This past weekend, Little Laos on the Prairie and Sahtu Press traveled to the acclaimed Beverly Hills artShow, which drew well over 1,000 visitors from around the world. Over 240 artists were exhibiting in the posh venue but for our team, there was really only one big draw, the master Lao artisan Thép Thavonsouk, who is rarely in the US, splitting his time between Canada and his art school in Laos.
The occasion was momentous as it also marked the first time we had seen Ai Thavonsouk in twelve years. He had come to visit Minnesota in April, 2002 and several of his pieces were part of the Five Senses Show of Laotian art we were organizing at the Babylon Gallery on Lake Street (April 1st to May 2nd, 2002). It had been an inspiring meeting that left a significant impact on our work over the years. My poem, “Discussing Principles of Art with Laotians” had been inspired by his conversations with us in an effort to capture some of the ideas we were now considering.
Born in Vientiane, Thép Thavonsouk grew up in Laos during the French occupation. He attended the Lycée de Vientiane in Laos and was given exposure to the French aesthetics and classical arts. The prominent French artist Marc Leguay was living in Laos at the time as a teacher. Leguay was a deep influence on Thép, showing him the work of the Impressionist painters.
Thép obtained the Baccalauréat from the Lycée de Vientiane and left Laos in 1967 with a Fulbright Scholarship for St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. There, he earned a degree in Diplomacy with a minor in Art. In 1972, Thép emigrated to Canada. He settled in Lethbridge, Alberta where he taught French at the University and English as a Second Language to new Canadians. He eventually decided to pursue his true calling of painting and studied in Taiwan under the well-known Chinese painting masters Chen Ming-shien and Tien Manh-shih. He also studied in Japan learning the arts of Kiri-e (paper cutting) and woodblock printing, and spent many years in Hawaii perfecting his techniques.
Some of Thép Thavonsouk’s most popular work of has been from his “June Rain” series of watercolors and inks on rice paper that vary in size and value. He is also well known for his “Saffron Robes” series of Theravada Buddhist monks from a variety of non-traditional vantage points.
Today his work is sought around the world, and you can see some of it on exhibit at www.junerain.com
After we drove over ten hours to see him, it was a wonderful reunion and he was very easy to spot among all of the artists there. He was in his his element, cheerfully embracing everyone and discussing his work with an admiring audience. Many had never heard of Laos before but were drawn to his vivid images and his clear mastery of his craft.
Who could have imagined after 12 years since our last meeting that Nor Sanavongsay would go on to found Sahtu Press and his own children’s book, A Sticky Mess, also inspired by the same Lao youth and Buddhist heritage he shared with Thép? Artists’ journeys are often unpredictable, often with many of our peers setting aside their brushes and pens in favor of more “practical” pursuits.
How many artists of our generation did we start out with who are still actively creating today? It’s something I wonder about with a bit of sadness as we approach the 20th anniversary of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project next year, and the 40th anniversary of our diaspora. I think there will be some profound soul-searching during the National Lao American Writers Summit in this upcoming April.
As the Beverly Hills artSHOW went on, one thing was clear for all of us: That we all still had a lot to learn in the world. It was good to see how far we had all come, and how far we still had to go to get what we all really came for. It made us wonder how far any of us would go for our art, and what kinds of people we would meet along the way, both from our past, and or future.
When the show was done for the day, we gathered at the Crescent Hotel in Los Angeles and reminisced about the time between our last visit. We had a chance to see the amazing work he was doing in Laos to inspire the next generation of Lao artists and to enable them to pursue amazing opportunities in the future wherever they go. We promised it would not be another 12 years before we all came together again.
~Bryan Thao Worra
Little Laos on the Prairie