Photo by Davi Russo
At nine o‘clock on a Tuesday morning, the corner of 7th Avenue and Waverly Place is blissfully free of the clueless tourists, inebriated revelers and cruising teenagers that often populate this strip of the West Village. Likewise, it’s a quiet moment for Morandi—the Italian accruement to Keith McNally’s restaurant empire—and also for Leanne Shapton, who sits at a small wooden table sipping a latte. The artist-turned-art director will soon be yanked into the maelstrom of activity that accompanies her daily duties at The New York Times, but at present, her lone responsibility is watching Bunny, a well-behaved Wheaten Terrier.
by Leanne Shapton
Shapton, 35-years-old, is a petite woman with playful eyes and dark hair that cascades over the shoulders of her drab Canadian Army surplus jacket. She was raised in Ontario, Canada and darted from Montreal to London before settling in New York City, although she found it difficult to stay put for long (her globetrotting ways were the source of an Elle column called “Jet Setter” that she penned prior to her gig at the Gray Lady). An illustrator by trade, Shapton has written three unconventional books: 2003’s book of drawings entitled Toronto, 2006’s graphic novel Was She Pretty, and 2009’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.”> Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. The most recent novel indulged an awkward name and a brilliant conceit; after noticing that the personal effects of writer Truman Capote seemed to unfurl a story when auctioned off by Bonhams & Butterfields, Shapton created the story of a failed love affair as told by their vestigial possessions. In fact, it was right here at Morandi that Shapton snapped photos of the fictional couple whose relationship dissolved in a garage sale of emotional artifacts.
by Leanne Shapton
Theme and Shapton spent some time discussing Transitionist artists, the joys of being a packrat, and the inevitability of burning out as art director of the New York Times op-ed page.
When someone asks you “What you do?”, what do you say?
If I have a day job I’ll mention that. Right now I have a business card that says “Art Director,” which is handy. If not, I’ll try to change the subject or tell them what I was working on earlier that day. On customs forms at the airport I change it up: sometimes artist, or art director or writer or illustrator.
You’ve embraced many job descriptions—what do you think about the idea of a Transitionist art movement?
I suppose it is a way of describing people who do a number of different things and don’t try to categorize the work they do. Or leave it up the others to. No single title or job description has ever really worked for me, and I suspect it is the same of other transitionists. I think by definition transitionists are reluctant to be categorized. In my experience this blurry line can be liberating, but also financially trying.
by Leanne Shapton
Who from art/design history inspires you and do you think they could be considered transitionists?
I’m inspired by William Blake, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Walter Sickert, William Steig, Sontag, Fantin Latour, Bonnard, Morandi, Man Ray, Roald Dahl, Ludwig Bemelmans, Carlos Mollino. I suppose Bell, Man Ray, Wharton, and Mollino might be considered transitionists. But most creative people have different strains of work and have applied their talent to different forms.
Do you see a difference between art and design? And where’s the intersection point?
Design usually has a practical application, which art doesn’t necessarily need. I try not to use distinctions like this because I consider great pieces of design works of art. I think if something has reached a pinnacle of expression regardless of form, application or context it can be seen as art.
by Leanne Shapton
Do you listen to different types of music when working on each?
If I am listening to music while working I’ll listen to the same album or song over and over again, like Nick Nolte in that one short on New York Stories who played “Whiter Shade of Pale” over and over. Right now I’m listening to “Pressure Drop” by Toots & Maytals.
In Important Artifacts, you tell a linear story of a relationship through their possessions – many of which belonged to you. Why do these relics have such power
I think it’s because they don’t have words. They don’t have dialogue backing up their emotions. That’s what makes it so immediate. There are just layers of images and memories. While a digital email or even a letter can hit the nail on the head, something more ephemeral can be more haunted because it doesn’t have words to reinforce its meaning.
by Leanne Shapton
Is that why you’re a packrat?
I can’t throw things away because they’re too infused. I threw a few things away after the book because I realized they were just stupid or ugly and I couldn’t remember the memory – so obviously it had faded. But yeah, I get quite attached to things and their sentiment by habit. My dad was a packrat too. He designed snow-brushes and soap and televisions, and did some car design. This barn in Caledon, Ontario is full of Studebaker parts and carburetors and Supra hoods and old magazines. My mother is a packrat too; all of us. When my parents moved to the country, we realized what an estate sale was and went to country auctions. Lot 52, ten boxes. God knows what’s in them! Then we’d schlep them home and find the weirdest stuff.
Were there items in the book that had parallel meanings to what they mean to you?
Oh, yeah. Well, like the stuffed squirrel. My boyfriend gave me that for Christmas, so it had some meaning to our relationship. But in the book, they find it at a yard sale when they’re playing house. At that stage in the book, I wanted them to buy crockery and quilts and set up sort of how the story used it for their purposes. But he wouldn’t have given her a squirrel.
You transformed an array of items into a story, and now Brad Pitt is interested in turning the results into a film. What’s your take on a cinematic translation?
At first I thought a catalogue is so bookish, and it’s just an experience you have looking at and reading captions. I think it was my editor’s husband who said something like “You’ve already cast it, and propped it, and styled it and done all the production design – all they have to do is write dialogue.” He was joking, but maybe that’s what they saw in it. In the process of making the book, I had to think about it in a shot-list sort of way. I had to say, “Here’s where you’re at in your relationship. This is Italy. Here’s your spaghetti. “So it was very directed. There is an element of telling stories through pictures – and that’s what film is. I think it could be done, I just don’t know how.
by Leanne Shapton
How did you make the conversion from working on a book to the daily pressure of the New York Times Op-Ed page?
It was like going from talking to my dog all day, to having to talk to and relate to get approval from and assign to twenty people. My life completely changed. It got 80% harder. The standards at the Times are very, very high, and that’s incredible—but at the same time, there’s so much to answer to. These editors are so smart and sharp and funny. I love that, but it’s hard. The last art director had the job for four years. They call it a “burnout job” because people stay from two and four years. He left and suggested me. The timing was such that I could finish my book and then ease in.
So you’re an artist that acts as an intermediary between the Times and other artists. What’s the process of selecting who illustrates which editorials?
When an illustrator comes to me with their book, I always ask “What kind of subject matter are you interested in?” People will have preferences: technology, medicine, health, politics, domestic situations, conflict, inter-personal situations. You get to understand by looking at someone’s work what they handle well. Your mind goes to what you’ve loved that you’ve seen of theirs. It’s nice when you give someone something unusual and they handle it well.
The Times Op-Ed page is a place of strident political discourse with a wide spectrum of opinions – is it difficult to conceptualize ideas for editorials you don’t agree with?
All of the editors on the op-ed page know this is a place where the underdog has a voice—it has to be a well-argued, coherent voice—it’s very much “Let’s keep both sides of the argument.” I feel really lucky to be in an environment like that. An illustrator has every right to say “I hate what this guy is saying, I don’t want to do a drawing for this.” And that’s only come up once or twice. I remember being on the other side of that and I chose to do an illustration to accompany something I didn’t agree with. I just thought, “Okay, I’ll stretch, I’ll try to do this.” It’s an exercise in open-mindedness. You have to find reason and compassion for someone else’s viewpoint. And I think that’s a pretty nice place to be.
So, after you get burned out, what will you be doing down the line?
I want to do another book. And then I’m working for this thing for Drawn & Quarterly. It’s out of Montreal. They do graphic novels and they have a little offshoot where they do non-narrative books by graphic novelists or different writers. I’ve been working on a book of abstract textile painting.
Is the goal to be a full time artist?
I’d like to do what I love full time, whether that results in art, journalism, books, paintings or baking.