Sisters Kelly (left) and Kathy Huang
Sisters Kelly (left) and Kathy Huang

Two sisters explore themes of family, immigration, and love in the latest Gallery 148 show.

Not many artists can say that their sibling is also an artist, but that is the case for sisters Kathy Huang, a furniture design senior at MCAD, and Kelly Huang, a filmmaking alum from the Art Institutes International. Though their work takes different forms, furniture and film, both sisters are inspired by similar themes, which was the basis of their recent show in the MCAD-student-run Gallery 148.

Kathy first had the idea to a Gallery 148 show, yet the original plan was to showcase only Kelly's films. As they planned, they realized that similar themes appeared in both of their art practices, and they decided to have a duo show. Soon enough, a plan was formed, and Huang: Unspoken opened in the gallery. 

I attended the awesome opening night (filled with delicious Laotian food) and talked with the sisters about their inspirations and works in the show.

Why do you make what you make—films and furniture, respectively?

Kelly: I make films because I never saw myself doing anything else for a living.

Kathy: I originally came to MCAD for photography, but after taking the course 3D Foundations I decided to take on furniture design because I loved it and love thinking about functionality. 

Promotional poster for Huang Unspoken, featuring the adorable sister duo as kids

Kelly, can you talk a little bit about each of the films shown?

Kelly: Both documentaries were created during my senior year at the Art Institutes.

A Refugee's Story: Khamsay Huang is a short biographical documentary. After experiencing the horror of what the Communist government could do, Khamsay realizes life in Laos would never be the same. The film explores his journey and some of the obstacles he faced to get to America. With determination, he got the rest of his family to America and finally lived out his American dream. Unspoken is a short documentary film about the reality of marriage from the perspective of a daughter. Soonhwa and Chanhom Huang quickly married without really knowing each other, and now after twenty-four years of marriage they've learned what they love and hate about one another. It's a story about my parents' marriage and my own understanding of their relationship and what love is.

I submitted A Refugee's Story: Khamsay Huang to the Twin Cities Film Festival in 2015 and it got in! It was screened with other Minnesota-made short films. Both films have been screened all over the Twin Cities, including at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis and in New Ulm, Minnesota, at the New Ulm Society. Both films deal with topics of family, immigration, and love. 

A Refugee's Story: Khamsay Huang poster

Unspoken poster

Kathy, same question—can you describe your pieces in the show?

Kathy: The furniture I made was inspired by Laotian furniture. I made the table as a tribute to my parents. The table, called The Journey, has Laotian symbolism but also symbolism from things here in Minnesota because Minnesota is our home. They both came from Laos but met here in the Minnesota. I wanted to depict that in the table. My senior show is themed around Laos. I had never carved wood before making this table, so I was hesitant, but I dug right into it and learned as I went.

The Journey, Kathy Huang

Plumeria, Kathy Huang

The bench is called Plumeria, and is named after the flower. The flower is called “Dok Champa” in Lao. I wanted to carve a part of my bench, but I didn’t want it to outshine the table because the table is the main piece. I carved the backboard of the bench with the flowers and I turned the other parts on the lathe. The bench came together much faster than the table because I wasn’t afraid to carve the flowers. There were more pieces to work with, and a lot of math was involved, but everything is a learning process and I’m really glad I went for it and got it done for the show.

One gallery wall was painted with grey mountains and covered with Huang family photos and various documents from their past

What was it like curating and installing a show with your sister?

Kelly: It was really fun to curate a show with my sister. It was easier than I thought it was going to be, actually. Of course, since we didn't have much experience, there were some things we could have done better, but I loved seeing people's reaction to the show and how proud they were of us. 

Kathy: When I first made the proposal for Gallery 148, it was actually just for my sister. She’s been out of school for a while and I thought it would be cool for her to show her films at MCAD. Then I realized that she had films that pertained to Laos and I had work that was Lao inspired. Kelly did the poster design, Facebook promotion, and all the external things. I did the internal things, like the proposal, layout, printing the posters, meeting with academic services, and renting Media Center equipment. I also made a bunch of calls and trips with our Mom to get the food situated—I wanted to make sure we had Lao food. Together, we went to Goodwill to find frames and Home Depot to get paint.

We wanted to make the gallery opening feel homey and kind of inform others about our culture and give everyone a taste of the food we had almost every day growing up. Overall it was really easy working with my older sister! We found out that we have the same style so choosing colors for paint and the poster was easy. We were weirdly envisioning the same thing. 

How do your family and your family's history influence your art practices? How does Laos influence them?

Kelly: I would never have thought that my heritage, culture, and ethnicity would play a huge part in my artwork. It all happened organically with my decisions to create documentaries about them. My want to document their stories came with my curiosity about their lives. I just wanted to know things about them since they would have never told me unless I asked them. 

Kathy: Every time I’m given a prompt for a project that we are doing in class I tend to think about my family and how I’m lucky to be able to do what I want to do because they came here and wanted us to have a better life and wanted us to do and have things they didn’t have the chance to. I tribute a lot of my work to both my parents. It’s really hard to find information on Laotian furniture. It’s really great that I’m close with family I have in Laos, so I can ask them about it, because other than that there are barely any resources in the library, or even online. I believe Laotian furniture spun off of Chinese furniture and it’s made of the same techniques but just with different symbolism. I didn’t start carving until early this year and I’m really glad that I pushed myself to carve my tabletop for my Advanced Senior Seminar class.

Detail of a framed family picture in the show

What are you guys working on aside from the show?

Kelly: I currently work full-time as a video content manager at a tech start-up, 75F. I'm cast in a theater production with SteppingStone and Mu Performing Arts in The Princess' Nightingale. I also just wrapped my latest documentary about a Hmong performance artist's journey to learn traditional Hmong folk singing. I'm currently in the process of submitting that film to the Twin Cities Film Festival. So keep a lookout!

Kathy: Currently I’m just getting ready to put everything together for my senior show. After graduation, I’m going to look for artist residencies and internships that are out of state!