I first encountered Leanne Shapton’s work in Women in Clothes, a book that compiled stories about personal style from hundreds of women. Leanne, Heidi Julavits, and Sheila Heti co-edited the collection, and Leanne made many of its illustrations. The book changed the way I think about clothes and how they express something to the world, and also led me to admire more of Leanne’s work.
Leanne’s brush endows a certain energy into her subjects, whether it’s a leaf, a movie still, or a portrait of an ex. In books like Sunday Night Movies,
Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, and Native Trees of Canada, she manages to make each page as enamoring as the last. Her book Was She Pretty was recently re-released, timed with the 10th anniversary of its original publication. It captures jealousy through portraits of various ex-lovers and brief descriptions of each ex. It made me think of my own experiences with jealousy, like the way hearing one small but impressive detail about an ex can immediately trigger feelings of inadequacy. Although the book deals with a “negative” emotion, it was reassuring to know that I’m not alone.
I recently talked to Leanne about Was She Pretty, collecting as a form of creativity, and embracing unpleasant feelings as a means to let them go and make something new.
RACHEL DAVIES: How did your art factor into your post-secondary education?
LEANNE SHAPTON: I didn’t really have a post-secondary education. I went to McGill University [in Montreal] for a year and didn’t study art but would just go to the library and look at art history books and graphic design books. That made me want to move to New York because all of my favorite designers, like the designers that came out of Push Pin Studios, were in New York. So after doing a year of a mix of studies like film and intro to photography and English and Canadian literature at McGill, I moved to New York and did four months at Pratt Institute and dropped out. I started working and interning at a bunch of places. I really wanted to be around these people whose work I loved, and New York was huge for me.
When I was 15, I went to Peele School of the Arts in Mississauga, and when we were 15 we did a field trip to New York, which was incredible. I saw this show of this French illustrator Jean-Michel Folon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is interesting because there’s not a lot of illustrator shows, period. That really blew my mind. I kind of knew that I wanted to make art, and my dad was a designer. My love of Canadian literature and books has always been a part of my life. I’ve always read and wanted to write. The two disciplines were always there in equal measure. I sort of let the art side—the illustration and design side—lead for a while until I realized that I really did want to write. I wanted to publish these books that were a mix. They weren’t just illustrated books, and they weren’t just written books. I still have a problem describing them, what I do. They’re hybrids.
You mentioned you did internships. What did you do specifically? Were they art related?
They were a huge mix! I did an internship with Jim McMullan, who was a member of Push Pin in the ’60s and ’70s, and he taught me how to draw. I looked him up because my dad had given me a book of his work when I was 14, so that was this whole introduction to New York graphic design and illustration and posters. He was incredible. He was also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts. He realized that I didn’t have any foundation in terms of life drawing, so I took life drawing classes with him. The internship turned into a real, old-fashioned apprenticeship. Watching him work in the studio, I could see how someone could make a career out of it. Then I did an internship at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I did an internship with an illustrator named Ross MacDonald. I did an internship at Saturday Night Live in the set design department. I just did everything I could. At a lot of these places, lunch was free so I would just have a main meal at lunch because I wasn’t making any money, or I’d get like $30 a week. I just tried to make it work, and it did work.
Do you sketch ideas for your watercolors prior to painting them?
No, I draw with a brush.
Do you feel as if your art influences your prose, or vice versa?
I do, in that one of the major themes of my work in general is the information that we fill in ourselves, that isn’t given to us by artists or by a writer or musician. I think that words you hear if you read, or the images you see as you read images, are really playing in concert. You can see in my work that I leave a lot out, and I do that in my writing, too, because I know how sophisticated people reading are. I would wager that people’s vision is a little more sophisticated than their literacy. I want to play with those thresholds, so my writing is very influenced by what I like to look at.
Your books Sunday Night Movies and Native Trees of Canada both draw on preexisting images, while Was She Pretty is based on sort of glorified images of exes that are more internal to each person. How did this affect your process?
I did Was She Pretty before Trees and Movies, so at a certain point I didn’t like drawing people anymore. Was She Pretty is from the era when I was interested in drawing people, and figures, and things, and now I’m doing that a little bit more, going back to that. It sort of goes in and out of my interest. I was really interested in body language. A lot of these figures are made up with details that I wanted to emphasize. I have a huge collection of old magazines. Some of the women and men are based on pictures from advertising, and stuff like that. I don’t know that they’re glorified so much as they’re just imagined. I didn’t want to make them especially attractive. No, they’re not pretty! [Laughs]
Did you find that working on Was She Pretty, and having affirmation that everyone feels this way toward their lover’s exes, alleviated the anxiety you felt or heightened it because you were thinking about it more, and more intimately?
Heightened, definitely heightened. You can kind of suppress these emotions, but what I decided to do was wallow right in it, talk to my friends about it, like, “Why do I feel this way?” I just wanted to get to the center and the heart of it and the existential pain of it. For a while there, it really did heighten. When you start to laugh at it, that’s when you start to get a release from how heavy this emotion is. It’s a very powerful, very dark emotion. Ten years out, I know that I am a less competitive, less jealous person, but that emotion is still there, it can flare up. I think the older you get, the less engaged and the less prone to engagement you can become. It definitely isn’t a “read this book and you’ll feel better about your jealousy” book. It’s more like, “Let’s just get right in and almost celebrate the jealousy.” In doing that, I walked away feeling like I could handle it. It’s like being afraid of the dark. Once you sit with it, once you go through it, instead of ignoring it, instead of thinking, Oh, I’m not jealous, it does work. I never meant for it to, but the response I’ve gotten from women is this sense of dark relief, once you realize you’re not alone. It doesn’t make you a better person—I don’t claim anything. It’s funny, in hardcover it was shelved in relationships. I was like, “No, no, no, that’s bad for your relationship.” I’m really glad that Drawn & Quarterly has put it in comics and graphic novels because it’s much more appropriate.
I actually saw it at a bookstore shelved in relationships, and I had read a few of your other books so I was surprised that you had written a relationship book.
Isn’t that funny? Maybe it should be in relationships, I don’t know! Like this is an antidote to all of the books that claim to make everything better. This’ll make everything even worse.
Your work is often preoccupied with series, whether it’s a series of trees native to Canada, Sunday night movies, or in the case of Was She Pretty?, a series of exes. Is there any reason for this?
I talk a little bit about it in Swimming Studies. In that book, I talk about how I was a competitive swimmer. So much of my understanding of how you did things was by repetition, like laps in the pool. The book is a little bit, obliquely, about how that practice has influenced everything I do in life. How in understanding things, in exploring things, in trying to sort of figure out what I think about things, repetition and series is a huge part of how I process the world. I can only trace it back to my training as an athlete.
I was rereading Women in Clothes and noticed in the introduction that you say you “paste these clippings [from fashion magazines] into scrapbooks.” Is this something you’ve always done?
It’s mostly a private thing I do. Not only with fashion magazines, but with art magazines and anything visual. If there’s some combination of something or some language that I’m recognizing that makes it interesting to me, I do think it’s worthwhile to cut it out and take notice. It’s almost like writing down scraps of things that you like, or words that you want to look up later. It’s part of my image collection. To tell you the truth, instead of pasting them in books, there’s just like boxes of stuff that I have yet to paste into books. I’ll run across some in drawers, or bottoms of bags. Little things that for whatever reason caught my attention. They either inform or they don’t inform. I found one the other day, and I kind of know why I clipped out this picture of this coat, a tweed coat and a tweed skirt next to each other. I love the sort of contrast and combination. The process of collecting and finding, that’s something I’ve always done to notate where my eye is, in terms of what I’m noticing.
When you were younger you were a swimmer, as accounted in Swimming Studies, but were you also making art?
I went to art school and swam at the same time, so both disciplines were kind of on the go. It was the kind of school where you had to audition to enroll. I was in with some other people who could draw really well. We did lots of art history, and then I would go to swim practice after school, and swim before school. I’ve always had it as part of my education.
Rookie’s theme for this month is On Display. Do you think there is any relation between being watched within an athletic setting, at a swimming competition, and being vulnerable when displaying art?
That’s interesting. I hated being watched as an athlete. It’s funny, with Was She Pretty, it’s like, “Look at my ugliest side, my most unattractive emotion.” As an athlete, you are forced to lose. The times you win are so rare. You are forced to make yourself vulnerable every time you race. I’d have to say that did toughen me up a bit. I am quite comfortable with—not all of them but some of them—my weaknesses. I think doing this 10 years ago, at the onset of my 30s, being able to as an adult be like, “I’m a fucking mess, I’m destroying my relationship with my jealousy. What am I gonna do about it?” Maybe there is some relationship to [swimming]. I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question.
When you’re an athlete, you’re so present while you’re being judged. But when someone’s reading your book, you don’t get to be present.
Yeah, I know! I can’t have the fastest book! [Laughs] Judgment by the clock is so pure, yet judgement by peers is so painful.
What advice would you give to young artists worried to show their work to their peers?
Oh, gosh. There’s this quote that goes, “If you’re not doing something embarrassing, you’re not doing anything worthwhile.” I had to remind myself of this recently, working through some stuff and it’s really valuable. It actually does make sense, you have to put yourself out there and be prepared to feel vulnerable. Exposure is part of our immune system, it’s necessary, it’s how we grow, how we get stronger. If you’re digging and you hit something that makes you feel embarrassed or vulnerable, you’re probably hitting a good vein. You’re probably striking gold. Not always, the sentimental, the embarrassing, all these things often you have to get past anyway and work with and turn into art. If it’s trite, at some point that means you can work on it, work on it, write it, repaint it, until it’s not. ♦