A Picture is Worth 5,000 Years

“A photo is all I have left of her,” Chris Lang, the boyfriend of murdered college student Dru Sjodin, told a Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee at the Minnesota House of Representatives. His testimony culminated with a heated statement about Level Three sex offenders: “They’re not like normal people. I think they’re wired wrong. They’re like animals. They need to be treated like animals, and animals are kept in cages.” The committee, including freshman legislator Cy Thao, remained impassive. Lang stepped down, and discussion moved on to child abuse, crystal-meth addiction, and other problems.

“We don’t have time to do all the emotional stuff,” said Thao later that day, by way of explaining how legislators can seem inured to the personal horrors their legislation is meant to address. Capitol business is often conducted at a safe remove from emotional issues at hand, but that doesn’t mean Thao, who was elected to office in 2002, sometimes finds the impersonal nature of policy and politics hard to take. A thirty-one-year-old Hmong-American whose round face is accentuated by a close-cropped haircut, Thao came to politics by an unusual route, as a painter and former arts organizer in St. Paul’s Frogtown district. “Artists have to be passionate and emotional,” he believes. “When I’m painting, I put my emotions into it. That’s what drives me. But as a legislator, you’ve got to contain your emotion and turn it into strategies. You just have to focus on the policy.”

When I met Thao several years ago, he attributed his political views to his college internship experience at the state Capitol: “I saw a lot of people who would only pay attention to people with wealth and people who knew the system. They just didn’t pay attention to the little guy.” Thao’s frustration with the system led him to add an art double major to his political science major while at the University of Minnesota, Morris in the early nineties, and he’s swung between the two ever since—much to his advantage. His stint some years ago as an organizer at the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, an arts center on University Avenue, gave him skills crucial for politics: raising money, maintaining a grassroots organization, and conducting community outreach, as well as publicly addressing social issues through the Center’s theatrical productions and mural projects.

Meanwhile, Thao confronts issues through his art that are anything but small, addressing such horrors that would move even the most impassive of observers. Fifty of his paintings will be on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts beginning May 21 in The Hmong Migration, an exhibit that is part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program. In this series, Thao creates a compressed visual record of the troubled history of his people and his family.

Using a technique that is simple, raw, and unpolished, with quickly applied daubs of paint indicating simplified figures and forms, Thao draws from both Hmong folk-art quilting traditions and an interest in the work of Jacob Lawrence. Each work in the series depicts an episode in the history of the Hmong, starting with their creation myth and ancient history and continuing through the culture’s dispersion and its struggles against China in the late 1800s, the French in the mid-1900s, and Communists during the American war against Vietnam and Laos. Thao focuses heavily on the aftermath of that war in works featuring long lines of families fleeing through mountains, across fields and rivers, and corpses left behind on paths or floating in water. In one particularly gruesome image, a Communist leader directs his soldiers to open fire on Hmong approaching a bridge, the passage to freedom in Thailand. Other images poignantly depict life in Thai resettlement camps, conjured from Thao’s memories of the four years he lived in one; and still later the series conveys the difficult move and adjustment to Minnesota, where Thao arrived twenty years ago.

Thao had proposed exhibiting The Hmong Migration at the MIA before he was elected to the Minnesota legislature; it was a time when he had not yet learned to consider how the public or peers might receive his work. “An artist just wants his work to be shown,” Thao says, adding that he probably wouldn’t apply for an MAEP show now because of his work’s emotionally raw nature. “I have some worries because in that art there was no holding back. I wanted to address every important issue. As a state representative, saying one word out of context or choosing one wrong word can result in different meanings and bring different outcomes. When I painted, I didn’t worry about that at all. I just painted how I wanted to… But I think I will let the art speak for itself. If it hurts me politically, then it just does.”

At noon, Thao abruptly leaves the committee room. Though the discussion on amendments to the Sex Offender Judiciary/Finance Omnibus Bill is not finished, Thao is unconcerned. “The decision on the bill was made back in February when the chair met with the governor,” he says, and indeed, voting on the amendments had been running on strictly party lines. Thao makes his way to the steps of the Capitol, where Ann Bancroft, the polar explorer, is stirring up a crowd of several thousand at a rally protesting the amendment to ban gay marriage. “Laws that discriminate are just plain wrong,” she shouts. “One thousand benefits received by married couples are not available to me and my partner, Pam. This includes education, health care reform… a home, for God’s sake.” The crowd cheers at her rising pitch, and Thao leans toward me. “She’s got it right,” he says.

Thao has his own early experience with discrimination and prejudice; among the most poignant of his paintings are those depicting the trials that his family and other Hmong faced upon arriving in Minnesota in the seventies and eighties. Parents visit the welfare office with kids in tow; an assembly line in a large colorless warehouse is manned entirely by Hmong immigrants, with the only hint of the outside world coming through a single small door; teenaged Hmong gang members fight in the streets. One painting depicts the projects in north Minneapolis as a zoo-like maze. Barred windows are the most prominent feature on the plain brick buildings, and on a wall someone has scrawled: “Chink go home.”

Leaving the rally, Thao passes a tall, young legislator just arriving. Thao asks if he is going to make a speech. The lawmaker gives a gruff “no,” without breaking stride. Thao laughs, and explains, “He’s one of the most conservative members of the House.” He is nothing if not feisty, having earned a reputation for passionately expressing his side of an issue—despite how futile it may seem in the current legislative atmosphere. Thao got into politics during the brief antiestablishment frenzy of the Jesse Ventura era. He had been peripherally involved in Ventura’s 1998 campaign, and so was tapped by the governor to appeal to the Hmong community for the 2000 election. “I figured this would be the only chance that a governor would help out our community,” recalls Thao, “and since no one else wanted to do it, I did it.” He gained national attention for a TV commercial, filmed by two artist buddies, in which he chased prostitutes and criminals from Frogtown with a broom. He also tapped artist friends to run the campaign—going door to door, painting a van, silk-screening posters by hand. Though Thao lost that election (by a surprisingly small margin), the strategies he developed worked for him in 2002.

After an almost two-year hiatus taken as he learned the ropes at his new day job, Thao hopes to return to painting later this year. After his MIA exhibit, and after the current legislative session, he plans to begin a new series about America. “I think it will be interesting to see the history of this country from the point of view of an immigrant who was a product of American policy.”

Thao had expressed concerns about a negative reaction to his exhibit, but I asked if his paintings might actually help his political cause. “It could work both ways,” he says after a pause. “Especially during this time when the country is at war and has invaded another country and is imposing its will on people who have no clue about us. My paintings speak to that. Their imagery is critical of misguided policies, regardless of which president the policy comes from. We have a bad foreign policy in this country… But I’m an optimist. If we don’t win this year, we always have next year.”