Over the past year, Kazua Melissa Vang has been using tin cans to tell stories to ease the pain of people experiencing loss because of COVID-19.
“Preserve,” the artist photo book Vang created during the pandemic, shows photos of her family and friends, arranged next to small, handwritten journals, notes and flyers from her life. Vang takes these personal mementos and places them in tin cans, just like the ones sitting in kitchen cupboards.
Her aim is to show the interactions that get taken for granted — like getting a family recipe from your grandma or passing a note between you and a friend in school — are the most important connections that were lost during the pandemic.
“At the heart of who I am, I’m a storyteller,” she said. As an interdisciplinary artist from the Twin Cities, she explained that art has allowed her to connect with her family and community in ways that go beyond the bounds of a single photograph or video.
“It ultimately is about relationships,” Vang said. “I think you realize with this past year and more, since 2019, relationships have been a big theme for all of us — not only through grief and losing people, but through caring for one another. How do we care for each other? How do we reach out?”
Pandemic isolation from her family was one the biggest inspirations behind creating “Preserve.” It reflects on how important it is to cherish the people that are here, and the ones that we’ve lost.
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In 1999, Vang’s father had a stroke that redefined her family. They took “family comes first,” as their motto.
“When my dad had a stroke, that’s the point where I knew art was going to be part of my life,” she said. After her father’s stroke, Vang began to seriously pursue art for the first time. She explained that spending so much time at home gave her the freedom to try new artforms and techniques around the people that matter the most to her.
Vang’s father passed away in 2020 during the year of isolation. Like all of the relationships and small moments that went into creating her photo book, she hopes that the small, tin cans will preserve the memory of her father.
“‘Preserve’ is the whole idea that it can last longer,” Vang said. “The thing is I’m not the only person who lost someone. I think I can speak on behalf of a lot of artists who are struggling currently in terms of the time of this pandemic, which is one: financially, and two: grieving.”
After focusing “Preserve” on COVID and the importance of remembering small moments, Vang's newest photo series explores connections focused on Hmong family refrigerators around the Twin Cities. With their doors opened and the bright, fluorescent light shining down on the foods sitting inside, she hopes her photos illuminate the connectedness that exists in Minnesota, both inside and beyond the Hmong community.
“Not only does it represent a lot of different socio-economic classes,” Vang said, “but also kind of recognizing ‘oh, I can relate to this because of the ingredients’ or ‘I can relate to this because our fridge looks like this.’ A lot of it can come from your relationship and then you realize that your relationship comes not only from objects, but also from people.”
Vang was one of six artists across the state to receive the Art in This Present Moment grant awarded by the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation in 2020. The grant provides support to artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of color who are challenging dominant narratives through their craft. It helped fund both of Vang’s most recent projects.
“Art in This Present Moment is really, it is present because it’s everything that I’ve carried up to this moment,” Vang said. “It’s about grieving, it’s about reflecting on my relationship with my father for the past 21 years since he was sick. It’s about my role as not only an artist, but as a storyteller.”
Vang’s work is going to be displayed in an exhibit in the Twin Cities and Crookston, Minn., where a sister program of the initiative is based. The exhibit is featuring the books and images she made with the artist grant.
Vang is working on a web series about a Hmong nonprofit organization that is going to parody the TV show “The Office.” Also in the works is a film called “The Chaperone” presenting a semi-autobiographical story about her life as a chaperone to her older sister's dating life, and a photo series focused on Hmong funerals and their changing dynamic after the pandemic.
She hopes that her art reminds the viewer to take a step back and recognize what the world has gone through over the time of COVID-19.
“Be patient and kind. Everyone’s hurting,” she said. “There’s that missing piece that makes us who we are in terms of our identity, culture and our customs.”