There’s a lot more than sculpture going on in Elizabeth Mead’s studio on the shore of Lake Matoaka. She takes inspiration from photographers, French mathematicians, abstract painters and philosophers. Even the way she talks about her work borrows terms from music and literature.
“Three-dimensional design is a very basic visual language of form, volume and space — you sort of create your vocabulary with that,” she says. “From there, you move to different modes of articulating those things until you develop a voice that’s yours.”
Mead’s work often focuses on her relationship with her environment. Her art has taken her everywhere from Tokyo to San Francisco, including a monastery in Pennsylvania and the wide vistas of Wyoming.
“The thing that remains in the forefront for me is where I am in the world physically and how I understand that,” she says. “When I went out and tried to simply render the landscape in front of me, it always felt false or diminished in some way. If I tried to replicate what I’m seeing, it’s not telling me what it feels like to be in this space.”
Her drawings and sculptures seek to be more “experiential,” rather than purely representational. This wider artistic scope also informs her teaching at the College, where her students have included writers, chemistry majors, physics majors and “the finance guys” as well as artists. The diversity of interests, she says, is part of what makes William and Mary such an exciting place to be.
“I made a specific decision to be at an institution like this,” she says. “I educate people to see better — a larger group of people than just those who have decided to do [art]. I’m interested in a really rich, full conversation and I think being at a place like this allows that.”
In pursuit of that conversation, Mead has become involved with a number of interdisciplinary projects across campus. She and a member of the chemistry faculty are working with a student who is developing her own major on sustainability. Her course “Sculpture in the Global Environment: Heavy Metal and the Delta Blues” was connected to the large International Mercury Expo last spring as it related to mercury poisoning and Hurricane Katrina.
Mead spent a year developing that course, and when the first day of class came around, she let the students in on a secret: it was going to be a big experiment. Rather than shy away from the challenge, though, the students jumped right on board.
“As a professor, if you’re willing to push the envelope somewhere, the students will trust you and go along with you,” she says. “They’ll give it more than their all.”
Even individually, Mead encourages her students to find their own voice. It’s not about just providing the tools to help students express themselves visually, she says — it’s about listening to them and helping them go their own way.
“Our students are always carving their own space in the world; they’re not just following one groove,” she says. “That’s wildly exciting — that’s William and Mary.”
Tuska E. Benes | Joshua Erlich | Kathleen E. Jenkins
Elizabeth J. Mead | Lisa R. Szykman
Photo by Mark Mitchell