Warren Wilson College painting professor Lara Nguyen is accustomed to creating murals. Her art adorns walls across campus and covers the entire outside of a building in downtown Asheville.
But her most recent project is unique, even for her. This time, she worked alongside more than 600 people to paint a 187-foot-long retaining wall at Owen Middle School.
“The idea started off with a drawing that Patti Lloyd had done of this tree,” Nguyen explained. “The tree was the seed for the mural and this idea of growth.”
The idea eventually expanded beyond growth to also encapsulate heritage and promise.
Nguyen said the project’s final design came from questions: “Where are we currently? What has been in the past? What is the history of this valley? What do we project into the future?”
With the new questions and an influx of support from the community, the mural came to life. Students from Warren Wilson College and Owen Middle School, families, administrators and community members all participated in the project. Some, Nguyen admits, got involved when the project moved away from paint brushes.
“When we started dipping our hands—gloved and not gloved—into the paint and then high-fiving the wall, it just started to become something else. … Because of the nature of the painting, we had to cover up some of it, but a lot of it is still there. I’ve seen students come out and point to the handprint that they think is theirs. For me, that’s pride in ownership,” she explained.
The completion of the mural is the latest project in a two-year partnership between the Swannanoa Valley institutions. Through Warren Wilson College’s Center for Community Engagement, 162 students have worked 1,382 hours with Owen Middle School in the last year. That includes five Warren Wilson College First-Year Seminar courses, the work of the students on the biology and environmental science work crews at the College and annual service days. Warren Wilson College also administers SLAM – the Science, Language Arts and Math program – to harness Owen Middle students’ interest in the sciences and reinforce language arts and math concepts, according to College President Lynn Morton.
“What a partnership!” Morton said at the Oct. 25 mural dedication. “Warren Wilson College and Owen Middle School – as educators, the art they create and the people they graduate – are vital to this valley, this town, this region, this state and our country. This world! Everything we do together will have a lasting impact on the young people we educate, and I am honored to be here to see this mural unveiled.”
The new Owen Middle School mural is derived from multiple influences. Within the piece, Nguyen incorporated Cherokee myths and basketry designs and took cues from the work of many artists – Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Buckminster Fuller, M.C. Escher and Vincent Van Gogh. Many other nature and stylistic inspirations are apparent throughout the mural.
Owen Middle School also celebrated the creation of a plot of river cane on campus. The river cane project was also in partnership with Warren Wilson College.
To see more photos of the mural, visit facebook.com.
To watch President Morton’s speech from the mural dedication, visit youtu.be/tuAHsSlUvT8.
To watch professor Lara Nguyen’s speech from the mural dedication, visit youtu.be/hfgmSrR0TDQ.