In this young artist’s case, creativity is key to a beautiful life, even after tragedy

Lauren Buntenbah, the youngest artist to have work on display at the upscale Dutch Art Gallery in Lake Highlands, flashes a magnetic smile and offers a hearty handshake upon introductions. She is standing among the sculptures, itching to talk art. As she speaks, her fantastic imagination fills the surrounding air. When she draws, it spills onto her notebooks.

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Lauren Buntenbah works in her studio/room where she produces. Photo by Kim Ritzenthaler Leeson

Her productivity, charisma and animated monologues about, among other things, the brilliance of Spongebob Squarepants, make it difficult to believe that her life, of late, has been incredibly sad.

In January 2012 Lauren’s brother Riley Rawlins was struck and killed by an unlicensed driver. The tragic news came during Lauren’s 8th birthday party. Riley and Lauren’s mom, Monica Rawlins, took the call. “They told me he had been in a horrible accident and was at the hospital,” she says.

Then she began screaming.

“I know I scared all of those little girls,” Rawlins recalls, “but I was not in my right mind. The news was just too shocking.” The family fled from the birthday party to Baylor hospital, where, a few hours later, doctors pronounced the 17-year-old Lake Highlands High School junior dead.

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Riley Rawlins with sister Lauren

The case of Riley Rawlins’ death is infamous around Lake Highlands.

Those who witnessed the accident told police the speeding beige ’95 Lincoln struck Riley as he stepped into Royal Lane near Audelia. He hit the windshield, rolled over the top of the car and was dragged behind the vehicle for some 400 feet.

Driver Soraya Villanueva, 18, told officers at the scene that she was en route to work and was trying to “beat the yellow light.” She was traveling in the middle lane but swerved into the right lane to avoid a vehicle that already was stopped for the light. She estimated she was driving about 70 miles per hour when she hit Riley. That is double the speed limit there. She possessed no driver’s license, no insurance. She told police, according to their report, that getting a driver’s license was “too expensive.” Officers at the scene did not arrest Villanueva, and have not responded to our inquiries regarding the incident.

Riley’s family, friends and the community at large grew increasingly frustrated as weeks passed with no arrest. Almost 1,000 people signed a petition urging the prosecution of Villanueva. TV stations broadcast stories. Finally, in February 2012, police arrested Villanueva and charged her with criminally negligent homicide.

At the time of publication, Villanueva is out on $125,000 bond, has hired a defense attorney and is awaiting another hearing, and she and her attorney have not responded to a request for an interview.

Most of Riley’s friends and family members are angry and hurting, and until the person responsible for this pointless death is punished, Monica says, they cannot heal.

Lauren, however, seems unburdened by resentment.

As a kindergartener, Lauren began earning recognition for her entries to student art contests. A portrait of her family advanced to the state level of a national competition. This past year she struggled with an assigned theme, she says. “It was supposed to be ‘This Magic Moment,’ and I had no idea what to draw.”

But when she attended the State Fair with her grandmother, Sallie Buntenbah, she paused at the foot of Big Tex, awestruck.

“My grandma said, ‘This is your magic moment,’ and then I knew that, yep, this was my drawing.”

Lauren worked tirelessly three straight days illustrating a meticulously detailed fair scene that, on the day we meet, stops gallery browsers in their tracks.

Her art teacher at Lake Highlands Elementary, Christen Zajac, was was ecstatic about the piece. With its intensely intricate scene, it looked like something you would see in a book like “Where’s Waldo,” Zajac told Lauren.

Lauren spends several minutes describing the components of the drawing:

“There’s Victoria Justice — the grand marshal at the parade, and here is the parade behind her. And, oh, here is her security. There are Boy Scouts, and the Fletcher’s stand. You can’t have the state fair without Fletcher’s. Mrs. Zajac says that … there is a family having a picnic .. . And here’s Big Tex,” she concludes. “He burned down just a few days after.”

Lauren adored her brother, says her grandmother, with whom Lauren spends most of her days. They found immediate help for her following the accident, enrolling her in a North Dallas-based program called GriefWorks, a counseling service for children ages 5-18 who have lost a loved one. There Lauren processed her feelings through creativity. Therapeutic art — among other exercises such as drama, reading and simple sharing — has lifted Lauren’s spirit and propelled her through emotional pain and confusion, Sallie Buntenbah believes. “Everyone who goes through something like this needs to know about GriefWorks.” Even as unrest and sadness surround her, Lauren finds joy in reading, writing and letting her imagination run wild. She penned and illustrated a book set in Hawaii about mermaids … and about a big brother who saves his sister from evil, she says. “At the end they turn into mermaids and swim away together.”

She has a knack for comics too.

“I get my funniness from Spongebob,” she says. Indeed, much of her artistic inspiration derives from the boy sponge and his sea-dwelling cohorts, Lauren says, as well as from playfully complex graphic artist Mary Engelbreit.

Now 9 and entering the fourth grade, Lauren already has formed well-thought-out opinions on art. She is unapologetically vocal, as we peruse the gallery, about what she likes (exhaustive realism) and what she doesn’t (abstract oil paintings).

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Dutch Art Gallery owner Pam Massar says one of Lauren’s pieces sold for $10 to a collector, a gallery regular. The buyer also gave Lauren’s grandmother $100 for supplies, which they put to immediate use.

Massar occasionally likes to showcase very young artists, she says, and has been successful doing so. She notes that Sharon Hodges, a popular painter, sold her first piece at Dutch Art Gallery when she was 12. Sallie and Lauren are fixtures and have been visiting the gallery together for years, Massar says.

When asked about her future as an artist, Lauren is clear that she intends to explore her options — she is obsessed with styling furniture (“rearranging,” Grandma calls it), meteorology (she is especially fond of WFAA’s Pete Delkus), and Egyptology (we are not sure why, Sallie says, but she is transfixed with Egypt). She is not fond of dogs, but wants a cat and has an interest in designing cat furniture, should the opportunity arise.

Though the older members of Lauren’s family painstakingly are fighting for justice and grappling with grief, there appears to be no shortage of love — from her mom, dad Chris Buntenbah, grandmother, big sister Gillian Rawlins, baby brother Lucas Buntenbah, who was born just weeks after Riley died, and her teachers, especially her art teacher. Lauren misses her brother “so much,” but she almost seems to know something we do not.

At the end of  a lengthy conversation, one might surmise the following: Somewhere in that vast imagination of hers, Lauren Buntenbah can conceive of an existence in which happiness does not depend on the behavior of others or the rulings of the criminal justice system. A world where death does not necessarily mean the end of a relationship. Where it just might be possible to turn into a mermaid and swim away with your big brother.