Karen LaMonte ’86 told Upper School students at this year’s Anne Sophie Laumont ’99 Lecture that after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design, she began her career as an artist, thinking she could focus on her creative work, and “avoid everything she didn’t like”—namely, science, math and rules. Little did she know that science, math and rules would become integral to her work as a sculptor, printmaker and “renegade” fashion designer, and that “creativity is the common denominator between art, invention and discovery.”
An internationally recognized artist known for her life-size sculptures in cast glass, bronze and ceramic, LaMonte received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1999 to study in the Czech Republic, where she has since continued to live and work.
LaMonte shared with Spence Upper School students and faculty that her “plan to escape science was a total failure,” explaining that her art frequently requires an interdisciplinary approach. “What I learned is that artists and scientists are actually kindred spirits,” LaMonte said. “The curiosity that defines an artist is right at home at the research lab.” LaMonte pointed to Leonardo da Vinci’s pioneering work in art and science as an example of the seamless interplay between the two disciplines.
She is following in da Vinci’s footsteps by bolstering her art with scientific zeal. Specifically, LaMonte noted that her artistic pursuits led her to “work hand in hand with scientists” over the past five years. She even found herself as the artist-in-residence at a restricted-access research facility in upstate New York last year. There, she explored synthetic biology—an interdisciplinary science which applies engineering principles to biology—to inform her figurative sculptures.
The first time LaMonte worked with scientists was at the outset of a project in which she sought to “imprint the human figure on an infinite dark space [and] trap the female figure in dust, which required capturing light, containing and controlling it,” LaMonte explained. This led her to collaborate with German scientists over the course of two years to create a glass formula that would “gather darkness like the night sky.”
Later on, LaMonte embarked on a project to create a marble sculpture of a cloud. She wanted the sculpture to be as realistic as possible, so she contacted two climatologists at Cal Tech who had developed a computer program for the 3D modeling of weather. Through this collaboration, LaMonte accessed data on model clouds that helped her “determine not only the exact shape of the cloud, but also … an equivalency between the water weight of the model cloud and the actual weight of that marble cloud.” This helped LaMonte achieve her ultimate goal of conveying through sculpture “the ironic heaviness of the floating cloud,” which weighs 220 tons on average.
Even before exploring science to inform her art, LaMonte’s artistic process has consistently involved heavy research and technical components, starting with her work representing the human body through life-size glass casting.
“I make figurative art because I want my art to communicate with everyone, and the word communicate literally means to make common,” LaMonte said. “Our body is the common denominator, and … in that fact lies the lasting power of figurative sculpture. It transcends culture and time.”
“When I started this work, no one had made anything like it before,” she added. “I had to invent everything and problem-solve my way through step by step by step,” which even included traveling around Europe to gather suitable materials. “Every material takes me on an adventure to a different place.”
“It’s easier said than done,” she said, noting that the six years she dedicated to creating these life-size pieces “were spent figuring it out, making a lot of mistakes and having a lot of failures.”
LaMonte’s very first life-size dress took an entire year to cast, but the effort paid off, and she enjoyed the journey along the way: “It was worth it because, for me, figuring it out is the best part. It’s like trying to solve a riddle or doing a puzzle. Every sculpture has a different solution.”
The Anne Sophie Laumont ’99 Lecture was established in 1998 by Sophie’s parents, family and friends to honor her passion for knowledge, pay homage to her courageous spirit, cherish her legacy and extend the spark of her creativity to future generations of Spence students. Each year, the School honors Sophie’s memory with a lecture in one of the following areas: the arts, literature or the sciences.