Two MRAC Next Step Fund Recipients Continue to Create and Share Their Art

Article by Belo Miguel Cipriani

A little over ten years ago, Kaonam Ya-Vang was a budding actress in Thailand. And through playing small roles and doing brief cameos, she found her true calling.

“After my scenes were done,” she shared, “I would help out the crew by carrying an umbrella around for the cameraman. The umbrella was used to provide shade so that the cameraman could see the monitor as he recorded.”

“I started to pick up what he was doing,” she continued, “and I learned how to shoot from those experiences. It was then that I became interested in making films, and telling my own stories.”

Shortly after, Ya-Vang enrolled at the Khao Kho District Film Program in Thailand to further explore filmmaking and to hone her skills. As a director, she is focused on creating storylines that put poor women and minorities front and center.

“I want to tell tales that create characters who have overcome and show the strength they used to overcome, survive — and in most cases — thrive,” she said.

While it was easy for Ya-Vang to develop her vision as a filmmaker, she notes her path to producing her work has faced many barriers. She identifies these challenges as stemming from her having limited access to funding and equipment.

“In Thailand,” she said, “most Hmong films were funded through Hmong American sponsors. They would provide the finances as well as the equipment. I didn’t have either of those things.  So, I would have to borrow equipment from friends and, in return, act or crew on their projects for free.”

“The problem with that,” she continued, “is that the equipment was never consistent, and not being familiar with it prevented me from creating at my, or the equipment’s, full potential.”

Ya-Vang also points out there were very few Hmong women filmmakers when she was starting her career in Thailand. Consequently, her gender and ethnicity limited her ability to get her projects funded.

She said, “I believe there were only one or two Hmong women film sponsors in the U.S. It was hard to convince any funders to invest in me. Most importantly, a lot of men had a hard time taking direction from me.”

One day in 2018, Ya-Vang was searching the web for filmmaking grants in Minnesota and came across the MRAC Next Step Fund. She describes the process of putting her application together as unnerving, because she was new to the state.

During the application process,” she shared, “I was very iffy about it because I didn’t have much experience making films here in the U.S. — in Minnesota in particular.  Most of my experiences were from Thailand and I wasn’t sure if it would be credible enough to be awarded a grant.”

In 2019, Ya-Vang received the Next Step Grant from MRAC and with it bought her very first camera. “Now that the barrier of borrowing someone else’s camera is no longer there, I can finally start spending time familiarizing myself with the equipment,” she said.

Another recipient of the 2019 Next Step Fund is multidisciplinary artist, Gisell Calderón, who will use the grant to complete a photography project that focuses on the Latino community in Minnesota — a project the Indiana native mentioned had been brewing in her mind for a while, and she can now tackle comfortably.

“This project,” said Calderón, “has pushed me to actively go out to community events and capture images of joy and excellence in the Latino community. I believe that this project will bring me closer to this community and allow me to plant firm roots here.”

Calderón states her work has been described as “rough around the edges” and “funny,” but also compelling. As a first generation Latinx artist from the Midwest, her videos and photographs highlight the experiences of her community in unique settings.

“A lot of people,” she explained, “aren’t aware that there are Latinos living and thriving in states like Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio — the entire rust belt! So, I really get a kick out of photographing vaqueros next to Amish buggies, or taking portraits of my very Guatemalan uncle at the 4H county fair. So, at the moment,” she continued, “my art is really delving into this intersection of Latino culture, class dynamics, and stereotypical imagery of the Midwest.”

Calderón’s past projects have covered topics of transportation and infrastructure, and include imagery of worn-out pick-up trucks and trains. “When I realized that my Indiana hometown is one of the biggest manufacturing centers for RVs in the country, I decided to explore this industry and the immigrant work force that is essentially the lifeblood of its economy,” she said.

Like many people in the art field, Calderón admits choosing to be an artist has not always been easy for her.

She said, “Having immigrant parents who have left their entire lives behind to give you a comfortable life makes it really hard to choose to do art as opposed to something more financially stable. Video and photography equipment is also very expensive, so financing equipment costs has always been a challenge.”

In the past, Calderón has turned to thrift stores to purchase camcorders to help offset some of the cost associated with creating her work. She also attributes her appreciation of film cameras to the fact that they are affordable.

A self-described do-it-yourself artist, she believes in jumping right into a project, and in experimenting with mediums and materials — something she learned from the punk community.

“It helps that I have a little bit of a background with punk, where this mindset is really prolific. I was really inspired by how people would just start bands without knowing how to play their instruments or make zines using the public library’s printer. So, this mentality of simply doing without overthinking, or being afraid of failing, has really stuck with me,” she said.

“I learned early on,” she continued, “that if I waited until I had technically ‘good’ skills before I executed a project, I would never start anything.”

The Next Step Fund, funded by the McKnight Foundation, makes it possible for Minnesota artists in a wide range of disciplines to tackle projects that will catapult their career to the next level, as defined by each artist. Past recipients have used their awards to create a website, hire an editor, and to buy equipment. To learn more, please visit The deadline for the next round of the Next Step Fund is Monday, January 27, 2020.


Belo Miguel Cipriani is a media entrepreneur, an award-winning author, a prize-winning journalist, and a teacher, nationally recognized for his contributions to the advocacy, employment diversity, and disability fields. He is the CEO and founder of Oleb Media – an ADA compliance firm – and the publishing house Oleb Books.  He, along with writer Anitra Budd, is talking with MRAC artists and groups to hear and share their stories in the monthly series.



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