Hmong stories woven into art in Groton show

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Detail from a Hmong story cloth, among the works on display at the Groton Public Library, 99 Main St., through April 16. (Thao Kong)

When the narrative nonfiction work “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down’’ by Anne Fadiman was chosen for the annual Groton Reads program, organizer Cheney Harper asked Deborah Santoro, curator of the Owen Smith Shuman Gallery at the Groton Public Library, to plan an art exhibition that would complement the literary selection.

Since the book focuses on the story of Hmong immigrants who settle in Central California and their struggle with cultural differences, particularly in relation to Eastern versus Western medicine, Santoro knew right away where to turn. She and Harper met with Judy Thao, director of the United Hmong of Massachusetts, a Lowell-based organization, to ask for her advice. The result is “Hmong Story Cloths and Textiles,’’ on display through April 16 at the library, 99 Main St. in Groton.

The Hmong are mountain people in Laos who aided the United States during the Vietnam War. Many left as refugees when Laos fell to the communists in the mid-1970s.

Compared with their numbers in California and Minnesota, the Hmong population in Massachusetts is “a small pocket,” said Santoro.

According to Thao, the state’s largest Hmong community is in the Leominster and Fitchburg area, where there are 60 to 70 families, followed by Springfield and Brockton, each with 20 to 30 families. In all, she said, there are approximately 2,000 Hmong living in the state.

A few of the pieces in the Groton show are traditional Hmong dress, such as a white apron donated by the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, but Santoro also opted to include a number of story cloths, a craft that developed in recent decades in the refugee camps.

Absent their usual farming and household responsibilities, the men and women in the camps found themselves with idle time and started stitching images meant to narrate their stories onto large pieces of cloth.

One of Santoro’s favorites, on loan from the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough, N.H., is an 8-by-14-foot story cloth that includes images of Hmong people doing everything from working their fields in Laos to enduring attacks by soldiers, to arriving in the United States, with its cities, airplanes and immigration officials.

Visitors to the Groton library have been fascinated by the exhibition, which opened March 7, said Santoro. Many have read Fadiman’s book and find it interesting to see some of the history it described reflected in the needlework on display, she said, and craftspeople are amazed at the quality and complexity of the artistry.

The gallery is open during regular library hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. For more information, call 978-448-1167 or visit

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