An Interview With Steve Thao

By Amy Doeun


Steve Thao is an accomplished artist in his own right. He is also the director of CHAT (Center for Hmong Arts and Talent). He recently shared a bit about his work with Hmong Times.

Hmong Times: How would you describe your path as an artist?

Steve Thao: From the first time I watched Disney’s Snow White I fell in love with moviemaking and films. We grew up poor so we didn’t get many opportunities to go to the movies. In fact, we had no opportunities. My only connection to movies was the weekly At the Movies TV show. They would review and show clips of new movies coming out that week. Even though they were short clips – those clips were precious. Watching movies on TV was fantastic but it would never rival on the big screen. I didn’t get to see a film at the theater until I saw Return of the Jedi.

I eventually went to college and studied political science and theater/media. My great artistic influences were Russian and British writers. Anton Chekhov was my favorite as his writings examined life, the human condition and how the human spirit soars even when faced with insurmountable challenges. He created his stories with such wonderful subtext that each time you read them you’ll find something new and different.

One of the great moments of my artistic development was going to Broadway in New York City and watching The Seagull, a play written by Chekhov. The play was powerful to me as a young man because part of it was telling the story of an emerging artist as he tries to find his voice and his way in life.

HT: What is your preferred medium?

ST: Film and acting is a beautiful examination of life and that is precisely why I love media. We get to tell a story in a packaged 2 hours with a beginning, a middle and an end. And in digital media we are telling stories in 3 minutes or even just a minute now.  Along the way I found myself enjoying facilitating the progress of young people. I loved working in television and video but I also loved the idea of mentoring young people too.  It could be a sense of responsibility being a 1.5 immigrant kid. The idea of stewarding the next generation of filmmakers or artists is why I was so enthralled with Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT).

HT: How has CHAT helped you as an artist?

ST: I am so privileged to be the Executive Director of CHAT or Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. I get to work with amazing Hmong artists and help them develop their art. We touch so many young people every year. We help instill a love for the arts and we help them develop that talent. CHAT is successful only through the amazing volunteers that help provide music and art lessons. These volunteers are not only passionate but very talented artists themselves.

CHAT really tries to create a better community through art. We developed a summer camp experience last year – providing a free summer camp experience to develop leadership, confidence and comradery for youth. We have a free summer arts program teaching guitar, keyboard and dance. We have a year long leadership program that teaches youth about social justice and then challenges them to produce a play about issues important to them. This year was LGBTQ issues in the Hmong community. Every one of our students have graduated high school and many go on to college.

Our fashion show shares the authentic fabrics and colors that define us. We hope to help develop Hmong designers take their hobby to viable business start-ups.

HT: Where would you like to be as an artist in 5 years?

ST: I will be writing a play later this year as well as producing a documentary for our elders. Being around so many artists inspires me to create!

HT: Where would you like CHAT to be in 5 years?

ST: In the future we hope to create more programs so we can have the capacity to connect more youth with the arts. We recently started a pilot program at Park High School and hope to continue it. We’re more than open to help all the Hmong charter schools have arts enrichment programs by creating after school arts programs.

In five years I hope to grow CHAT to have more staff so we can do more good in the community. I want Hmong artists to be able to make a living being artists.

We want to have a multi-use community center for concerts, theater and film. We’d love to see a community center that will have arts programming, youth leadership, and exhibits for artists to showcase their art, space for filmmakers to show their work. We need the Hmong community to support this idea. That is true empowerment when we value our children and value what art brings to the human spirit. Our New Year celebration is a wonderful example of how art is interwoven into our culture and lives. Hmong sing poetry through kwv txhiaj, they wear colorful designed traditional costumes sewn by artisans and people come to see young men and women sing and dance.

CHAT will be celebrating 20 years of service to the community on Dec. 2 at our gala. We hope to bring the founding members of CHAT such as State Senator Foung Hawj, former staff and volunteers to come back, reflect and celebrate the work we have done and the work we will do for the next 20 years.