Closely Watched Frames
The elegant melancholy of Leanne Shapton's art
by Leanne Shapton
Blue Rider Press
$30.00 List Price
"In my doctor's office I hold up a worksheet and ask him how many I have to fill out before I feel better," the author and artist Leanne Shapton writes in her 2012 memoir, Swimming Studies, recalling a visit to her therapist. A former competitive swimmer who twice made Olympic trials, Shapton feels adrift after quitting the sport—no longer the athlete she was and not yet the artist she will soon become. Her therapist tells her: a hundred. "I get it, like laps," Shapton writes. "I settle in, blinker myself, count the laps. Six months and a hundred and fifty worksheets later I feel better." Eventually, she finishes some drawings. She publishes them as a book; she moves to New York. She becomes, in other words, the Leanne Shapton she's recognized as now—an artist, author, and designer as skillful with words and images as she was in the pool. Shapton's athletic training has taught her that the body "bestows specialness in prowess and illness" both. She knows all about the first kind of specialness: "doing a series of very unspecial things, very well, over and over, a million times over, so that one special thing might happen, maybe, much later. . . . Specialness is sanctioned, rigorous unspecialness."
It's this process that interests her. How do you get from not being something to being it? How long do you have to work, and how does it feel when you arrive? "Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred." In Swimming Studies, which won