Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Best Comics of 2012: Swimming Studies

I first became aware of Leanne Shapton through her book "The Native Trees of Canada" by Drawn & Quarterly which came out a few years ago. The book is a series of illustrations based on leaves from Canadian trees.

Last year I did an art show on Trees of London, Ontario (the city where I live whose moniker is "The Forest City), so the book was of particular interest to me. We take our environment for granted, and when you step back and really study trees, as I did for my project, they are so beautiful and breathtaking. Shapton's book really captures this wonder with bright colours and images that are almost abstract.

So when her first prose book came out in 2012 - Swimming Studies, I was quick to pick it up. It's not a comic, but it's definitely influenced by "sequential art" (as Will Eisner would say). Because of this, and because I discovered her through D&Q, Swimming Studies appears on my "Best Comics of 2012" list.

Swimming Studies

I've never read a book quite like this. It's told as a traditional narrative about Shapton's experience training as an Olympic-level competitive swimmer in Canada (she ranked as high as 8th in Canada). Apparently she was good, but not good enough, and she gave up the sport, later becoming an accomplish designer and artist. Interspersed in the narrative are photographs of some of Shapton's swimming suits (which she collects), beautiful washes of swimming figures, abstract landscapes, paintings of pools she's swam in and people she swam with.

Swimming Studies knocked me right out. It's the same kind of feeling I get when looking at an inspired work of art - it makes you see life in a bit of a different way.

It's also a perfectly imperfect work. I say this because the book would never work with just the prose story alone, it's a bit long and each chapter has the same pacing. I missed the traditional story arc - no build up, no conflicts, no crisis/climax, no denouement - it's all the same beat (similar I guess to the relentless training she practiced).

Swimsuit Collection
Taken as whole, the book is sublime though. You can totally understand how all of Shapton's swimming discipline helped her in her transition to an artist and New York Times art director. She's not afraid to do the work and I find that really inspiring. I really loved her love of swimming suits as objects and their representation of moments in her life too. I can't think of a better way to present her feelings about that part of her life (and she continues to buy new suits and document them).

I love all of her illustrations. I especially love her swimming pool studies. Only a very observant mind would take a mental note of the shape of each pool they have swam in. I have a weird thing where I can remember each hotel room floor plan I've stayed in (although this is getting harder as I get older). Perhaps this is how a cartoonist sees the word - we divvy up the visual word into comprehensible components like boxes on a page. Maybe this is why I connected so much with the book as a whole.

Swimming Pool Studies
This is a book that I will be picking up and referring to for many years to come. I think all creative types will appreciate this book as the struggle she goes through with her sport, is very similar to what we go through when creating art. And it's just a goddamned gorgeous book. I loved it.

Available from Amazon and finer bookstores everywhere.

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