Art has been a significant part of the journey for many Lao Americans to express their experiences. In Minnesota, the Lao community has many artists and educators who try to keep our traditions alive. Among them is Aloun Phoulavan.
Born in Vientiane, Laos in 1971 and raised in Northeast Thailand, he is the second oldest of five children born to immigrant Lao-Thai parents. He and his family came to the US in 1976 with the first wave of Southeast Asian immigrants. His family was sponsored by a church, and they first resettled in south central Wisconsin. Aloun has been taught art for over eleven years, of which ten of those years he spent teaching grades K-12 in the St. Paul Public Schools. He has presented at numerous community exhibitions including the Five Senses Show, the National Lao American Writers Summit, and many others. We had a chance to catch up with him about his latest direction during the 40th anniversary of the Lao diaspora.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in art?
I am the second oldest of 5 children. The four boys developed an early interest in art probably because we were bored and couldn’t afford an Atari video game player. We were drawing on everything in the house from fans to walls. Our parents weren’t happy about it but didn’t seem too worried either. In elementary school art became an integral part of my self-esteem. I was that Asian kid that loved to draw for his teachers. That desire for a visual outlet continued through middle and high school and with a push from my high school art teacher it led me to art school (and education).
What was it like studying art? And what impact has that had on how you teach art to others these days?
Studying art was a little harder than most people think. Not in terms of skill or technique but in terms of fear. It’s was kind of frightening to have people look at your work and critique it. If instructors didn’t like your work they will tell you and for some people another person being critical of their work made them anxious. I witnessed a few students cry at their sophomore review, and that’s frightening to know you might not be worthy.
That experience taught me I had to be a better teacher than my instructors. I had to be teacher rather than an instructor. Art is a powerful tool for expression and I teach students their expression is worthy regardless of who is critical of it.
My personal work has become very expressive itself. It has become an essential way for me explore my identity and interests.
Do you prefer tea or coffee?
Definitely coffee! Black with a little bit of sugar.
What’s your least favorite trend in modern painting these days?
I am not a big fan of oversimplified shapes and oversimplified use of color. I see the point in it but there is no visual narrative for me. Throw in a little detail and layers of colors and you got me hooked. That is why I’m a big fan of Impressionism and Van Gogh.
What’s a skill you picked up which was unexpectedly useful in writing your painting?
When you study Aesthetics (why art is beautiful) you learn how to analyze and formulate competent opinions about why you like or dislike art work. This skill has been vital when I think about symbols and images to use in my paintings.
What keeps you motivated as an artist from Laos?
There are very few of us (Lao Americans) out there who use this medium (visual art) for expression that motivates me. Another big motivator, there are lot of stories we can tell as Lao Americans and I am excited and privileged to be part of that. Our parents and for the most part (our community) doesn’t place a great value on studying art (in the U.S) but I feel when the dust settles, the art we’ve created is going to be able to tell the story of Lao Americans in the U.S. just as powerfully as the written word.
If you could share a Lao value or idea with the world, what would it be?
My parents, who are both deceased, instilled the value of family above all else. They loved us unconditionally and I thank them for that.
What Lao dish did you miss the most while studying abroad?
As you might or might not know, I lived in S. Korea for two and half years teaching art. Kimchee rocked my world but it cannot hold a candle to Lao style papaya salad!
When are you most satisfied with a painting you’ve made?
When the color combinations are right and the images say what I want them to say. I want to give the viewer a story but I don’t want to give them the whole story. Which is why, by the way, the title of a painting is so important.
If you could paint anywhere in the world, where would you like to paint?
It’d be kind of cool to paint for a summer in a small seaside town somewhere in a Scandinavian country. I’ve never been there and how great would it be for townies to see an Asian dude walking around town looking for canvas and brushes.
If you could work with any international artist, living or dead, who
do you think you would learn the most from?
William H. Johnson was an African American Artist who worked in abstraction and realism. Like Picasso, he demonstrated great technical skills in drawing and painting but also had a great understanding for abstraction and other modern styles. What he accomplished in his paintings is what I’d would love to do with mine when it comes to the Asian American experience. He used art to talk powerfully about the Black experience. His art had a great narrative visually and formally (in his use of colors and shapes).
What’s your starting advice for anyone thinking of getting into making
Conquer your fear of expressing yourself for all the world to see (if you have one) because that’s going to hold you back the most.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got this great series I want to complete called Government Cheese. I completed one piece last spring but the others are stuck in a holding mode (family and teaching obligations delay the personal painting process).
In addition to that, I am teaching art through a grant with the Lao Assistance Center. One of our goals is community engagement through visual art. Currently, Lao youth create art using Lao themes and images. It’s been a powerful opportunity for Lao youth from various parts of the metro to not only create art, but to connect and share their insight about school and what it’s like being a Lao youth in today’s society. I have fellow Lao American artist (writer) Bryan Thao Worra to thank for this opportunity.
Little Laos on the Prairie