Artist of the Week Elizabeth Labows ’22 on Balance

When Elizabeth Labows ’22 first showed me her senior studio on the third floor of Beardsley earlier this semester, I was delighted by the large ceramic vessels and sculptural pieces lining the room. It’s easy to picture her spending countless hours drafting and building her figures, which have simultaneous qualities of machine-like precision and organic reference — so much that they venture slightly into the uncanny.

She introduced me to the makings of her senior art collection: “I am currently working on a handful of sculptural pieces that, for me, are bigger than things that I’ve done in the past. I started with functional things and tried to veer out from them, and so I have some notions of functional vessels in all of my pieces, but they’ve turned more sculptural with exploring form and shape and movement.” 

Elizabeth primarily credits courses taken at Swarthmore with Art Professor Syd Carpenter for the basis of this functional-to-sculptural progression. Elizabeth built up a technical background in functional pieces during high school, so college classes, where she was “pushed in a way that was at first a little bit uncomfortable,” allowed her to find “direction with more sculptural pieces that are based in functional ideas.” 

In general, Elizabeth emphasized the importance of the creative process and noted that “the physical nature of working with clay and mud and creating things in three dimensions is really exciting and rewarding; seeing things standing tall that I’ve made — and seeing things function too — is what’s the best part for me.

Elizabeth’s figures inspire physical engagement. Her pieces look heavy, but they play with constructed concavity and the open space that vessel-evoking forms naturally prescribe. Others require view from a range of perspectives; they create space that should be looked through, motivating contortion of your own body for full relational experience. I think this adds a sense of awareness to her figures, especially considering the trypophobia some may feel face to face with select pieces. They appear a bit discomforting at first, but overall I find her shapes intriguing and mesmerizing rather than off-putting. 

Elizabeth remains experimental at every step of her process. Over the course of a few visits to her studio, she described different finishes she’d been testing to see which felt best for her final pieces. One of the options she’s chosen in order to accommodate some complex nooks and crannies is to use a glaze sprayer which can offer both a fuzzy spray paint effect and a sandy, texturally accumulative one. This again references the automatic and organic — achieving a balance that I think represents Elizabeth as a student artist and person as a whole. 

As a mathematics and fine arts double major, Elizabeth has put a lot of thought into the ways her mathematical studies and artistic studies have influenced each other. I found her thoughts on intentionality particularly intriguing: “I think that I try to be careful not to deliberately incorporate math into my art, because it’s rewarding that they’re very separate for me, but I’ve naturally incorporated more mathematical parts into my work … Having a math background means that I don’t need to be so specific about pulling on it to create things because it’s just there, and I have that framework which makes it easier for me to not consciously think about it when I’m making my work.”

In addition to Elizabeth’s academic pursuits, she’s a varsity lacrosse captain and resident advisor, so exercising balance has become an integral part of her life at Swarthmore. Given her wide range of community involvement, I asked if and how her relationship with art — something she’d originally taken up as a purely creative outlet — had changed over the course of her studies.

“I think [entry into art academics] was definitely challenging because I have a specific idea of … what being graded is and what ‘products’ are at school with exams and papers and everything,” she said. “Having art as an academic subject that I’m studying is confusing at times because it’s balancing my own creativity and my own personal outlet that I dont always view as very academic and figuring out how to have projects be production where I’m growing as an artist and as an art student.”

Elizabeth explained further how academic artistic growth for her meant studying references, researching art and technique, working with peers and professors through critiques, as well as “doing more deliberate testing of techniques before jumping into finishing something.” She concludes that, “luckily, I don’t think that [the outlet side of art] goes away.”

If you’re interested in seeing Elizabeth’s art for yourself, her senior reception will be held in the Swarthmore List Gallery at 4:30 p.m. on April 21, 2022, and her art will remain on display from then until Sunday the 24th. 

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