Artist Name: My name is Billy Thao.
What do you consider yourself? Artist, illustrator, painter, designer, other?
I am an illustrator (children’s literature) and visual artist. However, within my visual work, I consider myself to be a storyteller.
What kinds of projects you have done in the past?
Within the past five years, I have done quite a few projects. The first couple projects I’ve done were group exhibitions. For example, I’ve exhibited at In Progress – Qhia Dab Neeg, in St. Paul in 2018; and Eagan’s Artworks – Beyond Being Hmong: Artists as Individuals in 2019. In addition, a side-project that I’ve committed to was donating artworks to prominent Hmong figures; for instance, Senator Foung Hawj, and director of Center for Hmong Studies, Lee Pao Xiong. I had recently finished illustrating a children’s book called Yang Warriors, written by Hmong author, Kao Kalia Yang (author of The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father), which will be release in the spring of 2021.
Could you talk about how you got into art or doing what you do today? What’s your story? What made you want to pursue this path? Were there any challenges you had along the way?
I will be truthfully honest – I never visioned myself walking on the path of illustration or visual art. From what I recalled at an early age I liked making art in class, but I never levied the seriousness. Nevertheless, if I was bored in class I would draw. I drew characters from videos games, Disney movies, and cartoon characters like Pokemon or the Simpsons; I even made a children’s book called The Substitute Teacher. After I entered my teen years, the relationship between the art and I were completely distant. In 2010, within my sophomore year in college, I took Western Art History: Ancient Time to 1500’s, and, as a project, I created a 10 colored-pencil drawings on the Life of Buddha. I loved it! Within that same year, I began to follow the rhythm of my own drumbeats and explored the world of visual art. Last year I came to a realization, while in the process of illustrating Kao Kalia’s children’s book: I love children’s illustration or visual storytelling. I suppose it brought me back to that innocent age when I made my first children’s book. I reflected and saw that within the nine years of my art journey, I spent five years honing my craft, two years to refine my craft, and the last couple years to discover my artistic voice, and I saw that the only way to communicate my voice is via children’s illustration. Along the way, I faced incalculable obstacles like heavy self-doubts, negative put-downs, and hitting rock bottoms. However, and fortunately, persistence and resilience were always my everyday shields.
Did you attended art school or majored/minored in Art or Design in college? If so, what were your experiences with it and did you think it helped you become a better artist? If you did not attended college or attended but did not majored in anything art-related, what helped pushed you to pursue art or improve your craft?
Unfortunately I did not attend art school or majored in art. In my fourth year I minored in art but then I switched to philosophy. Although I did not major in art, I believe there are two reasons why I continued to explore art and exercise my craft: 1.) I wanted to follow my own intuition. I preferred to read and imitate artists that I favored rather than being assigned an assignment to which I have no interest. 2.) I love philosophy. Philosophy carries heavy ideas that I was not afraid to think about. Furthermore, philosophy set me on a course to seeking answers or truths. I suppose one way for me to find these answers were through visual art.
How do you balance art with work and life? How do you make time for art?
I joined AmeriCorps for two years. I did not work on art at all. My focus was on volunteering. After I finished, I dedicated myself to working full-time on art with a part-time as a personal care assistant. The only answer I can provide is I played my cards and I threw it all in; therefore I took a leap of faith in full-time illustration and art. To put it this way, my part-time job helps me pay for the bills during the day, and at night, my full-time job helps me to work on my craft.
Do you think making money from your art is important to you? Do you make money from your art? If so, how?
Personally the answer is no. If I make money from my art to pay bills, then that is an exception. In the past I was commissioned and paid well for portraits and illustrations of families. Within my first experience working with a well-known publisher, University of Minnesota Press, and Kao Kalia Yang, I learned to be in charge. But at the end of each project, I always reflect on my experiences, my strengths and weaknesses, and if I am close to reaching my goal. I never really thought about money. My craft always comes first.
Where do you get your ideas from?
My ideas derive from philosophy and answering difficult life questions, (e.g. what is the meaning of life?). Philosophical questions are essentially difficult to answer and abstract. In helping me to understand these difficult questions I use what I know from life experiences. To fully comprehend these abstract notions, I’ve began to explore the history and the identity of the Hmong people. I explore the phenomenon of Hmong existentialism and it’s experiences with diaspora, war, oppression. In addition to the trauma, I explore the resilience, hope, and heroism within the Hmong people.
What kinds of tools do you use to make your work or what is your typical artistic process like?
In the past I’ve done traditional painting (acrylic) and graphite-pencil drawing. Now I have begun to work with digital art. However, I still want to keep in the traditional methods of working by hands. I found the middle ground of doing traditional and digital while working on the children’s book. In the beginning of the process I would draw everything by hand and scan and digitally render them. I actually enjoy this method because I am usually very stubborn about how I use color or lighting; hence I can always go back and edit my work.
Are there any artists you look up to or find inspiring?
I look up to an innumerable amount of artists from different fields. A few examples: I love the impressionist movement and painters like Monet, Degas, and Renior. I look up to children’s illustrators like Chris Van Allsburg, Jon Klassen, Sydney Smith, and Erin E. Stead. There are too many and the list can go on.
Do you have any favorite books, apps, movies, resources, or art tools that you recommend?
Personally, I keep an open-mind by watching a huge amount of movies, read on different topics, listen to a variety of different music, etc. As an illustrator/visual artist, I need all the inspiration I can get. In the words of a famous, method-acting coach, Stella Adler, “The essential thing to know is that life is in front of you. Go toward it.”
Is there any advice you would like to give to young artists or people just starting out?
Yes, I have two advice I would like to give, and they’re both from two people whom I’ve looked up to: The first advice is from Hmong artist, SeeXeng Lee, “…[create] a piece that must seem to have a spirit of it’s own (and will withstand the test of time).” The second advice is from Kao Kalia Yang, “take it to the vein.” My final advice is believe in yourself. You will be surprised to discover your hidden talent.
Is there anybody you would like to collaborate with or work for? Could be a person, another artist, or company.
I would love to work with Kao Kalia Yang again. My experience illustrating her book was magnificent. I would love to illustrate more children’s books by Hmong authors.
What is your ultimate dream project or something you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime (could be art or non-art related)?
The ultimate dream I would love to achieve is putting my own children’s books on the library shelf or to be read in schools by the future generation of Hmong individuals.
What is the best way to get a hold of you or view or purchase your work?
My Instagram profile is beeteeart (https://www.instagram.com/beeteeart/).
My portfolio is https://billythao90.myportfolio.com/