After twenty years I still reach for the dumb focus I had as a competitive swimmer. After a hundred workouts I might be faster. After a hundred lengths I might be healthier. After a hundred pages, a hundred sketchbooks, when will it feel right?
— Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies
IN LEANNE SHAPTON'S MEMOIR Swimming Studies, the former Olympic hopeful (and current illustrator, writer, and publisher) reveals the key to her artistic coups. It is not, as one might have assumed, freakish, God-given talent. Nor does it stem from a lightning bolt of inspiration. The answer is simple, actually: she gets to work.
Both in and out of the pool, what has consumed Shapton is not the answer to the question, “When will I be great?” Rather, they’ve been, “What do I want to be great at?” and “How do I get there?” Over the past 10 years, Shapton has published two books of drawings, a graphic novel, and a fictional auction catalog. She is also the former art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page. And in 2000, she founded J+L Books, a nonprofit publisher of artists’ books, with her business partner Jason Fulford. And she was once one of the top 10 fastest breaststrokers in Canada.
Swimming Studies is Shapton’s first prose-heavy book, much different from her previous works, such as Important Artifacts in which the story of a romantic relationship is told through a couple’s possessions post-break-up. Swimming Studies, though it contains Shapton’s illustrations and photographs, is a more traditional memoir, filled with vivid descriptions of pools and practices and the contemplative focus that is found underwater.
I met with Shapton at a garden patio in SoHo to discuss Swimming Studies, and the first thing she asked me was, “Are you a swimmer?” I wanted to shout, “No!” Because Swimming Studies is not just another athlete’s memoir. It is a book by an artist who happens to also be an athlete. As Shapton writes, “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice.”
Rachel Hurn: When I describe Swimming Studies, I usually say it’s about being good at something but wanting to be great at it. This transfers to being a competitive swimmer but also to being an artist or a writer. Or, frankly, a human being. As a kid training in the pool, you said that knowing you were fast was proof of your talent. Do you find yourself, now, needing to prove yourself as an artist?
Leanne Shapton: That thing about being good at something and wanting to be great — I was good at swimming, but swimming wasn’t what I wanted to be great at. It took me 20 or 30 years to find something I wanted to be great at. It comes down to this question that’s come up a lot in talking about the book: where your talent lies and how sometimes you’re talented at something you don’t want to be talented at. It takes a while for things to shake down and shuffle down. People have numerous careers and find what it is they want to be great at, even though they ...read more