Artist Lisa Swerling Transforms Book Scenes into Whimsical Dioramas
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
So goes the quote by Emerson, which is seemingly perfect for the book-themed shadowboxes by Bay Area artist Lisa Swerling. Poignant scenes extracted from books are encapsulated within dioramas, provoking feelings of nostalgia, intrigue, and wonder.
Her overarching series of artboxes are called Glass Cathedrals, but as a publisher, we’re particularly keen on her book-themed ones, which she has decided to take on tour for The Traveling Bookbox Show.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
The ethereal nature of these bookboxes is an extension of Swerling’s working style: she creates the boxes based on her recollections and feelings about particular scenes, not direct excerpts. The books we read are muddled into our consciousness, and while specific memories often delude us, it’s how we feel that lingers over the years. That’s the beauty of the bookboxes—how, in Swerling’s words, “my slightly-wrong-book-memories have nonetheless woven their magic and meaning into the making of my worldview.”
We chatted with her about her work, inspirations, and future plans. Read on, and prepare to be charmed.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Q: How do you pick which book scene to make into an artbox?
A: Usually I’m making boxes of books I’ve read a very long time ago, and so often I can only remember one scene from the book! But that is the ultimate sign of that scene’s power and hold over me. I usually don’t try to reclaim more of my memory than that. There is a magic in trying to get to the essence of the book without relying on remembering the details. It suits my inclination anyway—I respond to connections more than facts.
For example, the scene from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being of Tomas and Teresa dancing slowly in a dark Czechoslovakian bar has returned to me constantly since I read it twenty-five years ago. The mood, the light, the tenderness. And it is the last night of their lives. It stayed with me, not so much for the loss of the characters (I could barely remember their names), but for the truth that any day may be one’s last, and you will never know it. That’s why we should treat each other with compassion.
Q: How long does a bookbox usually take to make?
A: The physical making of each bookbox is not so time-consuming, but distilling the ideas, the characters, the narrative, and the heart of the book so it fits perfectly into a small box—that can take years!
Q: What was your favorite bookbox to create?
A: Anyone who loves Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro agrees that the scene where Kathy is dancing alone with her pillow to music on a cassette, while her teacher watches weeping, is mind-blowing: the poignancy, the hope, and the horror. I think in that case, I wanted to almost own that scene—to make it a tangible part of my life.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter started off as a bit of a tough bookbox. There’s not one scene that encapsulates the whole book series for me, so I decided to make the whole cast of characters over time. I’m only on seven characters! Whenever I have a spare moment I magic up a new character, most recently Dumbledore. I think Mad Eye Moody has to be next!
I loved making The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a children’s book by British writer Judith Kerr. Painting the little girl’s pinafore and the smile on the tiger, choosing the carpet color, setting a teeny tiny table with teatime treats, I thought to myself, “I love my job.”
Q: What has been your favorite reaction to your bookboxes?
A: I’m used to people laughing and crying in front of my boxes, and I hold it dear every time. But recently, I was struck by my own reaction. After I set up The Traveling Bookbox Show last week in Lutyens & Rubinstein Bookshop in Notting Hill, London, I was really quite moved to see my artworks on the bookshelves, perfectly at home. It was just like my vision of how magical the boxes could be in the right setting—sparkling treasures hidden amongst beloved books.
Q: Which bookbox is at the top of your to-do list?
A: The next bookbox in the making is The Perfect Storm by Sebastien Junger. The challenge of creating a seething, sparkling sea swallowing up the little boat means I need to make the interior more theatrical and three-dimensional, which is a direction I’m really excited to explore.
Although, perhaps all the books in my long pipeline are just standing in the way of me making the bookbox for Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. That book is the reason I called my artbox series Glass Cathedrals fifteen years ago, even though I hadn’t even read it yet. I read the book recently and found his “glass cathedral” concept even more resonant with my art—it’s currently floating about in the cocoon of my subconscious, waiting to emerge as a bookbox some time in the future.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In addition to her sparkling creations, we’re proud to have Swerling as one of our authors, creating the Happiness Is… series with her husband Ralph Lazar.
Photo by Rachel Weill
Lisa Swerling is currently in London for The Traveling Bookbox Show, and will be headed to Portland, Oregon, afterwards—find more details about her tour here. You can also keep up with her on her website, Facebook, and Instagram.
All photos used with permission from Lisa Swerling
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