Asheville Art Talk: Lara Nguyen brings “Bower Power” to The Refinery

MORE BOWER TO YOU: Last month Lara Nguyen painted her mural, "Bower Power," on the facade of Asheville Area Art Council's The Refinery Creator Space. Photo courtesy of Lara Nguyen

PBS played a crucial role in Lara Nguyen’s development as an individual, as well as an artist. In 1975, her parents left Vietnam for the United States. A year later, Nguyen was born in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Sesame Street” taught the first-generation, Vietnamese-American how to speak English. In elementary school, she discovered her passion for art thanks to the soothing, instructional strokes of Bob Ross. “He’s my art grandfather,” Nguyen says.

In 2011, Nguyen began teaching at Warren Wilson College. She works in a number of mediums that include painting, drawing and performance-based and installation art. More recently she’s added murals to her repertoire. Earlier this year her design, “Bower Power,” was selected by the Asheville Area Arts Council for its new building, The Refinery Creator Space, at 207 Coxe Ave.

“I had done a lot of interior murals and a lot of murals with my class at Warren Wilson,” says Nguyen. “But exterior was a new thing to me. I thought, ‘Why not?’”

The mural was finished last month, in time for The Refinery’s opening. Bowerbirds and butterflies decorate the building’s facade. Nguyen considers the former “the artists of the bird world.” Each year, for up to six months, the male bowerbird will spend its days building arches made of straw. He will then gather brightly colored objects and place them outside the construction in order to attract mates.

“They perform,” says Nguyen. “They use the hole [of the arch] as a stage. … They’re also great mimickers and singers. I thought that was interesting. They’re like actors, performance artists, builders, makers, collectors, [and] in some way they’re painters. They pick certain colors and situate them.”

Nguyen saw the creature as a perfect symbol for The Refinery Creator Space. She lists off the various types of artists (painters, photographers, sculptors, filmmakers, fiber artists…), in addition to the art-based organizations (Asheville Darkroom, Asheville Makers, The Bright Angle, Local Cloth and Mechanical Eye Microcinema) that now call the space their home. She views her mural, with its bright colors and visual appeal, as a way to help facilitate traffic; a way to intrigue the public to step inside and support the arts.

The project took two weeks to complete. Fellow muralist Ian Wilkinson was brought on for technical support. “I had Ian up on the lift with me when I had to put that first bird head on,” says Nguyen. “In so many ways, that was the most complex and most important piece because of its heights and its central location.” Nguyen’s family, as well as her Warren Wilson students and children from the Boys and Girls Club, helped with the installation.

Now, with her first exterior mural complete, Nguyen can’t help but notice all the other buildings in downtown Asheville that could use some color. “It would be wonderful to have a mural culture where people could come to Asheville for the public art scene.”

The notion brings her back to her childhood and the influence of Bob Ross. “I think public art is extremely important, just like Public Television,” she says. “If you don’t have Netflix or Hulu or cable, you at least have PBS. If you can’t afford to go to museums, at least you can walk around with your family and look at really big and beautiful murals that are diverse in their aesthetic and their subject matter. I would like to create a living, breathing museum for everyone who comes to Asheville, no matter their socio-economic situation.”

For more on Lara Nguyen visit




Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

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.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Asheville Art Talk: Lara Nguyen brings “Bower Power” to The Refinery

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.