Artist Lara Nguyen continues to create amid her battle with cancer

SCARS AND SCULPTURE: The Center for Craft’s latest exhibit, Mirror/Mentor, features works by Warren Wilson College art professor Lara Nguyen and three of her former students. Featured here is Jess Self’s sculpture "Portal Ave" and Lara Nygugen’s photography series "Un-Broken." Photo by Black Box Photography; courtesy of Center for Craft

What does it mean to live a full life? That is the question Warren Wilson College art professor Lara Nguyen raises in the new exhibit Mirror/Mentor, now on display at the Center for Craft’s John Cram Partner Gallery.

Spoiler alert — there is no definitive answer. But as the exhibit’s title suggests, part of the process involves reflecting on one’s own experiences and sharing new insights with family, friends and strangers alike.

Joining Nguyen in the exhibit are three former students: Steven Horton Jr., Jess Self and Sather Robinson-Waters. Like their erstwhile instructor, each artist contributes to the show’s central question through works reflecting their individual experiences confronting racial injustice, coping with sexual trauma and celebrating art for the sake of art, respectively.

For Nguyen, who was diagnosed with uterine leiomyosarcoma in 2018, the majority of her most recent works are framed by the reality she now faces: stage 4 cancer.

“This diagnosis has become a motivator in terms of making meaningful work whenever I have the energy to do it,” she says.  “We all have an end point. Mine is just more heightened in terms of an awareness of when or how it might happen.”

Comprising various mediums, one of Nguyen’s pieces, “Brushes with Death,” is a set of three bamboo-handled brushes with bristles made from hair she lost during chemotherapy. A family effort, Nguyen’s 11-year-old son harvested the bamboo from their backyard, and the artist’s 9-year-old daughter contributed a poignant moment when she used one of the finished brushes to dust her mother’s bald head.

“She tells me I’m her favorite bald person and that I look great bald,” Nguyen says with a deep laugh that eventually trails off. “But I know every time she says it there is a tinge of pain.”

BAMBOO BRUSHES: Harvested from her yard, Lara Nguyen transformed bamboo into brush handles. The artist then used her own hair, which she lost during chemotherapy, to make the bristles. Photo by Black Box Photography; courtesy of Center for Craft

Another piece, “Un-Broken,” is a series of photographed scars embellished with gold paint. Friends and family volunteered their bodies for the project. Nguyen says as she decorated their scars, the stories behind each mark inevitably came out. With permission, Nguyen wrote down each account and later turned the collection into an essay that now accompanies the photography series.

At its core, Mirror/Mentor encourages viewers to remove the self-imposed barriers that often restrict conversations. The work reminds audiences that meaningful connections can occur in unexpected ways.

“My daughter was listening to a podcast recently and she asked me: ‘What is the most important thing about being human?’” Nguyen recalls.

In that moment, Nguyen remembers being both surprised and moved by her 9-year-old’s curiosity and depth.

“It’s relationships,” Nguyen answered.

Her daughter agreed.

“Relationships teach you so much about life,” says Nguyen, her voice gaining strength as she recounts the exchange. “When you have a friendship, it allows you to see things through [another person’s] eyes. It allows you to empathize with their causes. It allows you to show love and receive love.”

It’s this message, continues Nguyen, that she hopes audiences take away from Mentor/Mirror.

“With everything you can have in your life, what do you cherish most?” she asks. “It’s got to be relationships. All of them — whether they’re long or brief or for a lifetime.”


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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