Perhaps you’ve noticed this past week that some Swarthmore students have been sporting matching long-sleeved white t-shirts. The back of the shirt uses light green and yellow tones to depict three campus scenes with an intersection of nature and architecture, painted by Yanyi Liu ’23. She entered her work into the Art in Nature contest with the hope of sharing her appreciation for the college’s beauty in sometimes-overlooked spaces. Beyond painting and drawing, Liu is fascinated with how she can represent light and space, especially through photography and architectural design. Majoring in art history and math, Liu has career aspirations as an architect. She does not, however, limit herself to one form of expression.
Liu explained, “I think I actually love taking pictures more than drawing. I really like light, the sense of light and shadows, straight lines, and structures. I enjoy taking pictures of window frames, walls, facades, and doors; that’s actually why for the Art in Nature contest, I was painting windows of the Scott Arboretum. I think I’m not really good at drawing plants and flowers, and for art in nature, a lot of people choose to do plants … they’re beautiful but I feel like it isn’t really my field, so instead I chose to paint the doors and windows of the arboretum building.”
Liu’s representation of texture and focus on buildings are key elements of her work. No matter her medium, she explores specific qualities of buildings and objects, drawing attention to what is often unseen. Liu concentrates on a consistent color palette to encapsulate the feelings of a given area.
“I love the color of wood floors, walls, texture of the doors, or even of the door frames. I really like texture and color in that way.”
Liu is also interested in both the vastness and encapsulating power of buildings and interiors as opposed to other art forms, constantly making comparisons and examining where different mediums intersect.
“Recently I’m starting to think about the relationship between art and design. I think there’s a lot of overlap, and I would say for now I want to become more of a designer instead of an artist … I guess I’m at a spot where I’m trying to figure out really what’s the difference between artists and designers, and how much creativity and self-expression I want to have in my own work … I really like the sense of space. I guess if I want to compare architecture to other art forms, I feel that because a lot of architecture, when we talk about rooms or space, is so huge, people are actually contained inside the architecture, versus if you are holding a piece of ceramic or a painting in your hand, those pieces are so much smaller … I like the experience and feeling of being surrounded and immersed in a space that could be regarded as art.”
Liu has explored how she can artistically represent different spaces at the college, having used her interest in color to do oil paintings of the interiors of Swarthmore buildings, including McCabe second, Sci Commons, and the Lang Music Center. It was Swarthmore’s “foundation drawing” class that spurred her interest in art, and Liu then developed her craft through an architecture and drawing class, examining campus spaces, and sketching the interiors of buildings.
“I think by taking a closer look at where we work, we live, our dorms, our library spaces that we are so used to staying at, by taking a closer look and trying to look for interesting details, because a lot of time we take what we have for granted … In looking for details, there’s interesting moments that make me happy.”
In her current photography class, Liu is exploring film photography for the first time, using a 35mm camera to focus on constructing and capturing a well-considered image. Through her time at Swarthmore, photography has always been a tool to spotlight a given moment and share the college and life through her eyes.
“It takes so much time to take one photo, which I like, because I know I need to spend that much time on one photo. I become more careful with choosing the right composition, choosing the right exposure, and just really paying attention to details. So that’s what I’m experiencing now, which is very new to me, because before taking this photography class I would just take photos with my phone, which I also enjoyed a lot. I like taking photos of architecture spaces, adding filters, and also sharing those pictures with friends or on Instagram. Sometimes people would comment on my Instagram stories and say that’s such a nice view of this and that, usually stuff that everyone sees. I remember that I took a picture of Sharples bowls and plates with forks, but it was sort of an interesting composition. It was one of the first pictures I took here at Swat, and someone commented that usually no one would take pictures of Sharples utensils. But, sometimes it’s a fun, interesting, very satisfying experience to do that.”
In stopping to see the value and beauty in the existing structures of Swarthmore, and by taking this a step further through sharing these expressions, Liu subtly encourages students to slow down and view their environments in a new light. Liu’s art serves as a reminder to value inquisitiveness and thoughtfulness, whether contemplating something as familiar as a library or as unexpected as Sharples utensils.