Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton

15th Oct 2012


Leanne Shapton trained as a competitive swimmer and competed at the Canadian Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992.

She is now an illustrator and author of books including Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris

Swimming Studies charts her transition from awkward but disciplined adolescent athlete to well-rounded artistic adult, told through the medium of swimming.

Shapton’s adolescence was governed by swimming.  Normal teenage explorations of body image, of the opposite sex and of identity and individuality were all framed by the structure and demands of competitive swimming.

Even as an adult, her conceptions of time, space and how to be loved are founded upon the exigencies of the race clock, the four walls of a swimming pool and her early understanding that her value as a person lay in winning.

The book explores the differences and similarities between competitive sport and creative art.  It is a meditation on discipline and freedom.

While these two concepts may seem in some ways contradictory, the discipline Shapton learned as a swimmer aided her in her study of illustration which in turn brought her freedom to express herself as an artist and as an adult.

These are the themes of the text of the book – but to look at the text alone would be to miss out on the book’s true value.  This is a beautiful object, with a soft textured cover in two shades of blue.

It contains full watercolour sketches of the view from an open-air pool in Switzerland as well as blue sketches of 71 different swimming pools.  The photographs of her collection of swimming costumes tell their own stories of her evolving relationship with her body and with the water from the purely functional to the purely sensual – and everything in between.

Within the text itself, Shapton describes her fellow competitors with an artist’s eye for detail, using variously, a single biographical detail or a habit or a smell.  A race is described through the sounds that lane 3 would be hearing.  One chapter is formed entirely of depictions in paint of 14 odours.

It is hard to pinpoint a coherent narrative and the text jumps around in time with only biographical information to signpost where you are, but this is all part of its achievement.

In Swimming Studies, Shapton gives the reader many of the facts of own life, but she also creates a piece of art in which to immerse yourself and float around, experiencing it with every sense.

Swimming Studies is out now from Particular Books.  It is available in hardback from Foyles, Amazon or your local bookshop priced at £20, or for Kindle for £11.99 (although you would miss out on the holistic experience with an e-version!).

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Those with an interest in sport but primarily those interested in art.  It is unique – and therefore hard to categorise.

Other recommended reading: Also by Leanne Shapton, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris and The Native Trees of Canada

Jenny Tipping