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Artist of the Week Leia Immanuel ’26 on Sentimental Stillness

I was working my shift at the post office when a few weeks ago, Leia Immanuel ’26 came to pick up a package. Midway into asking her what section it was in, Leia asked me if I would be open to interviewing her for Artist of the Week. Needless to say, I immediately knew I wanted her to be the last artist of 2023. 

I’ve known Leia since middle school. Strutting around in her light-up sneakers, I remember her saying she wanted to major in biology and studio art in college. Almost a decade later, I found myself in her ambient studio, complete with an area rug and Christmas lights, admiring how she stuck to her dream as a biology and studio art double major. So, as you can imagine, my first question was about what classes she’s taken at Swarthmore.

“I started with Painting I: Drawing Into Paint in the fall of my freshman year, which was great. I had David Walsh and it’d been a while since I had taken art [at a higher level] so I felt I properly started learning art in college. In spring, I took Painting II: Figure Composition with Randall Exon, which was fun because it was kind of my first introduction to working with the figure,” she said. “There was no emphasis on how to accurately draw a body, it was more about how to create an interesting composition using the figure. Because of that, I really wanted to learn how to render the human body accurately and realistically. I even used my Phillip Evans Scholarship to study classical (Renaissance) painting in Florence over the summer.”

While Leia was explaining her academic experiences, I couldn’t help but fixate on one word: realism. I was fascinated by why realism, in particular, was so resonant in her artistic vision. 

“My goal as an artist is to take an object or a feeling or mood that I experience and try to convey that as accurately as possible in order to pay tribute to or commemorate or respect that moment and the essence of whatever it is,” she said. “I really enjoy the techniques of academic art, which is just the European tradition of painting, producing the work that you see in Renaissance painting, and that sort of education is very rigid. And I’m a bio and art major. So, I really enjoy science because these are very clear steps.”

Leia’s approach to realism is unique. The common perception within the art community is that abstract art is more emotionally resonant than realistic art, as it denies the preconceived notions of what art should be. Maybe it’s the loose structure of abstraction that allows this generalization, but regardless of the cause, Leia’s realism feels different. It’s soft despite its chiaroscuro lighting, it’s emotional despite its precision – it’s intentionally paradoxical. 

“I want there to be an emotional quality in the things I paint. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten [in my independent study] from Randall is that there’s a stillness and quietness in my work. This semester, I guess my goal and painting is to sort of take these moments that are so fleeting. These moments of stillness, and give them their own space because I like my life. You know, everything’s really fast, back to back, nonstop. And so, painting as a practice is very meditative. I want to sort of respect that stillness in my paintings.”

Leia memorializes these moments as she paints them. Her works are a snapshot of the sentimentalism of stillness. How she discussed stillness was fascinating – her stillness is fluidly quiet. Rooted in her art is a plea to remember the mundane, to appreciate the often unappreciated, and to live in the world she portrays. To choose to live in the good memories.

“Throughout my life, there’s been moments that have felt like nothing before and there’s so many times where I think it’s kind of sad, because no one else can share that with me, because I’m the only one that feels it,” she said. “I feel that’s the point of making art: to share those moments. The way I share that is by playing with these rules of realism. I create art that has a certain quality that looks super real, but does something that evokes some sort of response.”

Art can provide a bridge for the emotions we haven’t found the language for yet. It can share that fleeting feeling we only subconsciously recognize. It’s a universal, nonverbal language. 

“What makes art really meaningful and special is that you can convey an emotion. That’s the best thing ever. I took an art history course last year, about what the Western tradition of art history is, and I would look at these paintings in my textbook and think they’re cool. But, going to Italy and then seeing them in real life was incredible. There’s so many times that I would just sit in awe. I couldn’t say anything, and I would just cry because it was so moving. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. The type of painting that I love to do, which is representational and realistic, is such an intense study of observing things we normally take for granted.”

Talking to Leia, I realized the ability to feel so deeply is a gift in and of itself. It makes the highs exceptionally high and the lows exceptionally low. As with every interview, I told her that I consider almost everyone an artist in some capacity. But maybe that emotional intensity is what binds us – maybe we’re all looking for a way to express the inexpressible. We choose to portray the reality we see, in whatever means we find necessary. Some of us gravitate toward poetry, music, dance, theater, or, of course, art. 

I’ve been writing Artist of the Week for over a year now, and I’ve realized maybe my column is an expression of my artistic vision too. I choose to depict a moment, an interview, in its fullest capacity. I try to capture my artists accurately, with the precision necessary to properly memorialize them in a digital sketchbook. And yet, these interviews are nothing but objective. They’re filled with my admiration for everyone who’s had the courage to express their vulnerability to our campus. Leia’s right. To depict life realistically, it has to be emotional, because life is simultaneously rational and irrational. Art is a paradox, and so is life. 

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