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Tao of Thao: Cottage Grove artist mixes the spiritual with the everyday

Billy Thao holds a painting of Crestview Elementay School that will be on display at Cottage Grove Florist on West Point Douglas Road. Thao, 26, who attended Crestview, was named the March Aritst of the Month by the Cottage Grove Arts Commission. He works in acrylic, ink and watercolors and volunteers at Americorps. The painting in the foreground depicts the lakeside trail at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

Those who drop in at Cottage Grove Floral or River Oaks Golf Course might recognize familiar places in certain paintings that adorn the walls. In one corner, the lakeside trail at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park. In another, Crestview Elementary School on a busy day.

The signature on the canvases reads Billy Thao.

Cottage Grove is a favorite subject for the painter, who was named March Artist of the Month by the Arts Commission.

"I attended Crestview, so I decided to recapture Crestview all over again," said Thao, 26. Ravine Regional Park is a favorite hiking spot for he and his friends.

Thao, whose family still lives in Cottage Grove, is ramping up his art career. A Park High School graduate, he didn't pursue art seriously until his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He experimented with ink, acrylic and watercolors, of which he is especially enamored.

"When I was in college I studied philosophy," he said. "I was learning about Buddhism and Taoism. To me they were very peaceful. Watercolors remind me of tranquility or calmness. Water is very fluid."

The medium is useful in capturing the flux of everyday life, he said.

"As of right now I love exploring themes of the typical suburban day. At the everyday microlevel. I love using watercolors to help me to explore that micro level of society."

Thao said he is influenced by fellow Hmong artists Cy Thao and SeeXeng Lee. He said he plans to create a series of paintings about his Hmong heritage. A volunteer at AmeriCorps, he serves as a digital teacher in Community Technology Empowerment Project at Hmong American Partnership.

It wasn't Picasso or Pollack who inspired Thao to pursue a career in art. It was Bart Simpson.

He began drawing him from memory when he was 7.

"When I was very very young, I was kind of getting into the Simpsons," he said. "Bart Simpson was one of my favorite characters."

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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