few more murals lined up before the end of the year! Aside from those, I’m also in the process of comp up on my 3d animation called Gao Zoua Pa -so stay tuned for that. Lastly, I’m staying busy with 15 children’s book illustrations along with various tattoo and Inner Swirl commissions. Thank you all for supporting my passion.