Anna Thai, a Malden-based artist, learned to embroider from French Catholic nuns when she was eight years old. It was what was taught to children who were disabled at the private school she attended in her native Vietnam. Thai’s disability was caused by a land mine accident suffered during the civil war which played out in the backdrop of her years growing up. Who could know that the work of a true artist could blossom from such beginnings?
Thai’s work is intricate, detailed, and exquisitely crafted. At first glance, her artwork looks like paintings. It’s only on close inspection that one realizes that the art is embroidery, layered threads of color woven onto canvas into beautiful flowers, birds, nature scenes, and, more recently, cityscapes and human figures.
Thai is a prolific artist, having created many dozens of art pieces in her adopted American homeland; only recently she’s had the opportunity to bring her work into public view.
Thai’s parents were wealthy entrepreneurs in pre-Communist Saigon. Her father’s family was both Chinese and East Indian and traded in pork. Her mother’s Vietnamese family was in the jade business. When Saigon fell to North Vietnam in 1975, her family was stripped of their assets and they struggled to survive, encountering persecution in part because of their mixed Chinese ancestry.
Later in her 20s, divorced and with three children, Thai tried to emigrate and give her family better opportunities. She escaped on a boat to Indonesia, leaving her children with her mother until she could send for them. For seven years, she lived as a refugee, awaiting a visa to America, Europe, or anywhere else. It never happened. While in Indonesia, she taught embroidery to other refugees in the camp. She wrote letters to her children, sending them by way of her siblings in Canada, as her children communicated in the reverse. After seven years, without a sponsoring country to issue her a visa, she was sent back to the country she had escaped.
The embroidered artwork that Thai creates takes many hours of patience and creativity. Thai states that she will often spend 8-10 hours a day doing embroidery. A piece that she created of Boston Common took three and a half months to complete. The beautifully stitched artwork fills the walls of her modest apartment and many more framed pieces are stacked vertically on the floor. “I want to create the beautiful things I see around me,” she says. “I am always inspired by my surroundings and by the different music I listen to.”
Thai was finally able to give her children the opportunities she had hoped for when she qualified for a visa to immigrate to America in 1999. Her children were all in their teens. The family settled in Chelsea where all three attended the Chelsea public schools. She moved to Malden in 2003 where her youngest attended her final year at Malden High School.
All three children have found work and built their own lives in the Boston area, helping to support their mother who has not been able to work outside the home. Anna’s life is quiet and simple. She spends her time doing her embroidery work many hours a day and listening to American music. She also enjoys watching “America’s Got Talent.” Whatever money she gets that is not used for basic needs, she spends on embroidery thread, which she buys from A.C. Moore and Michael’s art supply store. She only wants to buy American-sold thread, even though thread sold in Vietnam offers a much wider variety in color and hue, where hand embroidery is a 700-year-old tradition.
In January 2015, Thai began attending English language classes at the Immigrant Learning Center, Inc., based in Malden. The staff there encouraged Thai to submit artwork to the 10th annual Window Arts Malden event, sponsored by Malden Arts. Her work was accepted and was displayed in the windows of the Immigrant Learning Center. Visitors to the public street window gallery were awed by the work that they saw. The MATV Gallery interviewed Anna and highlighted her work with a short video. Last summer, arrangements were made to exhibit Thai’s work in the MATV Gallery beginning in February 2017. Thai has been hard at work, creating ever more intricate designs and framing her beautiful work, though due to financial constraints, she uses very inexpensive and low quality frames.
This past holiday season, Thai’s work was included in “Malden Pops Up,” a pop-up holiday artist marketplace. It was there that Malden Public Library director Dora St. Martin discovered Thai’s beautiful artistry and commissioned her to create an embroidered image of the library building to include in the library’s fine art collection. Thai also took part in “Pictures at an Exhibition: A Tribute to Friendships,” a project sponsored by Malden Creates, where artists created work inspired by Modest Mussorgsky’s famed piece of music “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Thai’s piece (pictured, left) is also included in the current exhibit at the MATV Gallery.
Thai is tearful as she expresses her gratitude to all the people who have helped bring her work into public view, sell her artwork, and share her story.
Acknowledgements to Mai Du, Owner/Sifu of the Wah Lum Kung Fu & Tai Chi Academy, as well as to Hien Le, a student at Malden High School, for helping to bring forth Anna’s story with Vietnamese-English interpretation.
“Embroidery Work by Anna Thai” is on exhibit at the MATV Gallery through April 21, 2017. A closing exhibit with the artist will be held on Wednesday, April 12 from 6:30 – 8:00pm. The MATV Gallery is open Monday – Thursday, 10am – 9pm; Friday, 10am – 6pm; and Saturday, 10am – 2pm. For more information, call 781-321-6400 or visit www.matv.org.