Read Culture

Swimming Studies

Leanne Shapton paints a portrait of her life in the water


As an artist, Leanne Shapton writes as if she’s painting words across a page, uncovering memories and emotions in sentences like brushstrokes. As a swimmer, she tells stories with the cadence of fluid, mesmerizing laps through a clear blue pool. The illustrator, author, publisher and former New York Times Op-Ed art director approaches her memoir, “Swimming Studies“, which releases 5 July, as a meditation on her years as a competitive swimmer and her post-training life in the water. Shapton’s reflective essays are punctuated by various images—a watercolor catalog of “Fourteen Odors” (The caption on a blackened mauve splotch is “Teammate’s hair: Finesse conditioner circa 1987, released when hair is pulled out, damp, from a tight ponytail”), photos of her bathing suit collection styled on dress forms with source citations, her paintings of pools—to reveal a swimming history intimately compiled and revisited over a lifetime.

Shapton points out the idiosynchratic nature of memory, vividly recalling a booger suspended in the water yet wondering why the pivotal moment she officially quit swimming remains vague. Letting the reader in in this way, her revelations—from a sweet childhood ritual ranking “pretty” Honey Nut Cheerios to crack-of-dawn longing for a connection with her older brother to swimming nude as an adult in Sweden—weave an honest, sometimes heartbreaking portrait. We caught up with the author to learn more about how “Swimming Studies” came to be.


Were you always interested in documenting your experience as a swimmer? How did you come to talk about your life in the context of swimming?

I’d always kept sketchbooks and notebooks—especially leading up to the 1992 Trials—that contained notes about my training, and I’d always had these unusually vivid memories of very quotidian details of the sport, like the yellow painted cinder blocks in the ladies change rooms, the feeling of shaved arms on bedsheets, the grocery shopping I’d do with my teammates in different cities. I felt like I belonged to something in a way I haven’t since, and I wanted to examine how this former life influenced me.

The book seems to reveal how swimming informs your art—did you always feel that was the case? Or was it a revelation that came later?

Since retiring from the sport, I’ve always tried to rediscover the focus and absorption I had as a swimmer. As got older I began to see how I did things through the frame of my training, in how I worked mostly. I realized I worked in “laps” using repetition to get my drawings or paintings (and in this case my writing) to a place where I was happy with it.

How did you approach this particular book? What did you want to achieve?

In 2004 I tried to set down my swimming experiences in a screenplay, but I scrapped that in order to delve deeper into visual material. I had always seen the book as a series of landscapes somehow, and where I could not depict them visually, I needed to try to write them. I wanted to deliver a landscape, an internal and external landscape of the sport, within a sort of telescopic time frame.


What are the visual components of swimming that stick with you? How do you “see” swimming?

Definitely as a landscape, a horizon, but one that incorporates all of the things that you don’t see as a spectator. I love it when someone can describe a sport in terms of its odors and small moments and bittersweetness. I wanted to do that with swimming, a sport that rarely gets covered outside of the Olympics. I found swimming, despite the monotonous black line on the bottom of the pool one stares at for hours, to be so beautiful, so full of gorgeous details and scenes.

How do you approach words as opposed to images you create?

With a lot more difficulty. I love reading, have always been a voracious reader, but had to—with this book—really try to learn how to write, or at least learn how I wrote. It was an experiment, but I loved the re-writing process. More laps.


Can you talk about the cover design and how it came to be?

I knew I wanted the book to feel, in the hands, more like a cahier, or sketchbook, and that I did not want a dust jacket. Then I found an old book in Paris, a textbook on diving, called La Plongée. There was no jacket and the title was at the bottom of the cover, very subtly implying a submersion. I loved it and pushed for just text on the cover, no byline no image, but my publishers had a few… requirements. In thinking of images I kept going back to Ellsworth Kelly. I love how he reduces shapes. Finally we agreed on matte foil stamp, title at bottom of page, byline smallish, and it was between the swim cap shape and one of the pool shapes from the swimming pools chapter. We went with the cap, (which more women recognize, understandably) and the UK and German publishers went with the pool shape.

Do you have current habits that come from your years as a swimmer?

Yes, mostly the setting out of small short-term goals, like filling a sketchbook in a weekend, or doing a certain number of paintings, just beyond what I think is reasonable. I have an innate calorie calculator, and still have the ability to leap out of bed and forgo the snooze button. I’m pretty good at blinkering myself and not getting too distracted. That said, I’m also still good at eating and sleeping.


How many bathing suits do you own (does the book show the entire collection)?

I’m afraid to say the book only shows about half my collection. I am most comfortable in a bathing suit. I will probably be one of those old ladies who putters around in a big black tank and sunglasses all day.

Swimming Studies” is available for pre-order on Amazon for $20.

Images by Greg Stefano


More stories like this one.