Tuk Tuk Box is honored to share the story of jewelry artist Houa Lee. To pay homage to Hmong women and reclaiming her culture, Cut From teh Culture artwork focuses on the intricate patterns of Hmong embroidery -paj ntaub.
Born and raised in Sheboygan, WI, Houa is a social impact consultant and founder of Cut from the Culture, a Hmong-inspired jewelry and stationary small business. Her work pays homage to the generation of ancestors that came before her and aims to lift up and elevate Hmong stories and voices. Houa is passionate about using data and design for social good.
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What inspired you to become an artist?
Art has been core to my identity for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was inspired by how art could move people to experience various emotions or take action for social good. I started seriously training to be a vocal performer in high school and aspired of going professional. I loved singing and, at the time, would consider myself pretty good at it. It consumed a lot of my time—I was in multiple choirs, performed in many musicals, and practiced singing every night in my room. It was worth it though—I saw how music moved people to cry and laugh and
experience joy. Later in my life, I developed visual design skills and have been using this skillset since. I started creating Hmong-inspired jewelry in grad school when I was 2000 miles away from home and in a metropolitan area with a small Hmong population. I was homesick and felt disconnected to my identity so creating Hmong-inspired jewelry provided me some sense of home. When I formally started Cut from the Culture, I merely wanted to share the work I created with family and friends. But increasingly, I saw how my work brought some sense of comfort, pride, or joy to other Hmong folks. For me, it’s the emotions that I or others experience with art that inspire me to keep creating.
How do you want to see your art featured and what stories do you like to share through your art?
The motifs found on my work hold many generations’ worth of stories—they’re found on traditional Hmong clothing and other Hmong embroidery. My mom, who spent 13 years in a Thai refugee camp, spent her days sewing these motifs onto Hmong applique pieces in order to feed the family. While, for me, language and cultural customs have been diluted by me acculturating into American culture, Hmong motifs provide some sort of constant for me. Hmong clothing have evolved over the years but these motifs have generally maintained its form throughout the evolution of Hmong clothing. I do my best to honor my ancestors’ work by understanding the significance of each motif before I create something with them. I want my art featured in ways that not only honor the artisanship of it but the stories behind it. Baked into these motifs are stories of my peoples’ survival and resilience and I want to make sure those stories are preserved through my art.
What is your favorite dish? Is there a story behind it?
My favorite dish is Kao Piak, a rice noodle soup which I consider comfort food. At the surface, Kao Piak seems like a fairly simple dish—rice noodles, chicken, and some common condiments. However, the rice noodles take some finessing and a labor of love. You have to mix the rice flower and starch with hot water, you then need to knead the dough to the appropriate thickness, and then you have to cut the dough into noodles. It takes time. Kao Piak is particularly special to me because when I spent my early 20s about 2000 miles away from home, this was the one Hmong dish I would make over and over again. Just the process of making the noodles reminded me of my mom since she was the one who taught me how to make Khao Piak. And eating it brought me some sense of joy and connection to home. It’s one of those dishes I hope to pass on to future generations.
What does courage mean to you?
Courage to me means many things. To me it means: 1) leaning into discomfort which could mean trying new things/experiences, 2) owning my mistakes and wrongdoings, and 3) speaking my truth.
Where can we expect to see you in the next few years?
I hope to continue creating Hmong-inspired art as a means to lift up and elevate Hmong stories and history. I also hope to foster a new generation of young Hmong artists who want to pursue art-related careers. On top of making art, I am currently a full-time social impact consultant. I hope to continue using my skills and assets in research and evaluation to elevate the stories and voices of those most marginalized.
Thank you so much to Houa Lee for sharing her story with us! Tuk Tuk box is proud to exclusively feature Southeast Asian ingredients and include refugee, migrant, and generational stories in every box.
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