Friday, January 18, 2013

Loving Leanne Shapton:
Or, what does one do with something they do well but no longer have use for


It's official. I am obsessed with Leanne Shapton's work. I had previously read Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. I purchased her most recent, Swimming Studies, on our last visit to Square Books in Oxford, MS. I finished and loved it so much, that I immediately ordered The Native Trees of Canada and Was She Pretty?

It is truly impossible to pick a favorite but if I had to, I would recommend looking at these books in chronological order by day of publication. There is a sensitive, quiet core to Shapton's work that is present and palpable from the very beginning. But that quietness grows in focus and precision and gradually transforms in a humble but sincere confidence that is absent in the earlier works.

Swimming Studies is a spectacular memoir of Shapton's previous life as a competitive swimmer. She competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics qualifiers in Canada and although she never made it on the Olympic team, her character, life path and sensibility has been obviously marked by her career as a professional athlete. I am sure swimmers and people who have been serious about any other sport will find Shapton's specific observations about sport training and lifestyle very fascinating but as someone who has only marginally been touched by sports, I was captivated by her more general questions. Do I have a long-term goal?, she writes. If anything, it's to figure out what to do with something I do well but no longer have any use for. Which, when you think about it, is still a pretty sweet position to be in... how many of us have THAT problem?! But Shapton is disarmingly charming and open about the ways in which she lets swimming continually creep into her current life as an artist.

She shares pages upon pages of illustrations of various swimming pools she's swam in. She catalogs 14 odors in watercolor: 2. Teammates Hair; 7: Sit-ups partner; 13: Ladies' locker room toilet stall. She writes about her ability to fill a sketchbook with drawings over the course of just a weekend or doing a certain number of paintings... just above what she'd think she could do... In others words, applying basic principles of athletic training– drills, discipline, pushing oneself and being brutally honest with oneself about one's ability and potential– to her artistic practice.

Unlike Shapton, I am a constant dabbler: I try different things in spurts and bursts and then give them up before I even have a chance to get good at them. So, to me, her world is infinitely captivating and incomprehensible. Perhaps for that precise reason, her work touches me so deeply. It is so personal and revealing and so incredibly inspiring to learn of the small sufferings and even smaller triumphs of doing something well AND, of course, the BIG journey of learning to live with it all.

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