In Laos, the traditional arts have long been a means of both expressing and celebrating a variety of regional cultures. In the wake of the war years that disrupted life throughout Southeast Asia, many Laotians found themselves in the refugee camps, uprooted from the land and culture of countless generations before them. In this environment, the arts took on even greater importance than before. Weaving, for example, offered both a public, symbolic, and immediate connection to Lao regional heritage and a means of economic survival. For those who eventually resettled to the United States, weaving continued to be a touchstone to heritage and identity, a source of supplementary income, and an intriguing, rich art form to be shared by all.
Mrs. Bounxou Chanthraphone was born in 1947 in the town of Cavannakhet, located in the central region of Laos. She began learning Lao weaving from her mother and grandmother. Later, she studied more formally the weaving techniques and designs of her native central region and of the northern and southern regions as well. She became expert in weaving the single strands of linen, cotton, silk, and colorful metallic thread into the exacting traditional patterns of meaning-laden symbols and geometric motifs. The silk thread she uses today, as in the past, is often colored by natural materials such as berries, roots, and tree barks. Her woven traditional Lao skirts, dresses for traditional dancing, shawls, and wall hangings are filled with striking designs and symbolic images. The dragon, for example, is a sacred creature with protective powers, and the elephant connotes strength, peace, and harmony. She also learned the detailed ikot tie dying techniques that yield other ornate design forms.
Mrs. Chanthraphone was a school teacher when she fled to the Thailand refugee camps. "I couldn't take anything to Thailand, but only my life and my weaving skills. I was able to make a living and carry on the Lao legacy," she says. In the camp she used her skills to benefit her people, teaching Lao language, culture, and weaving to young Lao women and other adults. This opportunity to acquire a skill that could be used to better the economic conditions of their families offered hope to her fellow refugees. When she resettled to the Minneapolis area in 1982, she continued to teach and to inspire young people with her artistic skills. In teaching Lao language and culture as well as weaving, she is true to her belief that, in her words: "There is no life without arts and no arts without life." In the U.S., she worked as a public school teacher and youth coordinator at the Center for Asians and Pacific Islanders before taking up weaving full-time. In addition, she occasionally demonstrates her style of weaving at the Textile Center of Minnesota and has taken on several disciples through the Minnesota Arts Council's Folk Arts Apprenticeship program.