For Books’ Sake Talks To: Leanne Shapton

22nd May 2013

leanne shapton

Leanne Shapton’s work is experimental, thought-provoking and genre-busting. Born in Toronto and based in New York, writer and illustrator Shapton, who also has multiple art-directing credits to her name, has just released her new work Was She Pretty?

Combining her pinpoint accuracy in both illustration and writing, the book is a meditation on living in the shadow of your partner’s exes.

If you are not doing something potentially embarrassing it is not worth doing“The book was first published in 2006, and it began while I was in a relationship in 2000 with a man who kept a lot of photographs of his ex-girlfriends around,” she says.

“Many of [the characters] were based on my own experiences, and from stories I was told by other women. A few are composites and others are completely made up.”

Shapton’s books are beautiful works of art which combine the written and the visual in differing measure.

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry tells the story of a doomed love affair, through the medium of an auction catalogue of objects from their relationship.

Swimming Studies follows a more conventional model with longer autobiographical narratives of her time training for Olympic swimming trials. These are interspersed with paintings of swimming pools and photographs of costumes which all add up to illustrate the relationship she now has with water.

Shapton explains that a final piece of work can originate from either the story or the medium. “With Was She Pretty? the work came directly out of my sketchbook,” she says.

“With Important Artifacts the frame, a catalog, came first too, but with Swimming Studies the story came first. Swimming Studies was a terrifying experiment. I had never written that much before and I didn’t know if it would ‘work’.

While it was hard, it was also work I felt very happy experimenting with. I hope I can get better. The artist Martin Kippenberger said something to the effect: if you are not doing something potentially embarrassing it is not worth doing.”

Despite having published several books, Shapton feels that her writing style is still evolving. “My visual style developed first, and in some ways I think too quickly. I feel I’m only just developing a writing style. I think they are [both] more emotional than analytical. I’d like to think they are efficient.”

So what next in the eclectic body of work for this original artist? Important Artifacts has already been optioned (the film is rumoured to star Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman) and a screenplay is in the works.

Shapton is not involved in the project, although she admits she would love to work in film in the future.

“I’m working on a book with Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits called Women In Clothes. It’s about the choices women make when they get dressed. It is part art project, part essay and interview collection.

And I have a new book coming out with [literary comic book publishers] Drawn & Quarterly in the fall, black and white paintings of black and white movie stills.”

One thing is certain, whatever this talented artist turns her hand to next, the result will be beautiful and original with an emotional purity which cuts straight to the heart.

Was She Pretty? Is available from Foyles, Amazon and from your local independent bookshop.

Jenny Tipping