As the lunchtime rush comes to a close at the bustling Russet Cafe in Hackney Downs, Lauren Baker enters dressed entirely in black and carrying a chihuahua.
“This is Dude, I got him 18 months ago,” she says. “I made loads of changes in my life around that time and he was one of them.”
Dude, however, is possibly the smallest change Baker has made recently: Following a vision which came to her while taking part in shamanistic rituals deep in the Peruvian jungle, she decided to end her PR career and become an artist.
Since then, Baker has exhibited alongside Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, created window displays for some of London’s most prestigious department stores and had her work featured across the pages of Italian Vogue. A workshop she conducted for youth art initiative Tate Collectives during the Hirst exhibition, attended by over 200 people, was one of the project’s most successful.
Baker’s canvases are skulls – real animal and resin cast human skulls. Largely concerned with notions of death, the works are intricately painted, embossed and tiled.
“Skulls remind me of mortality. Instead of ignoring death like many people tend to, I explore death and resonate with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in which people celebrate life and death,” Middlesbrough-born Baker explains in her soft northern accent.
Before the sudden career change, Baker had not practiced art since taking a GCSE in the subject. Now, at 30-years-old (although she looks about 24), aided by the promotional skills gained by working in marketing and events throughout her 20s, she has grabbed the attention of the art and fashion world in an incredibly short amount of time.
The transformation began just under two years ago when, disenchanted with her 9 to 5, Baker left for South America, “I felt the need to go all that way to get some new inspiration in my life,” she says.
Whilst visiting the island of Florianopolis, off the coast of Brazil, Baker was drawn to the mosaics which blanket the island. It didn’t take long to discover that they were the work of Lis Onda, a local artist. When they met, Baker says the pair formed an instant connection and she spent a number of weeks with the artist.
Finally leaving Onda and Florianopolis, Baker found herself in Peru where she traveled by truck, boat and foot into the depths of the Amazon rainforest. It was there, guided by shamans and surrounded by the intense humming of the jungle, that she realised art was her calling: “It was the clearest vision I have ever had.”
Once her travels came to a close and within a week of returning to England, Baker left for Venice to take a short course in mosaics. She then announced to all her friends and contacts that she was now an artist.
To create her first series of work, Baker collaborated with fashion designer Joanne Stoker. The result was a series of mosaic shoes that cross the boundary of art and fashion, an approach that has remained present in her practice.
Baker then began to forge her personal artistic identity through working with skulls, which she says was a natural move: “I have realised death is amazing because knowing that we’re not here forever means every moment is precious and special and that makes life great.”
After a successful group exhibition in Shoreditch house, Baker put her PR skills into overload to launch her first solo exhibition in May of last year: “Because my background is marketing and events, I’ll put on my own event and PR it myself and get it out there, so that’s what I did.” The exhibition sold well and served as the final step in the development of the Lauren Baker brand.
Since then, further commissions and exhibitions have flooded her way. As well as working with the Tate, highlights include exhibiting at the Southbank, creating window displays for Browns at Halloween and Harrods at Christmas, and even a piece for the latest George Michael music video.
Baker has recently finished a life size tiger head commissioned by charity Save Wild Tigers. Encrusted with over 35000 Swarovski crystals, it is her most ambitious piece to date. Soon she will be heading to Ibiza to design a room in a new boutique art hotel.
Baker’s studio is located down an alley near the Russet – both are part of Hackney Downs Studios. Set in a dimly lit arch with skulls hanging from the raw brick walls, and many more stacked on shelves, it is like the Catacombs have been decorated for a fashionable full moon party.
Through decoration, the skulls become cherished objects that challenge the idea that bones equate sorrow. They are genuinely beautiful objects. Her notion that: “The art is a homage to the living creature, I like to think of them as becoming god-like in the afterlife,” suddenly makes perfect sense.