Through Worsening Cancer, Artist And Teacher Lara Nguyen Compelled To Create

Feb 9, 2021

Lara Nguyen and her series of photographs titled "Unbroken," where she draws spiritual connection with the scars of others.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

When Lara Nguyen first learned of her rare cancer—uterine leiomyosarcoma—she had just come home from teaching in Prague and was just starting work on a major mural in Grand Rapids, Mich.

She had a full hysterectomy in 2018, when the cancer was still in its early stages.

“It was a wonderful distraction,” Ngyuen said of her work on the mural. “There was still some hope there, catching it early. But then in January 2020 it came back, it metastasized into my left lung. Then a day after Father’s Day, June 2020, it recurred and just last week I found out, even under chemo right now, it has metastasized into my right lung, as well. We just found this out a few days ago.”

Yet here she is, inside the Center for Craft in downtown Asheville, talking in detail about the exhibition inspired, in large part, by her cancer. Nguyen’s exhibition, which also showcases work from three art students from Warren Wilson, is on view through March 12.

Hanging from one wall are brushes that look like tassels, made from the hair Nguyen cut off in preparation of her chemotherapy. There’s a series of photos of others’ bodies, in which Nguyen has painted gold along their scar lines as a connective spiritual tissue with her own surgical scars. There’s a poem Nguyen wrote for her mother and, below it, a representation of a grapefruit as a sensory memorial to her father, who died just this past November after two strokes, removal of a brain tumor and his own lung cancer.

“The work saves me from my thoughts sometimes,” she said. “If my hands are busy and I’m thinking about a date on the calendar and a goal I want to meet and a conversation I have to have to make this exhibition happen, that lets me not go down the rabbit hole of ‘How long do I have?’ ‘What are the statistics of this particular cancer?’”

Despite 11 cycles of chemo and four transfusions, Nguyen said doctors have elevated her cancer to Stage 4. She’s still teaching three painting and drawing classes every week, virtually, for Warren Wilson College, where she has been on faculty since 2012.

Nguyen talks about her cancer with detachment, at one turn likening it to Covid, calling it an intelligent disease for how it has adapted in her own body. She’s also quick to chuckle about her prognosis.

“Dealing with this disease and the stage that it’s in, I have to bring some humor to it, because if I don’t, I don’t know how I would survive the day to day,” she said, mentioning her husband, who’s a sculptor, and their two pre-teen children.

“We’ve always used humor for healing,” she said. “At one point, I wasn’t allowed to joke about it with him, which really scared me, because ‘Oh my gosh, we joke about everything and we can’t joke about this?’ It’s still very hard for him, but we can talk about it in a way now that is hard but at the same time, we have to bring some lightness or some imagination to it because there are kids involved.”

Nguyen’s parents moved from Vietnam after America’s war there to settle in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Nguyen remembers her father’s ability to draw a duck with a single, unbroken line. At art school, she sewed, she painted, she sculpted, she wrote poetry and liked performing.

“Teachers really wanted me to focus, but I always wanted to play with everything, whether it was food or materials. I’ve always really loved singing. I took voice lessons in graduate school alongside my MFA work,” she said. “I love to cook. I love color in my food. Through my cancer journey, I did a 10-day juice fast, so there’s a lot of cutting things in half and seeing the colors and the textures. It’s funny how life and art just bounce back and forth.”

Life and art have merged more directly for Nugyen. When she arrives for treatment at the Cancer Center at Mission Health, she often parks under the mural she painted for the hospital’s parking garage.

“I have to keep being here now because I can’t worry about what will happen,” she said. “At the end of the day, every one of us just has right now.”