Laura Kottlowski Takes Her Passions Higher

This Colorado-based designer and figure skater combines her work, art, and the outdoors in incredible, intricate ways.

BY HAILEY HIRST

“What could you create if you blended all your passions?”

The question shines in my email inbox inside a message from Laura Kottlowski, and then it sticks in my head, like a fish flash frozen mid-swim. I’d asked Laura what she wanted to focus on in our upcoming phone interview. This question was her answer.

After I discovered Laura on Instagram, I knew she would make a great Artistry feature, but trying to encompass her story wouldn’t be straightforward. Laura Kottlowski is a multi-passionate powerhouse. She’s worked as a designer in the outdoor industry for 13 years, and she’s also a mountaineer and life-long figure skater.

Photo by Marisa Jarae

In her creative career, Laura is a designer who illustrates, paints, animates. She does branding and campaigns, video editing, surface design, textile patterns, motion graphics, and sound design. Always running parallel to her work is her love of nature. She says, “My life’s work in nearly a 360° picture has been inspired by the outdoors.” And for the past decade, Laura hikes to skate on high alpine lakes—combining her love of figure skating with mountaineering.

For Laura, the exchange between life and art and work is complex but clear, much like the figures she traces on flash-frozen mountain lakes.

Laura began skating at six years old. She rigorously trained and competed all the way through college. Although she stopped competing because the graphic design program she attended at Penn State was also rigorous and competitive, she’s never stopped skating, and she’s never stopped trying to master new skills both off and on the ice.

For Laura, the exchange between life and art and work is complex but clear, much like the figures she traces on flash-frozen mountain lakes.

Skating figures is one example of that. After an injury that kept her from practicing jumps, Laura went back to the roots of figure skating. She explained to me (a non-skater) that “the term ‘figure skating’ is derived from when skaters would skate figures on the ice outside” and it stretches back competitively to at least the 1800s. Skaters would trace figure eights and other patterns on ice, including special figures that are more intricate, often circular snowflake-like designs.

Laura says, “I threw myself into researching special figures. I got so wrapped up in the history, and then started attempting them. They’re extremely hard.” Figures were part of Olympic figure skating competitions until the late 1980s, when the emphasis on speed and dynamic movements, like jumps and spins, ultimately reigned supreme. Sidelined from her ‘normal’ routine, special figures are a precision practice that Laura could learn to master.

Eventually, she took this passion outside onto frozen lakes in the mountains of Colorado. “In 2015, I met my friend Marisa Jarae, who photographs a lot of my skating now. We hike to alpine lakes and she’ll photograph me skating. What’s exciting to me is showing a side of figure skating that’s both beautiful and badass. It shows the sport in a rugged and beautiful environment.”

It’s unique, too. Laura adds, “It’s part of the outdoor industry that hasn’t really been explored. I haven’t seen images like the ones that Marisa and I have been able to create together.”

A figures on mirror-smooth ice — photo by Marisa Jarae
Laura soaring on ice in an alpine chasm — photo by Marisa Jarae

Alpine figure skating seems, to me, like an epic culmination of technical skill and creativity.

It takes incredible athleticism and training to hike to 13,000 feet and then strap on skates. Laura says, “The images look effortless, but behind the story is that it took five, six, eight hours to get to a certain lake. The highest lake in the US ended up taking us 13 hours round trip.”

And equipment is required along with all the strength and stamina required. “We carry avalanche gear, clothing, water, food—all the things you need on a winter summit—and then I have my six-pound custom-built skates, and photography gear.”

Laura’s skates, pack, and camera.

It’s not just Marisa shooting photos out there. Laura is a photographer too (although it takes a backseat to design work these days) and that feels important: whether Laura is skating figures, shooting photographs, or recording sounds (more on this later), artistic expression is also at the heart of these experiences.

Artistic expression is also at the heart of these experiences.

She sees the frozen alpine lakes “both with my own eyes when I’m out there, but also through the eyes of composition, and through the [literal] lens. When I’m shooting, I’m always looking at how I can retain the memory the best; the scenes, weather conditions, color and texture and plant life. I’ve been taking more photos of textures lately.”

There’s definitely a creative aspect to skating figures too. Laura plans out her special figures ahead of time, and draws from other artistic exploration in this practice. “I usually sketch figures first on grid paper. Then, I’ll make the technical drawing on the computer, share with World Figure Sport, and then translate them to ice.

“I also love to cut giant paper snowflakes that are super intricate, and sometimes those remind me of the patterns that I’m skating. Especially the huge 20-foot figures I’ve been working on for the past two years. Some special figures are essentially a snowflake design: circular with a bunch of spokes. Others take on different shapes, such as a grapevine, which is a strip-like sequence.”

Laura’s newest snowflake-esque figure, traced breath wisps of high mountain cloud.

The auditory experience is another facet where her creative mind starts to spin and expand. I asked her about the sounds, which she’s been recording with her Zoom recorder. She said, “Since the ice is so thin and water is moving underneath, the ice is flexing and continuously cracking. It sounds like laser beams being shot underneath the water. It’s otherworldly. When the ice is thicker, it sounds more thunderous, or if it’s a foot or more, there isn’t much sound other than the wind and your blade on the ice.”

In the freeing feelings of skating, and through her artistic lens, Laura is experiencing the ice and the frozen landscape in a distinct and powerful way.

She further describes it, “When you’re skating on ice that thin, sometimes you can see schools of fish swimming under your blades. You can see the bottom of the lake around the shoreline, and how the color of the ice changes with the depth of the water. Sometimes you find frozen fish, bubbles, and things fisherman left behind, moss, glass-sharded rifts, crazy icicle formations… Another thing I’ll go out and shoot is different cracks and bubbles and natural ice sculptures formed when the waterline drops.”

She takes these images and experiences home with her, and even if it’s not overt, in many ways her outdoor experiences are speaking to her design work too.

While Laura said she doesn’t have her own ‘aesthetic’ since she must consider her clients’ needs in every project, what might be hard to define in terms of cohesion, is more a testament to her willingness to try new things. And in each project or pursuit: precision and energy. She leans towards bright colors and interesting textures. Her work feels bold, but also refined. She’s a master of many techniques.

Some samples of Laura’s wide-ranging work. Notice the detail in the Smartwool snowflakes, and the fine line work in her posters.

With both her creative career and figure skating, she hasn’t just found one groove and stuck in that sweet spot. She traces lines until she’s satisfied with the skill mastered, and then she moves on to something bigger and more difficult and more ambitious.

She said, “ I just want to learn everything there is in life, to be the best that I possibly can be at those things.” Maybe resilience is something she learned from living out a sport where falling is inevitable. But then again, she’s the one who seeks out thin ice and takes her passions higher and higher, literally to the mountaintops.

photo by Marisa Jarae

Maybe resilience is something she learned from living out a sport where falling is inevitable. But then again, she’s the one who seeks out thin ice and takes her passions higher and higher.

When I asked if she had any advice to offer other women who want to bring their outdoor lives closer to their work, or vice versa, she said, “If you can blend your passions somehow into a career, it’s only going to make you happier. Attempt to master the skill sets you enjoy most and others need (to be profitable). Push yourself in different ways to be the fullest version of yourself… It has taken me on a wildly rewarding path of growth, discovery, and perpetual evolution.”

Laura is currently working on a project that’s the closest she’s ever come to truly blending all her passions. She was awarded a filmmaker’s grant from a partnership between The Adventure Film Festival and Google to create a Virtual Reality 180 short film about outdoor skate exploration.

Not only is she the subject of the film, she also directed, shot, wrote a poetic voiceover, is editing, color correcting, co-composing the soundtrack and sound design, in addition to creating graphics. She’ll also be performing one of her new 20ft figure designs in the footage.

Laura recently returned from the filming trip with Marisa, who helped shoot. They turned the filming part of the project into a Canadian road trip—which I don’t find surprising in the least.

photo by Marisa Jarae

I ended my hour-and-a-half-long phone conversation with Laura feeling energized. Her enthusiasm about all that’s possible if you’re willing to try almost has me strapping on skates, although I’d probably be better suited just hiking with my camera more.

We can all look forward to watching the ways Laura continues to experiment and excel. And then there’s that question she posed long before this year’s frozen season began that’s always worth circling back to. What could you create?

 


Laura Kottlowski is a freelance creative director, graphic designer and figure skater based in Denver, Colorado. See some of her professional work at laurakottlowski.com and follow her creative and outdoor adventures on Instagram @laurakottlowski & @laurakottlowskidesign. Her Virtual Reality skating film will be released by Outside Magazine later this winter or early spring.