Lauren Lee, Magical Muralism
Writer Katherine Braden
When Lauren Lee enrolled at Arizona State University in 2003, the goal was to major in women’s studies — but she found it difficult to acclimate to the college environment. So when her mom suggested she take art classes to make the experience more enjoyable, Lauren agreed and took as many art classes as she could. So many, in fact, that when she looked at her transcript her senior year, she had enough credits to graduate with a degree in fine art.
“Everyone said, ‘You’ll never get a job with an art degree,’” Lauren says. But she proved them wrong. The New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe hired her before she graduated. She taught basic drawing and art, as well as creating some classes herself, such as digital mixed media.
“Before I started teaching, I had probably only done two paintings,” Lauren says. She drew a lot and used Photoshop, but was intimidated by painting. “At ASU, unless you’re a painting major, you can’t take painting classes. I decided to just pick up a brush and learn.”
She went to the school’s painting teacher, who gave her a box of used oil paints. Two years later, her entire house was filled with her oil paintings. Too many, actually.
“I asked the owner of the Fair Trade Cafe if it would be possible for me to have a show,” Lauren says. “She said ‘Absolutely, but no one has ever sold any paintings here.’”
Lauren sold every single piece.
“That’s when I knew I could probably do that as a career,” she tells me. It was 2010.
Lauren happened upon mural painting almost accidentally. When GreenHaus had a design contest for a mural on the side of their building, she decided to apply.
“Murals are basically three 7-foot paintings, and I can do that,” she thought to herself. When her design won, reality hit. She called someone who did murals and they advised using acrylic paint.
“Now I’m going to have to figure out how to paint with acrylic,” she remembers thinking. She practiced, researched and did her homework. Then she went out and painted her famous “Three Birds” mural.
“People really responded to the mural, and I was hooked,” she says. “From then on, it was about pursuing public art projects, murals and things that would reach the larger community.”
You’ve probably seen her murals. They’re scattered all over Phoenix, on the side of apartment buildings and cafes, in libraries and dog parks. And they’re difficult to miss. Not only are they colorful, imaginative and bold, but they’re also quite large. “Don’t Wake the Dreamer,” the biggest one so far, is about 16 feet tall and 153 feet wide.
“I’m about to start on the Mount Everest of art projects,” she says, referencing her next project: murals on three four-story skyscrapers in Scottsdale. “It’s going to be a lot, but I’m excited.”
What does her mural process look like?
“First I go on-site, get a feel for the neighborhood, take photos, go home and sit in meditation,” Lauren says. “I wait for a vision to come.” She’ll see the finished project in her mind, then design it in Photoshop or draw it by hand. She then presents this design to a finalist panel.
If she wins the mural commission, she begins the process of preparation, packing up her truck with paints and brushes. If necessary, she’ll rent a boom lift. Unlike most mural artists who use spray paint, Lauren paints most of her murals by hand. It’s a laborious process.
“You have to just go step by step,” Lauren says. “If there are a hundred flowers, you have to tell yourself, ‘Today, I’m doing these three flowers.’ I don’t allow myself to get overwhelmed. It doesn’t get done in a day. You have to take your time and keep moving forward.”
Lauren typically paints five hours a day because her work is so physical. She’ll work two weeks straight doing a large mural and then take two weeks of downtime working on smaller pieces. Murals take her anywhere from four days to seven weeks, and she does about five a year.
Though the work is physical and taxing, Lauren finds it freeing and rewarding.
“It gives me a lot of joy to know I bring art into people’s everyday world,” she says. “If I have just some paint, a brush and a boom lift, I can make this 40-foot painting. It’s a pretty incredible gift that I take seriously.”
Lauren realizes the responsibility public art grants her.
“[I’m driven] by knowing that if I slack off here, cut corners there, this is permanent,” she says. “Five years from now, the choices I make today are still going to be there on that wall. A lot of kids never go into an art gallery or museum. Mine might be the first art they ever see. That’s a lot of responsibility, and it fuels my desire to do well.”
Lauren’s paintings are often bold and colorful, but she achieves a balance of quiet intimacy in them, as well.
“My paintings are a glimpse into my inner world,” she says. “It’s my way of sharing and giving hope to people — that we are beautiful and that life can be beautiful, magical and transcendent.”
Part of that magic includes bringing nature back into public, man-made spaces: “I want to reflect back on our natural world. People are so removed. We feel so much peace and joy in nature and yet we have done everything to remove ourselves from it. There’s a big urban disconnect, and art humanizes the urban element. It makes people feel like they have a friend there, that they’re not alone.”
Is there something she wants the people of Phoenix to know about her?
“I may not know them, but I believe in them,” she says. “I believe in their human potential. And they’re all artists. Every choice you make, the words you say, the clothes you wear, how you do your hair — you’re an artist, you’re creating. Life is an artistic experience.”
Aren’t we lucky, Phoenix, to be surrounded by murals that remind us of that truth?