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Hands and Hearts: An Interview with Manola Suvannarad

Minnesota is home to many talented Lao Americans in the arts. One of those is Manola Suvannarad, who has recently been doing a series she refers to as Left-Handed Sketches at

Many of her sketches were recently displayed this August at the Longfellow Art Crawl. There people could see her original work ranging from Oprah, Phil Jackson, Truman Capote, Margaret Cho (as Kim Jong Il), to Punxsutawney Phil. I was surprised at how much she had in common with many of our artists here, and where she took some really unique directions with her work.

Manola currently lives close to St. Paul and has also worked as a shiatsu therapist. She’s taken a brief hiatus from Left-Handed Sketches, but I hope she comes back to it soon. Here are some of the things she shared with us during her interview:

Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you find yourself near St. Paul?

My family came to Minnesota in 1976 when I was 3 years old, and settled in and around Minneapolis. I studied American Studies and East Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota. This was before there was an Asian American Studies department, so I had to create my own. Before graduating, I took a year off to work as an au pair in Paris, France, which had a profound impact on how I viewed the refugee experience. After that year in France, I came back to finish school with an interest in possibly pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking, focusing on the Asian immigration experience, especially in other countries.

After college, I had the opportunity to move to Japan to teach. I also saw it as an opportunity to do some informal research on the immigration experience of SE Asians in Japan. I went there looking for something, but ultimately found myself, as cliche as that might sound. I suspended my research project and decided to enjoy my time there and let things unfold. That turned into 10 years of teaching and working in education. After 10 years in Japan, I decided to come back to Minnesota for grad school.

That was 7 years ago. Having grown up in South Minneapolis and a nearby suburb, and knowing that I’d be moving back to Minnesota after 10 years abroad, there was still a part of me that wanted to continue the adventure in some way and live someplace that felt like a new city to me, and that was St.Paul. I have gotten to know more of St.Paul since moving here, but where I live is actually closer to Minneapolis, so I still find myself spending more time over there. Guess I’m still a Minneapolis girl at heart.

When did you first begin to get interested in art?

We had a giant table weaving loom downstairs at our house in Laos, where my grandmothers would weave, so the creative process was around me from an early age. I’ve also been drawing as long as I can remember. I drew on everything as a child. All of my storybooks and every notepad and notebook in our house was filled with my sketches.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

What attracts you to shiatsu massage, and do you see any intersections between your artistic practice and your shiatsu practice?

I don’t think it’s specifically shiatsu that is appealing to me as it is the discipline involved in any practice or discipline. It’s a practice that keeps me focused and present; it keeps me in check. In fact, I hadn’t painted or sketched in a long time, and it wasn’t until I started practicing shiatsu that my creative block lifted.

When are you most satisfied with a piece?

It’s most satisfying when I’m as content (if not more content) during the creation of a piece as I am with the result.

Who inspires you as an artist?

I don’t have one specific person, but my last work (left-handed sketches) was inspired by my older sister, Sana, who passed away last year. I had discovered this newfound joy in sketching with my left hand, as a right-handed artist, and found myself being able to laugh again. Sana loved to laugh and I think she would’ve enjoyed the sketches.



What would be your first advice to a beginning artist?

One of the reasons I didn’t pursue an arts education and career–after spending an entire childhood sketching and painting–was that it felt easy to me. I wasn’t inspired and felt I wasn’t ready.

I felt like I was still lacking in so many other areas of my life and didn’t want my work to reflect that imbalance. I was a shy kid and I had to overcome that, so I became a teacher. I had an overactive mind and had to quiet that, so I became a shiatsu therapist.

Along the way, I stretched my limits and grew in the process. I’m not suggesting that everyone travel and see the world like I did, but stepping out of my comfort zone and pushing my limits helped me grow on a personal and professional level. I am much less critical of myself as an artist and I think that shows in my work.

What’s been your favorite compliment about your art?

I like all compliments:)

What’s your favorite Lao dish?

Soop pak.


You can find more of Manola’s work at:


~Ketmani Kouanchao, Ed.d.

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