Immortalized in the musical "Grease," the phrase "beauty-school dropout" carries an onus that Lauren Jackson of Mundelein simply remakes into something unexpected and beautiful. It's what she does.
She first discovered this ability when she was pregnant with her son in 2013. "I made a moose and a bear wall hooks for his room," Jackson says. People liked her creations, so she made more hooks with more toy animals. One of her most popular was a unicorn.
"I took a plastic toy horse, cut it in half, filled the head with resin and hardware, drilled a hole in its forehead to make room for a spiral seashell, primed it, painted it and added a clear coat of polyurethane," Jacksons says. "And I added glitter to the horns sometimes."
She opened her online Etsy shop on Black Friday of 2014, and sales took off. Now she has her own online store -- Monka! Goods at monkagoods.com -- offering wall hooks, magnets, drawer pulls, tree toppers, ornaments and other home décor items. The name is a play on how she'd often use the nickname "Monkey" for her son.
"There's a store in Alaska that has been buying my ornaments for three years. There's a shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that sells my magnets," Jackson says.
Born when her family was living in Buffalo Grove, Jackson lived in Des Moines, Iowa, and Westchester County, New York, before spending her high school years in Highland Park. But she didn't spend much of that time in high school. She says her mom, ceramics artist Eileen Braun, and her dad, Richard Braun, an MIT-educated chemist, tried to help her.
"I was just an angry teen," remembers Jackson, who rejected therapy, spent one year at an alternative high school and gave up on high school before also becoming a beauty-school dropout. She says her undiagnosed panic disorder kept her from doing well at school.
"I struggled until I was 21 and met my husband," says Jackson, now 37 and the mother of son Ben, 5, and daughter Sam, 2. She had worked at a cafe, a pet store and other jobs before meeting Scott Jackson while they were both working in an Evanston print shop. Their personalities and talents meshed, and Scott Jackson isn't surprised that his wife became an entrepreneur.
"I could tell. She's always been more creative than she gives herself credit for," he says. "She's also very organized."
As a full-time mom, treasurer for the Mundelein Cooperative Preschool where her son attends, and a candidate for Fremont Public Library trustee, Lauren Jackson does most of her work at night, after putting the kids to bed.
"I never considered myself creative until I started making this stuff," says Jackson, who now creates almost anything her customers can imagine. "Unicorns are really big. I did a flying pig unicorn once."
Facebook customers on her Monka! Fan Club page post photos of an octopus and skull ornaments hanging from trees. Jackson considers herself more of a "maker" than an "artist."
"My products are for people who don't take themselves too seriously," she says, explaining how she made "a goat tree-topper in sea foam green glitter" at one customer's request. "Last year, I made a tree-topper with a velociraptor head, unicorn horn and Pegasus wings, and it was in rainbow ombre glitter."
Her basement is lined with containers of acetone, glue, spray paints and milky white Mod Podge. Her husband's stuff is on the other side of the basement.
A former film student who grew up in Northfield, Scott Jackson programs and builds industrial robots for DevLinks Automation & Robotics in Arlington Heights. "I've always been something of a tinkerer," he says. "I've been doing programming and electronics since I was a little kid."
Last year, he built a 3-D printer in their basement that revolutionized his wife's business.
"It's printing a spider, a beetle, a scorpion and a snail," Lauren Jackson says, as she removes a panel to show how her 3-D printer heats a spool of bright orange filament while a robotic arm moves around the 12-inch-by-12-inch surface, dropping the plastic to build her creations.
"I use tools 'incorrectly' and sometimes 'dangerously' to achieve the look I am going for," Jackson writes in her newsletter for customers. "I once (maybe more than once) sliced my finger open while creating these products for you. But I feel my blood sacrifice was worthwhile for the awesome products that flow from my studio to your walls and refrigerators."
Anything she can picture in her mind, she can put into her computer and order the 3-D printer to make. "The designs can take from five minutes to days," Jackson says.
One of her latest creations is a very realistic "Menorahsaurus Rex" dinosaur. Eight pretend candles with painted flames run the length of its 16-inch back, and a ninth candle is in its mouth, to help kids safely celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
"It's not technically a kosher menorah," Jackson says. "But nobody gets burned."