When fans tell St. Louis artist Lauren Marx they love her work, which often happens these days, her answer is always “Why?”

In fact, when asked to describe himself, the first word that comes out of his mouth is “encumbered”. She explains that she means this in both the physical and mental context. “Can hot-mess be cut?” she jokes.

Marx had never thought of herself as an “artist-artist”, and she’s not sure what to make of her burgeoning profile among admirers in the art world and beyond. She’s amassed 560,000 followers on Instagram and made around 15,000 sales through her Etsy shop, which includes original artwork as well as prints, stickers, T-shirts and other items adorned with her artwork. By Marx’s count, there are now hundreds of people who have his work tattooed on them – one man had one of his pieces inked on his head, which she finds a little strange.

Her most recent success was the release of her new book on May 4 Sacred Decay: The Art of Lauren Marx. Four years in the making, it sold out only on pre-orders and was quickly scheduled for an additional print run.

Marx specializes in a mix of pen and ink and watercolor paintings that draw inspiration from the natural world. His paintings oscillate between gore and the artistic representation of the cycle of life, almost always including animals inspired by scientific illustrations and Renaissance art.

Seven years after graduating from Webster University, the nearly 30-year-old (who recounts RFT “death strikes overnight” as she recently discovered gray hair) just hopes she’s made her town proud.

On his second Zoom call — the first was for a meeting with his therapist — Marx chatted with the RFT about all things art, the artist’s path to success and his endless love for the Lou. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let’s go. How did you experience your childhood as an artist?

It was, uh, it was pretty good. There are many artists in my family. So no one really asked the question. Looking back, I felt like someone should have worried that if I wasn’t good at it, there should have been a backup, but no one cared. It was just normal enough. Everyone in my family was doing something artistic. But I was the only, like, mainstream artist – everyone was music and things like that.

I see you went to school in St. Louis. What was your university experience like?

Oh, yeah, so I went to Webster University. I graduated in 2014. There were a handful of cool teachers who weren’t full time. That’s when I developed panic attacks and jerks and all kinds of things. And I haven’t really made many friends. So it was really a very difficult period. But I let that be able to handle just about any criticism at this point. Many people told me that I was going to fail as an artist because of the style of my work and that they wanted to break me. And yes, it was quite hard. And I had a few people gang up on me about a year after I graduated to try to get my degree revoked.

Why would someone want to take away your degree? Why would anyone care then?

It was based on the thesis. When you earn an art degree from Webster, you must write a thesis and sign it by two full-time professors. And there was just a fluke, where I couldn’t get both professors signed full-time and it had to be. So, I spoke to the thesis professors and it was totally fine for me to have two adjunct professors signing on. And it didn’t go well. But it got to the point where the head of the department emailed me and said, “I signed your thesis, you graduated,” and he said, “I’m sorry. this happens to you.

There was a handful of incredibly wonderful and supportive and super nice people who were 100% supportive of me. And they were great. They kind of kept me somewhat sane the whole time. So yes, that’s kind of why I didn’t go to graduate school. One of my teachers said – he was so nice – that he was trying to keep me encouraged. And he’s like, “I don’t think you should go to college. I don’t think you can handle it mentally.” Like, you’re right. I absolutely cannot.

Has this experience deterred you from pursuing a career in art?

It was a bit out of spite at the time, after being told that even before my career took off, it was going to fail. And yeah, I don’t know how I got there, but when I graduated I already knew I was going to be doing art full time. So I didn’t have a job or anything after that. And it worked; it worked very well. And there are still a handful who are very happy for me.

If you could share one thing with young artists right now, what would it be?

Oh, I would say just do what makes you happy. Don’t let people talk you into doing something you don’t like. And that’s usually what ends up stopping people from continuing after school or high school or whatever: it’s not fun anymore.

And embrace social media. Social media is more important than galleries, in my opinion, so people really need to take that and run with social media.

And yes, do what you want.

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Even as her work takes off, Lauren Marx plans to stay in St. Louis.

Has the concept of being an artist changed since you ended your career? Or is it different from what you thought it would be in school, having social media as a new kind of tool?

Yeah, absolutely. Your older teachers, some of them understand, but most don’t really understand that social media has kind of changed everything. So when you leave art school, the idea in your head is that you’re only successful with these exhibitions and these galleries and that’s what you should be doing.

I still struggle with that, where most of my career is on social media these days, and I feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to. The art world kind of started to implode on itself because of that, because nobody saw it coming. It changed so quickly. I would say that over the last four years maybe, everything has really shifted to social media, and other artists have started to go back to the traditional ways of making a career in art.