Ditch your comfort zone with Ka Oskar Ly

In a publicity photo for Ua Si Creative, three Hmong women pose against a pink background. Christina Vang smiles in dark red lipstick on the left; next to her, Ka Oskar Ly wears a dark brown sweater, yellow wide-leg pants, and huge tassel earrings; Teeko Yang crouches between them in a peach dress. White lines curve around the trio, with short messages inscribed in small caps. “Proudly women & LGBTQ+ owned,” says one. “Ditch comfort zones,” says another.

Ka Oskar Ly has been ditching comfort zones — voluntarily and involuntarily — their whole life. When they were 11, their family moved from France to Minnesota. Having grown up around so few Hmong people, she already felt distanced from Hmong culture, and that feeling intensified after she came out as queer. During our interviews for this feature, they admitted they don’t like to talk about themself, yet they spent around two hours with me on Zoom.

Throughout their 37 years, Ly has adventured through fashion, music, community engagement, and beyond. They’ve worked at the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA) and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) and other acronymed orgs. Now, they’re bundling all those skills and connections to produce playful, inclusive arts and cultural experiences in Minnesota.

Ly has always wanted to be creative, but their childhood didn’t necessarily allow for that. “As a young Hmong girl, you’re not encouraged to go out and play,” Ly says. “You’re asked to stay home and protect yourself. [But] I always wanted to push those boundaries and think about, ‘What can I make with my own hands, or what I can imagine?’”

In middle school, Ly got into fashion. She started by altering her own clothes, then graduated to making outfits for Fresh Traditions fashion shows, often juxtaposing traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine cuts in her designs. She experimented with color and started styling hair and makeup. “The fashion work was real exploratory of my own identity,” they say.

Meanwhile, Ly sang in PosNoSys, a hip-hop/soul band that drummer Shawn Mouacheupao described as “Red Hot Chili Peppers meets Brother Ali.” “It totally was a form of play … me hanging out with a bunch of Hmong brothers,” she says of the band. Harmonizing with rapper Tou SaiKo Lee, Ly’s voice sounds high and clear.

As an adult, Ly has hung up the microphone, but she still surrounds herself with creative people. That’s where Vang and Yang come in; in 2017, they joined Ly in a farm-centric project called ArtCrop. By 2020, they expanded their purview as a cultural production agency called Ua Si Creative (“ua si” translates to “to play” in Hmong). So far, they’ve landed commissions with groups including Springboard for the Arts and the City of Bloomington.

For the Springboard project, Ly, Vang, and Yang hung a cascade of blue and turquoise acrylic raindrops from the ceiling of an old auto showroom on University Avenue. The drops twirl in strands of various lengths, lining enormous ceiling ducts. A low-hanging turquoise drop bears Ua Si’s logo, complete with sparkles over the “i.” Outside the former showroom, a mural decorates a large water tank. The whole installation is called ‘Refraction,’ and it’s one of several art projects commissioned for Springboard’s new offices in St. Paul.

“The way that we approach the work, as a collective, has been through working and learning with other artists and cultural workers,” Ly says. “It’s challenging us to think broader than our own lived experiences.”

So when Ua Si had the choice between painting the water tank mural themselves or hiring an additional artist, they brought on Aleksandra Gurneau, a young Ojibwe designer who has lived in Milwaukee, Duluth, and now the Twin Cities. “The way that she has traveled through this region is really following the waters,” Ly notes. Gurneau’s mural features waterways such as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, plus Dakota star designs and symbols from Anishinaabe floral patchwork. “The mural turned out richer than it could have,” Ly says, “and we got to learn really nuanced parts of Dakota and Anishinaabe aesthetics through building relationships.”

Elsewhere in the installation, Ly says, “We’re featuring poetry from African American, Cambodian, and Ojibwe poets. We also conducted a water walk with an Ojibwe Elder. It’s something that we personally don’t do in Hmong or American cultures, but it’s part of Dakota and Ojibwe cultures. So we got [Sharon M. Day’s] help to take us on this walking journey and understanding of what water means in the Native context.” The poets included in ‘Refraction’ are  Louis Alemayehu (African, Native American, and Irish heritage), Judy Narate Keys (Cambodian poet), and Sharon M. Day (Ojibwe).

Ua Si preview tour for ‘Refraction’ at Springboard for the Arts, credit TJ Lot/JUAL Visuals

The other recent Ua Si project is the WE mural in Bloomington’s South Loop district. Ua Si won a bid to curate and produce a tapestry of murals on American Boulevard and 30th Avenue South, just a mile from the Mall of America. They hired artists Marlena Myles, Martzia Thometz, Reggie LeFlore, Xee Reiter and Andres Guzman, and City Mischief (featuring Thomasina Topbear and Tom Jay) to create the work. Plus, Ua Si painted one section of the mural themselves, combining designs from each member of the collective.

Tricia Heuring consults with Forecast Public Art, the company that gathered RFQs (Request for Qualifications) for the project. “The City of Bloomington really wanted to understand how to incorporate a diversity and equity and inclusion lens into this project,” she says. “Generally, in the public art realm, you wouldn’t have emerging or BIPOC-led art collectives that are able to apply for a project of that scale. You’d have an established mural collective [who] already have the insurance requirements and a big team and a huge resume. So my consulting work was to try to understand how we might use the project as a platform [for] BIPOC artist-led collectives, so that it didn’t really matter if you had the experience or not, you just had to show that you were capable of doing the work.”

Heuring, who co-founded Public Functionary and teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is impressed with Ua Si’s handling of the job. She met Ly years ago via MRAC, and she says they’re particularly good at balancing their own story with others’. “Even with Ua Si, it’s three artists working together,” Heuring notes. “To choose to lead with two other people is a testament to that collaborative aspect of their work. The collective as a whole is clearly intentional about how everything they do makes space for others.”

“I find Ka to be a really good listener and processor,” Heuring continues. “They’re not usually the first person to speak in the room … Yet I think that their own personal identity awareness is very strong and present in [any] situation or collaboration.”

Teeko Yang, a project manager and jewelry maker who works with Ly at Ua Si, says Ly grounds their work. “She’s thoughtful and methodical in her process. I’m more like: ‘Action, I want to do it right now!’ I feel like we balance each other out.”

Both Yang and Heuring note Ly’s effort to include other people. “She’s always been consistent in her values and beliefs,” Yang says. “Always been consistent about how she works. I think inclusivity has always been number one.”

Ly asks a lot of questions rhetorically, with real implications: “How do we invite people to be more in community with each other?” “How do we find more ways to connect with each other across different identities and lived experiences?” “How do we make this feel more inclusive when we know we haven’t been included?”

None of them has an easy answer, but Ly sets a good example. Pick up the phone. Plug in the sewing machine or pick up a paintbrush. Ditch your comfort zone.