“I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but I knew that I wanted to be in nature and out of the craziness of London and just explore and have an adventure.” We’re sat in the basement of the Hang Up Gallery in Stoke Newington chatting with the artist Lauren Baker over cups of Earl Grey tea, amid the buzz of her neon creations and work that adorns the walls beneath Stoke Newington High Street. Chatting with the multi-disciplinary artist amongst the glow of the neon is like chatting to an old friend. There’s a certain energetic warmth that emanates from the diminutive artist, as she converses passionately about her work. Lauren tells us about her previous job in marketing in the charity sector and how she quickly became disheartened with it. “I thought I’d feel like I was helping people,” she tells us in her softly spoken Middlesbrough accent. Despite being in the charity sector, it was still target and business driven. “It’s actually quite a corporate environment.”
After devouring the book ‘The Power Of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle and fed up of the endless distraction of cocktails and parties of the London scene and yearning for something more fulfilling, Lauren decided to quit her corporate job, pack her bags and booked a plane ticket to South America. It was on the bustling streets of Brazil that Baker had her first encounter with mosaics, something that would later become a craft that she honed and turned into a living. She stumbled upon a street art project by the name of ‘Wall To Wall Love’- a collaboration between graffiti and mosaics. “The leader of the project thought that everyone’s really screwed up in the world because they don’t have enough creativity in their lives.”
But it wasn’t until a few months later, towards the end of her trip that Lauren realised she needed to pursue art as a career. In between sips of tea she tells us about her experiences in the Peruvian jungle where she encountered some Shaman’s who introduced to meditation. Soon after this experience she realised she had to become an artist. Within eight months of this jungle encounter, Lauren had work exhibited in the Tate Modern. Now she boasts solo exhibitions, exhibits in sunny Los Angeles, and has created beautiful window displays for up-market department stores such Harrods and Selfridges. Her first collection, and perhaps the one that propelled Lauren into the artistic spotlight and the one that she remains well known for, centred around skulls.
“At the time, I was processing a death in the family,” Lauren gently explains. “[It was] from a long time ago but I was still thinking about it. I was trying to be friends with death and understand it and be at one with it.” The subject of death is one that in our society of the so-called ‘British stiff upper lip’ we usually shirk away from talking about- avoiding it, and not really wanting to acknowledge it’s existence. “It’s the unknown so it’s gonna be scary but I just wanted to open that realm up and become more at ease with it.”
The skull collection led to Vogue decorating Baker with the accolade of ‘Queen Of Skulls’ (“I still get asked to make them now”). But rather that allow herself to be artistically pigeonholed, Baker chose her own path. “Early on in my career,” she continues, “a few influential people said to me “just do one thing and just repeat it, repeat it, repeat it”. I was like “nah! Fuck that!” I’d rather just explore using different materials and techniques and styles and just be really free and enjoy the process.” This desire to be free in her creation of expression and art led Lauren to a new medium- neon. “I’ve got to feel strongly about it to put it in neon,” she nods. “I definitely get a buzz when I turn the neon on….It’s like you get a kick out of it when it’s glowing.” The neon designs are statements and often a reflection on whatever Lauren is experiencing at that time.
One of her most recent exhibitions, and the one that we’re surrounded by as we chat, is ‘Light Visions’, a mixed media exhibition that, upon looking, seems to revolve heavily around the moon. Lauren tells us that during one of her trips to Guatemala she undertook a course- aptly named ‘The Moon Course’- an intense sounding month of studying “metaphysics and everything that’s not physical in the world”. Lauren was waking up at 6am each day to a “mad programme” full of yoga, meditation and study for four weeks. The final five days of the course are for silence and fasting. “It was on the final day of my silence and fasting [that] I dreamed up this piece,” Lauren points across the gallery to white, triangular neon piece. “It’s called ‘Secrets Of The Universe’.” The neon words read ‘Energy, Frequency, Vibrations’ and are set on a mirror-like surface giving the words the illusion that they go on forever. A bit like when you stand in a lift with mirrors and you see your own reflection repeated endlessly.
But the artist has also put her abilities and prowess to use for the greater good. One of her neon creations was a slightly tongue-in- cheek piece called ‘All Living Beings’ that reads ‘Be Kind To Animals Or I’ll Kill You’. We turn our attention to Lauren’s involvement with the Save The Tigers charity. She’s been an ambassador for them for more than three years now. Is it something she’s always had a passion for? Lauren nods, assuredly. “From a young age my family would take us on sponsored walks for WWF…I wanted to contribute as much as I could so we came up with this idea to create a crystal tiger head.” The tiger’s head in question took three months to carefully construct. The head sculpted from scratch and each crystal individually applied. She’s made a few pieces for the charity now, with her last piece selling for £30,000 raising vital money for conservation work for these beautiful creatures. According to the WWF, there are around 3,890 tigers left in the wild, classifying them as an endangered species.
Would she say that was one of her favourite projects? “Well, probably the craziest project was when I did a crystal grand piano,” she recalls. The piano in question was a Steiner Grand Piano that was covered in half a million crystals. How long does it take to cover a grand piano in such a vast quantity of tiny crystals? “Hmmmmm,” she pauses, knowingly. “Eight hours a day for three months, every single day, but I had 23 staff. It’s also quite mathematical [having to work] out the surface area of a shape. There’s 10 different sizes of crystal….it had to be so perfect. It was a challenging project.”
A project that Lauren more fondly recalls was a reinterpretation that she made for Tate Britain. The Tate invited her to explore their artwork and then pick one piece to reimagine. The one she chose was John Everett Millais’ ‘Ophelia’- a beautifully sad painting from the 1800’s in which Millais depicts Shakespeare’s Ophelia clutching flowers, with her long, flowing, red hair drowned in a pond having been driven to the point of despair after her father kills her lover. “I did a deconstruction of the painting where I took over a whole room and created a whole forest with the world’s first infinity mirror coffin.” The mirror coffin was lit up with blue neon and in it placed a skeleton embellished in jewels to represent Ophelia with flowers bursting from her chest. 400 members of the public were invited down to this magnificent forest to interact with the installation, picking bones and flowers and creating charms and talismans. The forest itself had the smell of lavender and other forest smells throughout it, even the sound of the river could be heard. “It’s really exciting when you get free reign in a museum,” she grins.
Being a multidisciplinary artist, Baker’s love of using different textures and materials in her work is really apparent in everything she makes. One project she remembers affectionately was for the V&A who asked her to respond to the question “What Is Luxury?” for which Baker chose the theme of gold. She created a real human goddess- painting her model in gold and then placing her in a gold bath full of gold paint. There was a white tree that Lauren named ‘The Tree Of Possibility’. She explains: “I made this white tree and hung random objects off [it]. Everything from a fork to a spoon, an apple to a human skull, a watering can to a vase to a painting, but everything was white….then I invited people to interact with the goddess and take her an offering. She’d then snip it off the tree and give it to them so they could make art out of it.”
It certainly does sound like Lauren is living out her creative dream. For now, there’ll be more solo exhibitions to come and, as she has a gallery out in LA where she hand delivers some of her art to, more “travelling. It’s fun” as well as her continued support of charities that also include ‘Rise Again Nepal’ and ‘Band For Hope’. Taking that step to quit a job with a comfortable salary that affords you to live the cocktail style high-life may seem a very daunting decision to make. What advice would she have for anyone who is not quite sure whether they should take the leap and follow their dreams? “Go for it. It’s so much more fulfilling to be living the life that you truly want….The hardest thing is knowing what you want to do….take small steps towards reaching your goal…just be fearless”.
Words by Jennifer Wallis