In 2006, Lisa Swerling and her husband, the illustrator, Ralph Lazar, made a bold, somewhat reckless, decision. Over the previous seven years, the South African-born couple had built an internationally successful graphic art licensing company, Last Lemon Productions, in London, creating award-winning cartoons such as Vimrod and Harold’s Planet. However, while they always strived to make sure their commercial work was quirky and original, the parameters of what tens of thousands of people will buy on a greetings card or T-shirts (plus the demands of bringing up two young children), meant they spent less and less time creating art without constraints. So they hired a room in Spitalfields Market, East London and told their family, friends, business partners and fans of their cartoons that they were having an art exhibition.
“One job remained,” recalls Swerling. “To make the art. Gulp.”
So they got busy. Ralph contributed a collection of glossy red troughs filled with communities of individually-named sausage creatures among other things. Meanwhile, Lisa, a former Oxford graduate (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) and art foundation course student at Central Saint Martins College, created her first ‘Glass Cathedrals’.
She drew inspiration from a passage in the book ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ by Peter Carey, in which a life-size glass church, made by missionaries in the Australian outback, is seen floating down a river with a trapped dragonfly inside, colliding against the walls, trying to escape, and a treasured gift from an architect friend of a miniature figure with a leg missing. So she built glass-fronted boxes and created scenes inside using miniature figures, sourced from railway sets and architects’ models, hand-painting them to suit her intentions. As Swerling puts it, “In Glass Cathedrals the heroes are the tiny figures, my boxes the space where they struggle, aspire, dance, dream.”
From a standing start, the couple’s inaugural exhibition proved a success: “We dressed up our babies in their finest fake furs, hired a candyfloss machine, held a party, and it was so much fun we made it an annual event. After a few years, we started holding them in a huge space down the road, part of Truman's Brewery.”
More importantly, Swerling had finally found an outlet to express herself.
In May this year, the LA Times reported that Swerling’s work ‘stole the show’ at the über-cool Los Angeles Designer Craft Fair.
“In reality the concepts behind the Glass Cathedrals are based on the sorts of thoughts I've been having since I was six,” she says. ‘Why do I have to tidy my room?’ … ‘Help, I'm going to die one day’ … ‘I love small’ … ‘I don't want to jump in the pool, but I will anyway’ … ‘Yay, glitter!’ … etc.”
Today, five years on, orders for Glass Cathedrals are streaming in from all over the world, most recently Greece, Brazil, France, Britain, and the USA where Swerling and family now live having decamped to San Anselmo near San Fransisco in August 2010. In May this year, the LA Times reported that Swerling’s work ‘stole the show’ at the über-cool Los Angeles Designer Craft Fair. She now exhibits regularly in LA and is currently preparing new works to be showcased at the Origin Contemporary Craft Fair in Spitalfields, London, in late September.
Swerling was born and raised in South Africa and emigrated with her family to London, aged 14, in 1987. After university and art college, she was working in a “tiny graphic design studio” in 1999 when she met Lazar. He was an economic strategist for Credit Suisse in the city at the time, but his ambition was to become a professional illustrator. They decided to take a year’s sabbatical and moved to a small island in the Seychelles. Within a week of arriving, they got engaged (they married in 2000).
“We barely had running water, but did have internet access — only just. Ralph did consultancy work for Credit Suisse from our ramshackle house overlooking the Indian Ocean. At the same time we began developing our idea for a cartoon world, Harold's Planet, for a TV series for a big French Production Company. Also lots of snorkeling took place… “
When they returned to London, they found that they could earn a living licensing their cartoon properties for cards, merchandise, books, and so Lazar did not need to return to his job. He applied the same work ethic to cartoons as he had to his prevous career, getting up early and adopting an intense schedule each day. Swerling also worked full-time for Last Lemon, doing some of the creative work of writing stories and cartoons, but mainly taking responsibility for design, editorial and legal work.
But what I like about the artworks is that there is an intrinsic sympathy one feels with the figures which softens the ridiculousness of their pursuits.
While she continues to work part-time for the family business, at least 50 per cent of her time is now devoted to Glass Cathedrals and with the ideas still flowing and demand growing, Swerling admits that she is struggling to keep all the balls in the air — “Viva les evenings”.
Glass Cathedrals range in price from smaller boxes for £225 to larger limited editions at £880. “I like to have the range so that people have an alternative of buying an affordable artwork,” she explains. “But if they want more of an 'investment' piece the big Glass Cathedrals are all limited editions which seems to protect their resale value… although I don't believe that's what motivates people to buy Glass Cathedrals.”
Indeed, the attraction of her work is more the universal themes of everyday life which Swerling manages to crystallise into poignant scenes, from ‘Marriage Vow’, depicting a couple leaping off a high diving board into the unknown, to the slapstick humour of ‘Farty Party’, and the melancholy ‘Wallflower’, a touching piece in which a woman sits alone among many empty chairs waiting hopefully, but for whom and for how long?
“Like a lot of people,” she says, “I have moments of inspiration, my own particular realisations about what it is to be a funny little human traveling around this big planet. Now what do you do with all these little thoughts? Well, I started putting mine in boxes.
“For example, I am always waffling on about how human's recent obsession with cleanliness – sterilising surfaces, over-vaccination — is THE modern malady, a reflection of our detachment from nature and a pathetic search for meaning in our difficult times. My Glass Cathedral ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ distills this view.
“But what I like about the artworks is that there is an intrinsic sympathy one feels with the figures which softens the ridiculousness of their pursuits. So whilst I am saying ‘Check out that poor woman, spending her whole life cleaning an infinite floor — is she mad?’ you also feel what she is attempting is in her way heroic, soothing to her soul, and maybe as good a way to pass time as any. One becomes a benevolent, merciful god, looking into the boxes.”
To purchase and view more of Lisa Swerling’s Glass Cathedrals, click here
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