thao kieu

Thao Kieu ’18 Infuses Art with Activism

By Matthew Gregoire ’18 (based upon an interview by Lauren Legere ’17) 

On any given day, you might find Thao Kieu ’18 of South Portland painting in the art studio or out working on her photography, that is, if she isn’t busy crafting soap and jewelry from honeybee products.

When Kieu enrolled at Saint Joseph’s College, she never expected to become a Fine Arts major, let alone an artist in a juried exhibition.

“The major kind of found me,” Kieu said. An elective course in Ceramics first drew her eye, so she enrolled. Soon after, she sat in on a colloquium.

Thao’s three years of commitment to art and photography created an opportunity this past winter when her photograph series, titled “Them,” was accepted into a juried exhibition at the Hera Gallery in Wakefield, Rhode Island. The photographs present raw images from Polaroids of survivors of sexual assault, and they hold deep meaning both for Thao herself and her audience.

Thao is weaving her psychology minor into her artwork, something she hopes will benefit those suffering from mental illness. “I chose to open up and to shine light and awareness on mental illness, instead of shaming and leaving them in the dark

“My work is about healing and overcoming trauma. My process involves reaching out to the community and forming relationships with others who have experienced a time of darkness. I use past events that have impacted me most in life as a platform to express my work. By exposing myself and what I have been through, I show that I am also still working on my own healing journey. I want to help others know that they are not alone, so they can begin their healing, too.

“I wanted to break the silence and the stigmas that surround sexual assault. By presenting how each survivor wanted to be photographed, and using words that they chose, I try to empower each individual to express the unspoken.  I interviewed the survivors in a bedroom setting because it was a place that someone would find comfort, but others full of nightmares, terrors, and PTSD. I hope to spark a fire that ignites people to break the silence.”

At the end of the “Them” exhibition, she participated in a public roundtable of artists. About that experience, she said, “I met some awesome artists there and I still keep in touch with them.”

She hopes that her art will speak not only to those who experience sexual assault or mental illness but to anyone who remains unaware of the struggles faced by those around them.

Since the exhibit, Thao has been building her art portfolio, working part-time at the Portland Children’s Museum, and beekeeping at The Honey Exchange (including using the product to make soaps and resin jewelry). Although she hopes to attend graduate school, she wants to first take time to travel coast-to-coast in a van, visiting children’s museums and finding artist residencies along the way. No matter what her post-graduation plans, it is clear that Thao’s talent has made an impact, and will continue to for years to come.

Fine Arts majors learn creative problem-solving skills through a curriculum featuring two- and three-dimensional design, drawing, painting, art history, graphic design, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and printmaking. Students can also minor in Fine Arts or Photography.

Photo caption: Fine Arts major Thao Kieu ’18 of South Portland took a break from her studio artwork for a photoshoot with a fellow student. Photo: Kaitlynn Hutchins ’19.