By: Gail Obenreder
“My work embodies those around me. I use my art to preserve and express the Laotian/Cambodian American narrative.”
Leanna Thongvong is passionate about her art and proud of the resilient community it reflects. Her family’s American story began in the 1970s and 1980s, when “our Lao/Khmer community fled war and genocide” and came to the United States. Some traditions have changed from those of previous generations – “our narrative is forever evolving” – but Thongvong’s work pays tribute to her deep cultural roots. “The use of gold jewelry, warm reds and oranges, and deep brown skin tones are representative of myself, my family, and my people.”
The oldest of three girls, Thongvong has lived in Delaware all her life. She grew up in New Castle and Dover, raised by her mother, father, and grandmother – all of whom are refugees from Laos. “Considering my parents and grandmother have spent a portion of their lives moving to different places with uncertainty, I feel blessed that I can call Delaware my one and only home.”
Like many artists, she has been drawing “since I can remember,” and as a teen she began to approach her artwork seriously. But Thongvong grew up in a traditional household and was discouraged from pursuing art professionally. Educationally, she chose a different path and graduated from Delaware State University in 2018 with a degree in biological sciences. But as a senior, she “managed to sneak in an independent study arts elective,” and several years later she tapped back into her creativity and set her sights on an artistic career.
Thongvong was influenced early on by Joy Kogawa, an artist popular on social media. She was “one of the first Asian American artists I discovered” and led Thongvong toward portraiture. Currently, as she seeks her own path, she closely follows the work of Chicago artist Chantala Kommanivanh (whose work “captures the urban Lao American narrative”) and Wilmington tattoo artist Oba Jackson for his “distinct style.”
The artist is seeking “the right medium for me.” She has worked with pencil and colored pencil, and Thongvong purchased an iPad as a graduation gift for herself to experiment with digital art. Now she’s begun working with oil paint and oil pastels. Self-taught, Thongvong is “learning as I go,” grateful to provide representation for her community. She considers herself “lucky to be an artist in the age of social media” and is gratified that her work is accessible to other Lao/Khmer Americans, who can see themselves reflected in her art with just a few clicks.
Working from home during the pandemic encouraged Thongvong to “tap back into what I was once passionate about.” As well as her art, Thongvong continues her fascination with life sciences, and she loves to cook, “seeing everyone enjoy what I’ve made” and discovering other cultures through their food.
The Fellowship program was also a discovery for her. She is a former Delaware state employee whose work was on view in the 2021 State Employees Art Exhibition, sponsored by the Division of the Arts. As Thongvong “clicked around” on the Division’s website, she decided to apply. With her career so newly begun, she was “shocked, excited, and extremely blessed” to learn of her Emerging Artist award. One of the “greatest opportunities I have ever received, the Fellowship will “help me to grow as an artist” and allow Thongvong to continue exploring the Lao/Khmer narrative integral to her work.Fellowship Home
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