Second Nature

From her studio in the Marine Villa neighborhood, acclaimed artist Lauren Marx draws inspiration from the native flora and fauna of North America.

Culture

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

There’s a story about Lauren Marx that shows just how early her artistic proclivities became apparent to those around her — and before she was old enough to even be aware of them herself. Sometime during her toddler years, between the ages of two and four, she and her sister were making chalk drawings on the sidewalk outside of their Holly Hills home. Marx’s picture was of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the sort of drawing you’d see from any typical, dinosaur-obsessed little one. However, according to one passerby, there was nothing typical about Marx’s style. 

“There was a guy walking his dog, and he stopped to look at them,” Marx recalls. “He started talking to my mom and told her, ‘Your kid is going to be an artist.’ He pointed to the legs and showed her that I drew them in a way like they were walking with one going forward and the other going backward. He told her that most kids don’t do that — that I was doing something different than other kids do, and that I was going to do something different with drawing.”

Now, three decades later, those words have proven to be prophetic. Not only is Marx a successful artist with her own studio in the Marine Villa neighborhood of St. Louis, she’s made a career out of doing things differently than others — both in the substance of her work and her unconventional approach to her career. Known worldwide for her works that center around the native flora and fauna of North America, Marx’s ink, pen, and watercolor pieces explore the beauty that can be found in the decay of the natural world. 

Glimpses of some of Lauren Marx's art in her studio in the Marine Villa neighborhood of St. Louis.

Marx’s 2019 painting, Moonseed, exemplifies this artistic vision. Giving it just a casual glance, the viewer sees a soft, illustration-style portrait of what looks like a fox nestled in a bed of indigo-hued grapes and autumn leaves surrounded by butterflies, some resting near the animal’s head and others appearing to be flying around it. It appears to be a serene scene of a woodland creature in repose, but a closer examination reveals something much more macabre. The animal is not one being but two — the body of a deer and the head of a fox. It’s slightly grotesque, somewhat unsettling yet oddly beautiful at the same time — a work that evokes a multitude of emotions and one you cannot turn away from, even as your mind creates a narrative for how these two animals ended up in such a state. 

“A lot of my art has been thought of as soft and pretty without being super feminine,” Marx says. “But a lot of it is anger based. Even though it is still pretty and subdued, some people might not like it because of that, but I think it is important to get those ideas out.”

Marx’s art resonates with people who are drawn to images that look soft at first glance, yet upon deeper viewing, reveal a darker picture that speaks to the life and death inherent in nature. Considering her personal history, it was natural for Marx to be inclined toward such subject matter. She describes her upbringing as fraught and defined by complicated family dynamics that left her feeling betrayed by humans. As such, she gravitated toward animals, soaking up episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Crocodile Hunter, visiting the Saint Louis Zoo to observe animals, and dreaming of one day becoming a zoologist.

Lauren Marx at work in her studio.

Still, her passion and proclivity for art was undeniable. Marx was always drawing throughout her childhood and recalls her classmates in elementary and middle school stealing her works — mostly centered around her favorite movie, The Lion King —  and trying to pass them off as their own. 

For all of the complex dynamics surrounding their relationships, her family was always accepting of her work, which she believes is due to its lineage of artists. Her grandfather, with whom she, her mother, and her sister lived, was an artist, collector, and print-maker who founded one of St. Louis’ most successful print-making companies; his father was a carriage painter who died of lead poisoning from licking the tips of his brushes. As such, her childhood home was filled with paintings, drawings, art books, movie posters, and lithographs, immersing her in an environment where art was an integral part of daily life. 

Marx’s teachers took notice of her talents when she was in high school, first at Gateway STEM High School in St. Louis, where she completed her freshman year, and eventually at Oakville High School, where she finished the remainder of high school. One of her teachers encouraged her to take newly offered AP art classes, which put her in a position to attend a portfolio day with area universities looking to recruit students to their programs. Marx’s work caught the attention of Webster University’s then art professor and department chair Tom Lang, who encouraged her to apply to the school’s art program. A scholarship sweetened the deal, and the next thing she knew, Marx was an art student at Webster University less out of a passion for the field and more out of a feeling of inevitability.

“I never planned on doing art,” Marx admits. “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t necessarily want to be an artist. At the time, I still wanted to get a biology degree and to go into zoology, but I was scared to do that because I never learned how to use basic equipment in science. A lot of people know they want to be an artist, but I just ended up being one.”

Marx would find her niche, not in school, but on her own, while looking through art magazines and noticing a couple of different artists doing a style of work that spoke to her. Their work centered around dark animal art, and they were being taken seriously with gallery shows. The summer between her freshman and sophomore years at Webster University, Marx made four different pieces in that style, launched a website and Instagram account set up by a friend, and never thought much more of it until she began receiving messages from strangers telling her that her works had been published by Deviant Art, one of the largest online art galleries around — something that surprised her because of her self-taught stye.

“One of the things I do that makes my style come off as a bit more unique is how I use materials,” Marx says. “A lot of people learned how to use them properly, but I didn’t. I was never taught things like watercolor, so I had to teach myself.”

Before Marx knew it, she gained hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, was contacted by galleries, and was getting traction for her work beyond her wildest imagination. This led to a book deal with Dark Horse books, a major publishing company, which not only wanted to produce a book of her work, but also offered her a book tour, booths at major conventions, and a massive release party at the City Museum.

Lauren Marx works at her desk in her studio.

The 2020 global health crisis leveled those plans, unfortunately, forcing Dark Horse to cancel everything except for the book’s publication — which was delayed by a year. It was a dark time for Marx, one that, in order to cope with the uncertainty, made her shift her style in a different direction toward what she describes as “less serious art” centered around unicorns and less dark subjects. Marx is now at a point where she is trying to balance that period with some of the darker themes that had previously defined her work. 

Although the rollout for her book, Sacred Decay: The Art of Lauren Marx, didn’t go as originally planned, it has been embraced by fans far and wide. A sampling of recent reviews from fans on GoodReads.com includes: “I could look at these prints all day and feel this unnerving ethereal glow from the world Marx has created,” and “Stunningly beautiful and macabre.”

Despite the acclaim, Marx remains modest about her success. Her half-million-plus Instagram following shows that people are made to feel something by her paintings, but she still is not quite sure why. And Marx is careful to not influence someone’s response by revealing her motivations behind any given piece. She’s been told this is a cop-out, but for her, there’s something beautiful, or even affirming, about someone finding peace in something she created that was born out of personal pain. 

Lauren Marx poses with one of her pieces in her studio in the Marina Villa neighborhood of St. Louis.

“A lot of people have really nice reactions to my work, and that makes me feel better,” Marx says. “I did a whole series on my immediate family — my mom, dad, sister, myself, my stepmom. Everything was meticulously thought out. I remember people looking at my sister’s portrait of a fawn with three heads called ‘The First,’ [and] a lot of people were like, ‘This reminds me of my dog.’ That is wonderful. That is really nice. It was built from a place of extreme hurt for me, and here were all these people saying nice things about it. That’s why I really like not telling people what it was about.”

Marx has done a great deal of personal work to get to the point where she can work through anger and pain in her artwork without letting it define her. In this sense, her work can be seen as a vehicle for processing fraught, complicated feelings and experiences. Even if, like her art, they are not obvious on the surface immediately, they are there nonetheless, speaking to the universal truths about the human condition that people can feel deeply. 

“It’s been a common theme in my life and career to take down positions of authority,” Marx says. “The huge commonality between my childhood, career, and personal relationships is this strong urge to speak my mind, even if that could backfire. I am OK with people being uncomfortable with truths, because if they are uncomfortable, it’s because they know someone who has gone through it, or they have gone through it themselves.”

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