Creating a Community of Quirk: Lauren Johnson and ZaPow!

If you’ve been in Asheville for a long enough period of time, you know you can count on a few standard elements that help define the uniqueness of this little oasis in the South: Craft beer, festivals and street parties (with beer, obviously), and, of course, art.

That last one is the trickiest. Asheville is a loving, but fickle place, and any number of creative endeavors that start strong can quickly fizzle out if not tended to by caring people who nurture its mission with their vision, fortitude, and elbow grease. Even that isn’t enough, though, when that creative endeavor happens to be a business. So how do you succeed in a town where quirky comes and goes in a blink?

ZaPow Art Gallery in Asheville
ZaPow Art Gallery in Asheville
Abbey Road (top) and Hard Days Night (bottom) by Artist David Gildersleeve

Anyone asking that question, and wanting a real-life answer, should talk to Lauren Johnson, illustrator, founder, and co-owner of ZaPow!, the Southeast’s only gallery dedicated to illustration and pop culture art.

A Community Is Born
“We’re building a community here, not just a retail showcase,” Lauren says of her business that has grown out of a long-standing personal desire to showcase illustration as fine art. It was, in fact, the subject of her master’s thesis.

When Lauren started ZaPow! with her husband Matt Johnson, they knew a few things. They knew they were building a business. Lauren knew she was ready to be her own boss. They knew this would be the only gallery in the Southeast dedicated to illustration. “We had no galleries representing this entire genre of artwork,” Lauren reports. “There are lots of illustration galleries in Brooklyn, Paris, New York, L.A. There was just nothing here.”

ZaPow Art Gallery in Asheville

Portrait of an Artist

Lauren’s story has a the familiar ring of recent history: a creative individual working in the corporate world as a graphic designer for more than a decade, laid off during a bad economic climate. But she diverged away from the throng of the desperately seeking to create, in her words, her “own thing.” That thing just happens to turn out to be a small-town artistic revolution.

Following her passion in the midst of a national economic slowdown was, at the least, a ballsy thing to do. And it has apparently paid off: Last fall Lauren was nominated for WNC’s Business Woman if the Year, just shy of ZaPow’s! two-year mark. Chasing her art has also led Lauren to connect with the creative community in a way that she might not have as a solo artist, working on her own, isolated in the studio. She still does that, of course; her art graces the walls at ZaPow!

ZaPow Art Gallery in Asheville
Business owner, co-op director, submissions and membership coordinator, event planner, and artist? How does she do it all? “We don’t have kids,” Lauren says with a laugh. “I wear, like, a million hats,” pointing to her color-coded planner on her computer screen, where there are way too many colors competing for attention. “In order to do all that, I have very scheduled times. It really helps me wear my million hats.”

ZaPow Art Gallery in Asheville
Vader’s Day Off (top), Wonder Woman (middle), Max’s Mechinations (bottom)

“We had 15 artists before we ever got our funding,” Lauren says, so they also knew artists were looking for an outlet, and collectors were looking for a place to find unique artwork that isn’t in the fine art mainstream.

Their business plan included many aspects of an art co-op, like membership, studio space, and retail exposure, so clearly there would be a community aspect to the venture. They didn’t, however, anticipate how huge the local involvement would be, how well received it would be, and how quickly it would expand into more than just a business.

Lauren and Matt Johnson have indeed created a community. But not just a community for illustrators; they have successfully found a way to bring together a large local group of enthusiasts with a wide range of interests and tastes into one home base. From steam punks to zombie walkers, cosplay actors to fun-loving costume adorners, artists, writers, and of course, collectors, ZaPow! is home to a wide range of creative events, endeavors, and those who love them.

The Johnsons tend to this community like the fun aunt and uncle: They host a ridiculous number of events (including openings, kids events, parties, workshops, critiques, and other educational presentations for artists), produce podcasts called “Illustration and a Beer,” and are going on their second year of sponsoring GeekOut, Western North Carolina’s very own con (also known as a convention, if you’re not immersed in geek culture) dedicated to comic art, animation, films, characters, and culture.

The Asheville geek community continues to strengthen with the help of the Johnsons and other dedicated community members and businesses, and so does their exposure to the average Joe—especially with the high visibility of ZaPow’s big-windowed downtown store front and the accessibility of the art that decorates the walls.

ZaPow Art Gallery in Asheville
Blowfish Dreams (left) by Artist Erica Taguchi-Newton, and Bad Ass Yoda (right) by Artist Lino Azevedo

“We’ve grown to over 80 [artists],” Lauren says, with many more clamoring to be accepted every day. Just a cursory glance will tell you why it has become a community staple, and how it appeals to a wide audience. The art is truly friendly, fun, and very playful. “For me, illustration is an image that tells a picture or story or is character driven,” Lauren explains. “It has some narrative element.” The character-driven nature of the work makes it instantly relatable to adults and children alike, making the collectors for illustration a rapidly growing part of this quirky community.

“We’re building a community here, not just a retail showcase.” – Lauren Johnson, artist and co-owner of ZaPow!

The ZaPow! Artists Guild: Broadening the Scope
As the ZaPow! community grows, so does the need for resources, education, information, and cohesion. And just when you might have thought that they couldn’t possibly add one more thing to their ridiculously busy schedules, (I mean, come on—they are open seven days a week on top of everything else), Lauren talks about their plans to form a nonprofit: the ZaPow! Artists Guild.

Lauren describes a conversation she had with a friend she knew in grad school, who is a former nonprofit director and current CEO for a grant writing company. “She looked at the things we’re doing, and said ‘Lauren, these things you’re doing, if you had a nonprofit, you could write grants and get money to fund all of those things,’ and I was like, oh, OK!”

Being a nonprofit would enable them to write grants to help support their artists. Lauren describes expanding on the things they already do: mailings on behalf of their artists, speakers and workshops on developing professional skills for artists, and informing artists about all of the various opportunities to showcase their work. But that’s not all.

“We actually have a program where if any of our artists have ideas of ways to advance the gallery, we give them monetary credit towards their wall space to encourage them,” Lauren says, so there are already natural ways to incorporate a nonprofit division that would support their mission. But you can tell that she has more than just a few things up her sleeve.

“We have a lot of very exciting nights on the horizon,” she says mysteriously. With all of the things they already do, one can only imagine what these exciting things will be. I guess we will all just have to wait and see.