As a child living in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, Kao Lee Thao looked at the St. Paul Winter Carnival as a thrilling series of events filled with colorful images and stories.
As a professional artist, Thao has worked to channel that childhood wonder into the design of the 2024 Winter Carnival buttons.
"The Winter Carnival is a fond memory from my childhood and designing the buttons resurrected the whimsical wonder from those youthful days," Thao said. "The design was a chance to infuse the carnival with the threads of my cultural identity and the magic of shared traditions."
At St. Paul's Union Depot on Saturday, officials unveiled the four buttons Thao created for this year's festival. Button sales are the biggest fundraiser for the Winter Carnival and St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation, its parent organization. The 2024 festival is the 138th and takes place Jan. 25 to Feb. 3.
Buttons went on sale immediately following the unveiling. The price: $5 for one button and $19 for a set of four. Buttons may be purchased at Cub Foods, Spire Credit Union, local retailers or online at wintercarnival.com.
Carnival officials said they try to choose a new button artist every year. Last year, they tapped Geno Okok, a Nigeria-born artist who officials said was the first person of color to design its buttons in what was then a 137-year history. Local illustrator Kevin Cannon designed the 2022 buttons.
In Thao, they chose an artist whose family visited Winter Carnival events every year, even after they moved from St. Paul to Savage. She said the memories of the carnival's ice sculptures, fireworks shows and parades left a magical mark on her heart.
The vibrant colors she chose are meant to heighten the sense of wonder and whimsy she felt attending those carnival events years ago, she said.
For years, Thao studied to be a psychiatrist. Then, she said, she "literally had a dream where I was an artist." She followed that passion to pick up a paintbrush and is now a partner in Folklore Studio, a 3-D animation company that creates animations for television and film.
In addition to the 2024 Winter Carnival buttons, Thao's work includes public art projects such as the Springboard for the Arts fiberglass installation, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's Parks for All mural at Boom Island and the mural at Mississippi Creative Arts.
She is currently working with the United Family Medicine on a history wall in St. Paul.