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Michelle St. Vrain Cover-2Last month I sat down briefly to chat with artist Em Nguyen about her work. Specializing in watercolor and charcoal, Nguyen creates detailed, whimsical pieces, often inspired by nature or the requests of her patrons. Whether she is managing Lucky’s, or finishing yet another commissioned piece, this lady knows how to hustle. That being said, it is obvious how much thought and care goes into each new work.

Nguyen understands the necessity of fostering the art community, and does her part through organizing the Art Collective at Lucky’s Bar for the past six years. This free event gives new artists an opportunity to show their work without the pressure of a gallery setting, with the next Collective being held this summer. It is because of events like this, and people like Nguyen, that the Sioux Falls arts community will continue to thrive. Thank you for all that you do. ~Amy

What is the path that has led you to where you are today? 

I originally went to school for an English major, and changed it to be an art major my third year into my bachelor degree. Right before graduating I ended up falling in love, and getting the opportunity to travel overseas and live there for a year. I jumped at the opportunity and put my education on hold. I had the time of my life and happy with the roads I decided to take. After some time away I came back to the US and was encouraged by my peers (Terry Bittner, Shaine Schroeder, Jess Miller) to pursue my large-scale charcoal animal portraits.

30x40 Charcoal

Do you have any mentors?

I don’t have a mentor, but I’m always open to learning new techniques from anyone.

What are some projects you’re working on right now?

Right now I am mostly doing commissions, but some future series I have in mind are: steam punk animal series all in watercolor, women around the world, with an emphasis on wardrobe, and fairy tales.


How long does it take to complete a piece?

If it is charcoal, it’s anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 hours. With watercolor, about  six to 48 hours.

 What is a typical day like for you? Do you have a routine?

Right now I am managing a bar and working as an apprentice at Permanent Addictions. I also do wedding photography and full-time freelance. I usually just try to take things one day at a time and try to conquer any projects.


"Staggers" 28x36 Watercolor and Pen
Watercolor and Pen

Tell me more about your creative process. 

Right now I am focusing on watercolor. I have tried almost every medium and this one is my favorite. I love how fluid watercolor is and how everything happens very organically. As I paint I feel like I am making happy accidents along the way. This last two years have been very explorative for me and I absolutely love it. I feel like every painting I create, I learn new, fun techniques that I makeshift together and it just works. Painting has become very relaxing and therapeutic. Whenever I finish a piece, I look at it and can’t believe I painted that! It has been a fun adventure that I can’t wait to continue, so I can keep learning all the new funky ways to play.

"Samson" 24"x25 " Watercolor and Pen
24″x25 “
Watercolor and Pen

 How do you challenge yourself?

I challenge myself with taking on subject matters that I am not comfortable with. I would not consider myself to be a strong illustrator, but I try to just break things down and contour each line one by one ’till it looks right. With this last year I am trying to broaden my horizon on subject matter and take on projects that I usually would turn away. Because watercolor is so forgiving, I feel like I can paint anything.

DSC_1743 (1)

How do you handle the business aspect of your work?

I have been lucky enough to have friends and loved ones support my art career for many years. I try to be understanding of people’s circumstances when it comes to commission work. I am completely OK with payment plans; I will pretty much work with anyone if they honestly want to give my art a forever home. The idea of selling art has always boggled my mind. It’s wonderful to know that this person loves what I created so much they want to keep it forever, and with that idea I will always cherish the patrons and work with them as much as I can.

I started this thing called the Art Collective six years ago. I was serving one night and talking to some co-worker about the idea of an art show. Solo shows are hard to do sometimes when you’re brand new in the art world and it is a lot of pressure to have all eyes on you. So I was thinking, if I could set up a show that has 10 artists, and they have five friends, that is at least 50 people who will come. The pressure would be less and it would be a great turn out. Fast forward six years later, now I have 50+ artists and 300-500 people who are willing to come down and support their local artist.


It is completely free to be in and to attend. I love this event because it gives the artist the opportunity to display with little pressure on them. Artist can sell their works, or not, it is completely up to the artist, and they get to keep 100% of the sales. I have a lot of people who are unsure if this is the route they want to take or if this is a possible career they could do and honestly this show is the best way to test whether this exposure is something that you want or not. I highly recommend if anyone does any sort of art– crafting, writing, painting please take the opportunity to be in the show. I invite everyone to try it at least once. Nothing will replace the feeling of getting feedback from your peers and total strangers. One of my fondest memories is selling my first piece, and I would wish that upon every artist out there.

What Sioux Falls artists should people look out for?

Solomon Carlson and Brendan Parks.

commissioned tea canister
commissioned tea canister

 Future plans for your work?

I just want to keep creating and experimenting with different media… making more happy accidents. I would also like to try fire art out one day, it a perfect marriage of watercolor and charcoal, both of my specialties.

What are your thoughts on the arts community?

I am completely in love with the art community in Sioux Falls, to see the growth in the last ten years has been ridiculously fun and exciting. When I first moved downtown there were only three places to show, and the wait time to get it and show your work was pretty frustrating. Now there is no shortage of places to display, or people to connect with to grow your possible career.


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