Thai Artists Turn to Each Other for Art and Support

  • Preparing for a TANY event (Photos by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn for Voices of NY)
In a cramped living room in Jackson Heights, Queens, Supitcha Donsrichan crouched on the floor, measuring a piece of canvas. Paint brushes and paper bowls filled with light blue paint lay scattered on the ground, next to rolls of duct tape and newspaper pages. Across from her, three people sat on the couch, sketching out a floor plan.

It was Wednesday night, and members of a new Thai artist collective, Thai Artists in New York (TANY) were preparing for an event later that weekend. It was the Thai community’s annual Songkran celebration in Woodside this month, and TANY had been given half the event space for an exhibit.

“We were only told that we got approval for the event a few weeks ago, so we didn’t have much time to prepare,” said Narissara Thanapreechakol, 28, who coordinates the group. Her job that night was to make small flags that spelled out the TANY logo and she continually moved between the living room and the bedroom, walking gingerly around the canvases on the floor.

On the door behind her, above a subway map of New York, was a paper sign. On it someone had painted the words: “I’m going to be an artist.”

TANY was formed a year ago by a few Thai artists who wanted to support each other’s work. The collective is made up of ten to twelve core members, working in a variety of fields: sculpture, photography, film production, even coding. Meetings take place in each other’s apartments, or at the Sugar Club, a popular cafe and grocery store in Elmhurst where the group regularly hosts exhibitions.

“We all came together with the hope that we could share our creativity and art,” said Tharit Tothong, a 29-year-old computer programmer. “It’s a positive outlet for us, our way of making it in New York.”

The group made its public debut at an Experience Thailand event last September in Union Square, and has since held several exhibits at the Sugar Club. At the Songkran celebration this month, TANY hosted a mini-scavenger hunt, where visitors had to move from one booth to another, all the while meeting the artists and engaging with their work. In one booth, participants could pose for a quick portrait. At another, they could plunk down and start painting themselves.

One of TANY’s main goals is to offer a space where artists can collectively hold exhibits, but its activities encompass a lot more, says its members. The group has become a way for different members of the Thai community to connect, and a space for people to share ideas and experiences, not just of their art, but of living in New York.

“Right now there’s not really a way for the older generations of Thais here to get to know the younger generation, but with TANY, we have this platform, this space for others to see what we’re doing,” said Tothong in Thai. “Many Thai kids come to New York, study art and keep to themselves … We want to have a space where there aren’t barriers or hierarchies, and everyone can just come together.”

“We talk about everything,” said Pairoj Pichetmakul, 32, who was one of the first members of the group. “I want people to work together, that’s the goal. But in reality, I just want to make sure people have friends they can talk to. If you have problems — with housing, or school — we can all talk about it.”

Many of the members lean on the group as a way of getting their work out to the public — something that’s important for any artist, but even more important for non-U.S. citizens, who often look to the O-1 artist visa as a way to stay in the U.S. One of the requirements for the visa is that the applicant has shown and had their work recognized by the public.

“The O-1 is what everyone wants, it’s the ideal,” said Tothong, who has focused most of his efforts around helping the group publicize and organize events. “For me personally, [being a part of TANY] is more like paving the way for next generation of Thai artists coming to New York, so that common struggles and myths around the artist visa are demystified and we can embrace it to push ourselves to make better art.”

But even beyond exhibits, others look to TANY for its sense of community. That was the case for 32-year-old Peeradon Rapeepantadon, who also was an early member of the group.

Rapeepantadon moved to New York to explore the art scene five years ago, but it took him years — in which he considered, then gave up on, applying to Parsons and Pratt — before he really felt that he could call himself an artist.

“I wanted to come learn art and new media, but I kept asking myself so many questions without doing anything, so I never went anywhere,” he said. “One day I was so frustrated that at a drawing class, I took a piece of charcoal and drew all of my questions and frustrations: ‘I’m tired, why am I here, what is happening?’ It changed my life.”

Rapeepantadon held an exhibit at the Sugar Club in January, which he described as “small, but warm.” He credits other TANY members and his friends for constantly encouraging him to focus on his work.

“TANY has made me compare myself to others — I see what they’re doing and that they’re all trying really hard, and it gives me a goal,” he said.

The group hopes to set up a nonprofit and to eventually start a mentorship and residency program for other artists in New York. They are also working to secure an office space at the Sugar Club. In the meantime, they’ll continue to plan exhibitions.

“I feel good about TANY. I get to meet people who have the same goals. It’s like you don’t have to be the one person shouting out into space anymore,” said Pichetmakul. “In this group, we can shout together.”

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