Lauren Manning lay naked and silent on a makeshift medical table, surrounded by an audience of classmates.
One by one, audience members took dishes of paint, used their fingers to spread the colors over Manning’s bare skin and joined her in meditation to a mix of ambient noise and a highly manipulated version of Daft Punk’s “Touch.”
“The piece creates a zen-like experience around human contact,” the art and design senior said of her performance project. “Something that is typically hot and heavy or related to desire or possession, as I present my body calmly as an offering of friendship and peace to an audience of acquaintances and strangers.”
Assistant professor Diana Puntar taught Intermedia / Art (ART 353) last year when Manning performed the piece, which Puntar said stood out from other students’ work.
“Not too many students jump into that, and Lauren did,” she said. “It was surprising when somebody did a piece like that here. It made me feel like she was going to take on some difficult projects and put her best into them.”
And Manning has.
Her work has been featured in the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, Art After Dark and the 35th volume of Creative Quarterly magazine. She plans to graduate this spring and move to Brooklyn next year to begin her painting career.
Manning and her mentors believe she has the chops to make it in the art world — but her story didn’t start so optimistically.
“I don’t like to say that divorce changed my life.”
But in hindsight, it did: Manning’s parents split up when she was five years old. She and her brother grew up with their mom in Marin County, where they lived busy childhoods.
“All of a sudden, my mom was involving me in everything ever,” Manning said. Gymnastics, theater, dance and art lessons were just a few activities she tried — art stuck.
Manning visited her father monthly, where she would hole up in her room and draw while her brother and dad spent time together downstairs. During this time, Manning’s drawing grew into a passion, and she settled on her first dream of an art career — as a tattoo artist.
Enter high school. Manning’s older brother started college, leaving Manning as the only kid at home. She could no longer hide out alone with her sketch pad at her dad’s, so she spent more quality time with her father. Meanwhile, she found herself avoiding mother-daughter time.
“So this huge shift happened,” Manning said of her parental relationships, “and it made high school horrible.”
But it also inspired her work.
Manning’s art in high school revolved around the divorce and her family relationships.
“There were a lot of people around me who were broken,” she said. “Very full of love, but they didn’t know how to channel it in a healthy way. So there were a lot of emotions, and I just got really, really, really into painting — the kind where I could sit there in quiet and focus on one thing. I remember the first time I ever sat and painted for six hours straight without even noticing.”
A trip to Europe before Manning’s junior year helped narrow her focus. Experiencing classic art inspired her to veer from tattoo artistry and instead pursue fine art.
But Manning wasn’t just your average, flighty high school girl who thought it would be fun to draw pictures for a living — she wanted serious independence, and art was going to help her get it.
Manning felt her parents’ tension over paying for her brother’s education and decided she wanted no part in that for herself. She resolved to pay for her own college education, burying herself under five simultaneous jobs in high school.
One of her positions stood out: She worked as a studio tech for a local artist who designed informational panels for museums and visitors’ centers.
“I started seeing the business side of the art world while I was also seeing art in the world that I liked,” Manning said. “It was the perfect storm.”
She enrolled in her high school’s art program and began building a portfolio at rapid speed. By graduation, she was selling art — specifically family portraits and book cover illustrations — to two regular clients.
And her insane workload ultimately paid off: She was able to put herself through Cal Poly’s art and design program.
“It’s been a weird, slow growth over the course of college,” Manning said. “I was really prideful and angry when I got here, really torn up about everything that happened with my family and just wanting to find a community where I didn’t have to defend every decision I was making.”
But now: “School is my constant, quarter-to-quarter, that helps me to manage these emotions and track the growth and not feel like I’m spinning out of control.”
Over the past three years, Manning has enjoyed multiple art platforms — plaster sculpture, metal sculpture, video art and drawing — but her primary focus is paint.
“If I’m trying to make a statement and make something bigger for someone else, I can just communicate more reality with painting,” she said. “Painting is more of a physical experience, spreading something all over this big surface.”
Having found her niche, Manning is more certain than ever of her chosen career. But it wasn’t always that way.
“Sometimes you have your mind set on something, but there’s a part of your subconscious that’s telling you you can’t do it or that you need a backup plan,” she said.
This was Manning’s mindset up until last April, when she won a scholarship, placed in several shows, received a string of good critiques from mentors and learned her work was to be published in a magazine.
That’s when it hit her.
“I had a moment where I realized,” she said, “one: I can do this. I can be successful in art, but it’s going to take 1,000 percent of myself and I can’t have a backup plan. I just have to charge full forward.
“And two: It’s going to be an uphill battle every day. There’s not going to be a point at which I can break through some ceiling, achieve success and then just skate on that for the rest of my career. No, every day I’m getting up, I’m going to the studio, I’m going to be there for eight hours, even if I don’t want to. I’m going to be charging against a wall of water constantly. And I can’t expect it will ever get easier. This is my life now.”
Manning’s first step after her epiphany was to welcome any and all harsh criticism of her work. For this, she approached art and design associate professor Daniel Dove.
“I told him, ‘Don’t sugar coat anything,’” Manning said. “‘Treat me like I’m about to enter the art world and have my ass handed to me.’”
But Dove said explicit permission wasn’t necessary. Even when Manning was a freshman, Dove could tell she thrived off criticism.
“She wasn’t interested in self-protection like a lot of younger students are, so she was noteworthy in that way,” Dove said. “When I go and look at her work, I don’t have that in my mind. I speak to her honestly because it’s very obvious she’s tough and independent and she can handle it.”
Dove said Manning’s willingness to accept unconventionally challenging terms for her life will propel her artistic career.
“She seems like somebody who could be a lifelong artist,” he said.
“In terms of subject matter, it’s always been friends and family,” Manning said.
She paints to express feminist ideals, sexuality, human issues and psychological problems — but it always comes back to her interpersonal relationships, usually the turbulent ones.
Manning’s current paintings interpret photographs of her friends and family while keeping in mind how those people have individually influenced her life.
“It’s really helpful right now in coming to peace with people, just getting to stare at their faces for a few hours a day,” she said.
She gestured to the largest painting in her studio cubicle: a detailed, realistic figure of a naked woman suspended against a background of abstract faces.
She explained: Her current art focuses on the idea that people define themselves based on intangible internal structures, such as thoughts and emotions — things no one else can see.
“When you try to show someone else who you are,” Manning said, “it’s like going through several layers of translation.”
In other words, no one can fully understand you the way you understand yourself.
“I refer to other people as cardboard cutouts,” she said. “It’s like you see them and you understand that they exist, but not in the full 360-degree realm that you understand yourself.”
Back to the painting in question: The realistic figure represented Manning’s self, while the faces in the background — the “cardboard cutouts” — stood for the friends and family who cannot see her clearly.
Manning pointed to one particular face, wide-mouthed and frightening.
“I’m a little nervous about this because all my work right now is about how my family has influenced me,” she said. “And I’m painting this portrait of my mom that looks like she’s crazy and deranged, so it’ll be interesting to show these to her without opening up some other can of worms.”
Manning plans to continue a series of paintings following the self-versus-others theme for the rest of the school year.
While her work’s brutal honesty makes her anxious, she feels no deterrence from the challenge of baring it all.