Artist, Author, and Educator Mai Chao Brings Dual Identities to Her Work

Jess Witkins

Art is a powerful thing. Every person has a set of specific books, films, or paintings that stick with them. Whether discovered as a child, a teen, or an adult, we carry these impressions with us. They are the tools that teach us empathy, they help us define the world we live in, and also the ones we don’t.

Hmoob*-American Mai Chao is a maker whose work sticks with you long after you’ve seen or read it. She is a secondary art teacher in the La Crosse School District, an artist of multiple mediums, and author of the verse novel “Gathering Fireflies.”

Mai Chao, Photo by Kaytee Callahan
Mai Chao, Photo by Kaytee Callahan

“When people look at my work, I want them to see humanity from multiple perspectives,” says Mai Chao. “Through our shared human experiences, I want people to have more love and compassion in their hearts. Art brings people from all walks of life together. This is one of the reasons why it is so special to me to be an artist, author and educator.”

Mai Chao moved with her family to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand when she was 10 years old. Her book, “Gathering Fireflies,” is told from multiple points of view and shares many truths about the Hmoob-American experience. It is an incredible chronicling of the Secret War, a devastating exodus of Hmoob people, like her parents, who fled their homeland of Laos to escape attacks from Communist Vietnam in the 1950s through 1970s. It is also the story of a daughter navigating two identities and two different ways of life. And it is the story of a grandson learning where he comes from culturally, bridging the gap between young and old, history and future. At its heart is hope pushing all the characters forward into the unknown.

Mai Chao credits her family for her love of art. “My father was a silversmith who made beautiful Hmoob jewelry, while my mother embroidered traditional Hmoob story cloths. I grew up watching my parents work with their hands to support our family in the refugee camps. Art is a way of life for my family. We always make time to do what we love as individuals and also as a family.”

It’s little surprise that Mai Chao became an art teacher herself when art classes played such a big role in her transition to a new country. “Once our family came to the United States, my teachers played a large part in my artistic success. Art is a universal platform that surpasses verbal communication. It was in high school and college that I truly found my voice through art and writing. My classmates accepted me through my artistic work. I did not need to explain myself to them because of my limited English at the time.”

Another influence of Mai Chao’s is Frida Kahlo and the way Kahlo’s art conveyed storytelling in a visual form. “Each piece had a story behind it, which made it memorable and rich in my mind. I want people to know about war-torn lives, challenges in refugee camps, and what it means to have a dual identity in America. Through art and writing I was able to explore and experience creative changes within myself as I shared what I learned through my work.”

Mai Chao’s artwork and book will appear in the UW-La Crosse Alumni Invitational Show opening on January 27. Featuring multiple works that address the concept of identity, her work will surely inspire gallery guests. “Knowing ourselves helps us understand others at a deeper level. I want girls to grow up with confidence and boys to be supportive of their sisters. The featured artwork speaks to this theme.”

UW-La Crosse Alumni Invitational Show Open House: Jan. 27, 5:00-7:00 p.m. Gallery open January 27  – February 12, 2017 Center of Fine Arts Gallery, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

* “Hmoob” is pronounced “Hmong.” Hmoob is the spelling preferred by this cultural group.

Jess Witkins  author

Jess Witkins is a writer, blogger, and sometimes funny. Her mission: making pathetic look cool since 1985. She can be found in the Coulee Region's many coffee shops and wordmongering at Jess Witkins's Happiness Project.