Writer Shannon Severson
Photography by Scott Baxter

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 2016, Shaunté Lauren was new to Arizona and working at a car dealership when a chance meeting with a customer changed her career. As many of her paintings center around the idea that our first impression of others is only a precursor to finding common ground within, the story fits perfectly.

“He asked me if I’d ever been self-employed,” says Lauren. “At first, I thought he might be trying to recruit me to a multi-level marketing business, but I answered that my only business experience was painting murals for a school in California.”

After learning she was an artist, he asked to see Lauren’s work and was impressed when he flipped through the images stored on her phone. He showed her images of his own work, and as she scrolled through them on his phone, one in particular stopped her in her tracks. It was a painting of a woman on horseback. She recognized it immediately as one she and her husband, Scott, had fallen in love with at Xanadu Gallery in Scottsdale when they’d visited Arizona the previous year.

She could hardly believe she was meeting contemporary artist Michael Swearngin.

“I said to him, ‘That’s you?’” Lauren says. “He told me it was and gave me the name of the painting and his business card. Michael asked me if I could paint full time, would I choose it? My answer was that of course I would. This chance meeting, and his positive feedback, really gave me the push I needed to believe that art could be my career.”

Lauren grew up an only child in a family who noted her love of drawing, but didn’t have an artistic background of their own to help her develop her talent. She is entirely self-taught.

“My mom says I was started drawing tiny circles as soon as I could hold a pen,” says Lauren. “I’ve always drawn, but I didn’t have anyone to show me anything or help me pursue art. I didn’t try oils until 2014.”

Within a year after their meeting, Lauren quit her job at the dealership, called Swearngin to ask for advice on what direction she should take, and was showing alongside him at a Shemer Art Museum exhibition. Through Swearngin, she was unexpectedly introduced to Bill Faust, who now features her painting, “Three Moons In Arabia,” at his Faust Gallery in Scottsdale, with an exhibition planned for his Santa Fe gallery location this summer.

It has been a whirlwind, but great rewards have risen from the risks she took to pursue art.

“I’ve always wanted to pursue art full time and I wasn’t fulfilling my passion,” says Lauren. “I came to a realization that, if I didn’t make that jump, it wasn’t going to happen. I needed to fully focus on my art to see where it goes. I’ve never been happy unless I’m doing that. So many unexpected moments have worked together to propel me forward.”

Lauren’s passion for wildlife is also a motivator and inspiration for her work. Using animals in her paintings is an acknowledgement of their instincts and emotions. She grew up around animals in Hemet, California, where she was homeschooled and pursued independent study through high school. Her mother admired her drawings and encouraged her to pay close attention to the details of her subjects, as well as to deciding what elements were most essential to include.

Lauren paints animals in relationships to evoke emotions that the observer can relate to, often pairing creatures that wouldn’t normally meet—like the fox and owl intensely regarding each other in “October Rain,” or a raven and owl meeting in what appears to be a reflective lake in “Perception,” which can be displayed with either bird upright. The backgrounds of each bird intentionally do not mirror one another, but there are similarities.

Every painting begins with a story in her mind.

“I wanted to depict an unexpected relationship,” says Lauren. “They’re from two different worlds. In life, we meet people who can change our perspectives. Sometimes people come from similar backgrounds, but don’t realize that at first glance, or who come from very different backgrounds, but similar experiences connect them.

“We are quick to judge, but common ground can be found from a delving deeper into each other. These paintings have elicited very emotional reactions from viewers and that’s what I want to evoke. I’m hesitant to say too much about how I see each piece because I want people to have their own interpretations.”

Lauren enjoys challenging herself with color. She often uses only three colors in her animal portraits to push herself to work with highlights and shadow, as seen in “The March,” which depicts a wolf in black, white and tawny brown. Every strand of fur seems to catch the waning light as the animal’s intense golden stare draws viewers in.

“I use white, black and one other color to create an entire painting,” says Lauren. “I want to develop my skills and make a striking painting without using a large color palette.”

Horses are a particular love of Lauren’s and she has been impacted by their therapeutic nature, both in art and in person. She dreams of someday using art and animals to help each other by connecting horses in need with children in need, and incorporating her art to support and enhance the effort.

“I want to keep growing my art career, but use it to help children and animals at the same time,” says Lauren. “Even if kids aren’t raised around animals, they relate in a very special way. I believe working with horses can be healing for troubled children and they can connect in a way that’s different from just working with other humans. Mustangs, especially, have a special spark that can break through barriers.”

Her dream truly completes the circle of relationship and opportunity: the healing power of art and transformative relationships with animals will create life-changing moments for others, just as they did for Lauren.