February 16, 2012 | by Thessaly La Force
It’s no secret how much I admire Leanne Shapton. The former art director of The New York Times’ Op-Ed page is also the author of several books, including Was She Pretty? and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. She’s also a contributor to The Paris Review. Open any of the last four issues to glimpse her beautiful illustrations of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich. Or buy issue 196, whose cover she painted. I visited her studio space north of Manhattan last spring. I can still remember her dog, Bunny, running to greet me. Leanne served tea and sweets, and we talked long after I turned off my tape recorder.
I wake up, walk the dog, or let the dog out. I’ll pretty much start working right off the top, depending on what I need to do, on deadlines.
I was talking to Sheila Heti about how and where we work. Sometimes I feel I get a lot done waiting for something else, with my shoes and coat on, with the car running. I don’t have a set routine. I can work for hours at a time, but I get a lot of stuff done in these weird starts and stops, which makes it a little bit harder to track. I have so many backs of envelopes with notes written on them in my pockets or stuffed into the side door of a car. I also use my Blackberry to write myself notes. Last night, I wrote myself an e-mail that said, “Tough girls with dark pink skin, England air, etc.” Now it’s sort of coming back to me, but when I woke up and read it, I was like, “What? What did I drink?” Lots happens in these little spaces between work and eating and sleeping. Sheila said she had this image of me standing up—you know how you stand up and eat when you’re really hungry? Well I stand up and work. It’s not a Hemingway thing, it’s more like I have to get this done, because the elevator is coming up. Some thing happens then. And that’s when I work.
The idea for the wooden books started with J&L Books, the nonprofit press I created with my friend Jason Fulford. We put together a group show in Atlanta in 2007 of work by the artists we publish. We wanted to showcase all of their favorite books as a way of showing their influences. A studio mate of mine, Gus Powell, had this weird block of wood that was painted to look like a book, with no title on it. It was just this thing with three green, painted sides. And I thought, Oh, we can make these out of blocks of wood. For that first round we got a woodworking friend of ours to look at how many pages the books had and make them more or less actual size—a book of poetry was quite thin, Bleak House was fatter. We displayed them on a rolling library shelf that Jason built.
That first set doesn’t look at all like the ones I make now. They were pretty rough. We were at an art fair in Portland not long after that, which is when I began to paint them to order. People would come into our booth and for fifty bucks I’d paint them a book. I’d do it on site, and at the end of the day they’d come and pick up their books. Now I make them for John Derian in New York, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Lutyens & Rubinstein in London and Type Books in Toronto.
I’ve been doing a series of paintings for The New York Times. A month of Thursday nights out—just little stories. This was a dinner party, this was a moule-frites night in Berlin, this was going for a swim at night, this was us caroling around Christmas time, this was a drink with a couple of girlfriends, this was in Ottawa, that’s Sheila Heti, that’s James. There are more in the series. Patterns—a dress of a woman in the audience at Arcadia, a pair of borrowed socks, the entrance mat at a hotel, a Chanel shirt, a tablecloth, my aunt’s old skirts, and so on. Friday morning swims, Saturday thrifting, Sunday night movies.
Was She Pretty? began when I was dating someone in London. He would go to work everyday and I’d be in his apartment where he had pictures of his ex everywhere. I retreated into a corner and started to draw. I showed it to my agent years later, and he thought we should try and do something. But it all started because of my complete inability to get over these overwhelming feelings of jealousy and craziness.
But you know what helped? Making the book. And talking to other women about it. Hearing them go, “I’m crazy too! I did this! I bodychecked a woman at a party!” I felt ashamed about how preoccupied I became. But once you talk about how bad you feel about something, it starts to be funny. It can still rear its ugly head—jealousy and shame are always there. Everyone has them. If someone says they don’t, they’re totally lying.
Sheila Heti. We have differing memories of how we met. I think it was through the former editor of Quill & Quire in Toronto, and she thinks it was at Harper’s Magazine, when I interned there. Or maybe it involved a hallway in the Four Seasons that we both remember. But what I do know is that she moved into the apartment where I used to live in Toronto through a mutual friend of ours named Jessica. And we became friends. But we became much closer friends when she worked on Important Artifacts. And she was so good. She was so good to agree to play Lenore in the first place. But she was so good as an actress.
How did I choose her? I needed a woman to photograph. And I knew I wanted someone blonde. It turned out Sheila was living in New York that summer. I had told her about the book one day when I was visiting Toronto. I remember her remarking on the name Lenore Doolan, saying that she liked it. It was good to have her to talk to about the book because I still didn’t know if it would work, how I would start it, if it meant anything at all.
My husband gave me that Hockney poster for Christmas. My former coach went to the ’72 Olympics. I have a book about swimming for Blue Rider Press that will be published in June. If you’re swimming and you’re doing relatively well, the Olympic trials are on your mind. I got to a point where I was pretty good, and I was training with swimmers who went to the Olympics. But I didn’t, you know, Sharpie Olympic rings on my face. I was a reluctant swimmer.
I love the weightless imagery of swimming. I’m obsessed with how it feels and how it looks, and I try to re-create that in my book and in its structure. Ryan McGinley took a series of pictures of Olympians, and he captured a little bit of it, but not exactly. It’s all about your body, being active and passive, but it feels very disembodied at the same time—it’s a really weird state. I’m clumsy generally and way more comfortable in water.
It’s something that I’d love to be able to describe—that world and how attuned you are to time. You know the experience of being late for a train? And you know how aware you are of one minute—just one single minute? That was my entire teenage life. It must be an athlete thing, not just a swimming thing, because training has everything to do with time and repetition. It’s probably a musical thing, too. Your body knows time, your body knows time better than your head.