by Mark Peterson
Northeast artist Kao Lee Thao was one of twenty selected to design and decorate nearly seven-foot-high fiberglass rose statues, all of which will be displayed in outdoor spaces throughout Roseville from July 1 to October 31, as part of the “Roseville in Bloom” public art project.
Thao is also one of five artists selected to create a mural on glass for Minneapolis’s new Public Services Building, set for completion this year. The mural will reflect life in Minneapolis.
Thao, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Thailand in 1976, was among the first Hmong children to be born in the Upper Midwest. Before she was old enough to start elementary school, she was drawing pictures on the backs of her mother’s photographs. She was always drawing in her sketchbooks, and began selling her artwork while still in high school. But she was fighting a battle between what was expected of her, and what she felt she was destined to do.
Thao said that her parents were “children of the war.” Her father, Toua Thao, worked for USAID. “He would go out to villages in the jungles and mountains of Laos to determine what types of aid were needed. He would accompany pilots and carry out supply drops. My mother, Mao Heu Thao, was a student, and married my father at the age of sixteen. Just after their marriage they escaped from the jungles of Laos to Thailand where they lived in a refugee camp for a year.”
The family settled in Savage, MN, where Thao’s father worked at Seagate as a computer technician. Her mother works at Ramsey County Department of Public Health. Thao and her brother are the only children; Hmong families typically have large families. Thao said her father felt there were two essential things needed to survive in the U.S.: learning English and having a small family to support.
Thao said her parents stressed the need for her to study hard and establish a professional career. “They really wanted me to be a doctor. I spent half my life studying psychology, and came close to getting a degree.” But she described a “bizarre dream” that told her she should pursue her passion for art, and she decided to become a full-time artist. “It’s a true story; my parents always say I should go back, but my world has changed so much, I don’t want to go back.”
Asked about her artistic influences, Thao mentioned Salvador Dali, Vincent van Gogh, Frank Frazetta, Guillermo del Toro, Yoshitaka Amano, Björk, and Alexander McQueen. About her work, she said, “I started out as a watercolor artist, but I got into acrylics and oils. I like to explore with different media. Over the years I’ve felt that I’ve built a fantasy world that I live in, and my artwork is a reflection of that world and that fantasy land. I’m a self-taught painter. I got my animation degree but changed because it was kind of stressful; I stopped doing 3-D; now it’s all 2-D.”
The statues for the “Roseville in Bloom” project were created by TivoliToo, the local company that made the Peanuts characters for the “Peanuts on Parade” public art project in St. Paul. The circumference of each rose blossom is 100” and the total weight of the statue (rose, rose pot and base) is 658 pounds. The city persuaded twenty Roseville entities, from the Ramsey County Library and Rosedale Center to the Kids in Need Foundation and Bent Brewery, to sponsor the statues. After the rose castings left the shop, they were moved to the state fairgrounds, where the artists painted them. Then they went back to TivoliToo for a clear coat finish, and from there to the final locations. All the sponsors will keep the roses, and some will be installed inside. Roseville Library plans to put its rose in their rain garden.
Thao’s work, titled “Hmong Story Cloth,” was sponsored by the Doubletree by Hilton hotel, and stands outside its main entrance at 2540 Cleveland Ave N. The illustrations on the stem and petals include traditional Hmong scenes and textile patterns surrounded by iridescent pinks and pale blues.
Thao mused about the choice she made for her life. “I love dream interpretations, and I love the human mind, and I have definitely been influenced by psychology as an artist. Can I make a living? Anyone can make a living; it depends on whether or not you like the life. You have to make sacrifices; if I had gone into psychology, my life would have been very different. I’m always wondering what a real job would be like.”
A list of sponsors and rose locations can be found at https://www.visitroseville.com/roseville-in-bloom/