In the Gallery: The Swerling Circus of Small

Roll up, roll up! Anthropologie is delighted to announce the arrival The Swerling Circus of Small in our King’s Road gallery. This remarkable, engaging—and teeny-weeny—new show features the extraordinary glass-box miniatures of artist Lisa Swerling—coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the Circus.

A series of miniature, whimsical worlds in boxes, these dioramas express big ideas with tiny helpers – dancing bears, couples captured in an eternal embrace, expectant wallflowers, miniature ping-pong players, and mythical creatures. There’s an undeniable magic and charm in each of Lisa’s miniature artworks. Maybe it’s their window-like structure, giving the viewer a unique feeling of peeking into an entirely new, untouchable world. Maybe it’s the joy of seeing such teeny-tiny figurines doing such wonderful things. Maybe it’s all the glitter.

Whatever it is, the South African artist has a way of inventing and capturing sparkling parallel worlds, that reflect the poignancy, absurdity and beauty of our own. We simply had to know more about these miniature worlds, and the woman who dreamt them into existence.

If you had to describe yourself in three words, they would be…

Existential, warm, lucky.

The idea of a miniature, whimsical world in a box is quite unusual. How did this come about?

A long time ago I was given a chewed-up miniature figure by an architect friend. He was in quite an unusual pose—arms upraised and face exultant… except his forearms had been chewed off. I loved the combination of triumph and tragedy. Then one day I put him in a wooden box, and he and the space around him were transformed, he was no longer an object to be pitied. The figure was so small in the box, yet somehow in control of his destiny. I knew I was onto something, and the Glass Cathedrals concept was born.

How do you dream up the scenes?

Sometimes I start with a figure, sometimes with a little story I want to tell, and occasionally with a title. My intention is always to distil the essence of a big ideas—love, fear, ambition, faith, empathy—in the box.

I only worked out what my creative process is quite recently: I let it all float around my head for a while, and then at some point the idea, narrative and emotion comes together and the little scene comes alive as a parallel universe.

An example: “The World Is A Scary Place But I Have Armbands”, one of my very first Glass Cathedrals, began when I found a figure of little girl with armbands. I imagined her standing at the deep end, wondering whether to jump in, feeling vulnerable… but also brave, because she had armbands. How odd and wonderful to gain confidence from something as flimsy as armbands! And in turn, how odd and wonderful that we all gain strength in life from things that are small, transient, fallible (as everything is), that give us the courage to go on, jump into the unknown, despite the insurmountable challenges of life and death.

Then, about six years ago I began to make customised Glass Cathedrals, capturing people’s special moments in boxes—travels, people, homes. I now have a constant stream of ideas delivered to my inbox.

Do you have a favourite box? Or one that particularly captivates you?

Dance Me to the End of Love”  holds a particular emotional intimacy for me. It was inspired by an outdoor party on a warm summer night in the south of France in the early 1990s. Leonard Cohen was my soundtrack to those years so the song “Dance me to the End of Love” was the perfect title. Looking into the box takes me back.

Did you always dream of being an artist? Or did childhood Lisa have different aspirations?

I’m not sure if I had particular aspirations as a child. Certainly, I never imagined adult life being an artist, if anything I dreamed of being a gypsy. Or a job swimming with fishes, because I like fish. I have never been ambitious in any conventional sense, I follow my nose and have never been very worried about the future, and luckily the path my nose has led me down has been a very nice one paved with glitter.

You’re very well-travelled, and have lived in Cape Town, London and California to name just three. How have the places that you visited and put down roots in influenced your art?

Yes, I find creative inspiration in travel and diversity, but even more importantly for me, change has forced innovation and resourcefulness. That has been invaluable to my success as a working artist.

Before you started making boxes, were there any other disciplines of art that you practiced?

My great artistic love is life-drawing with charcoal. Drawing the lines and contours of a person is a kind of creative meditation for me.

Who is your favourite artist?

It has to be my husband Ralph Lazar. He has had an irrepressible urge to create since he was a child, from making huge papier-mâché characters on the rooftops of west London in the ’80s, to his current brilliant composited cardboard paintings, all about the mad world we live in. After nearly 50 years of private outpourings of creativity, he has just shown his art to the public seriously for the very first time at The Other Art Fair in LA. He totally sold out so I am glad the world has caught up with me, and him.

What is it like being married to another artist?

Ralph and I are in some ways an odd couple. I seek the small delights of life. Ralph is bold, he thinks ‘big’ and this is reflected in our approaches to life and art.  It means everything Ralph creates is a lovely surprise for me, things I would never have thought of in a million years. And we have been a constant source of encouragement to each other from the very beginning, which has made ALL the difference.

Who is your style inspiration?  

Pippi Longstockings meets Alice Temperley.

How old are your daughters? And what do they think of what you do for a job?

My daughters Bea (17) and Mila (15) love my boxes and are always raiding my infinite glitter collection. I often ask their opinion if I am unsure of something, I really value their sense and sensibilities.

They have quite an odd experience of what parents do for a living. We’ve both been able to spend so much time around them, and we’re often covered in paint (Ralph) and glitter (me), cutting and gluing and always dreaming up plans and experiences, big and small, serious and ridiculous, some successes and plenty of failures. They have also seen us struggle, seen how difficult it is to make a living from art, and I’m glad of that.

What’s been the proudest moment of your career to date?

My proudest moments come when I’m making a custom commission of someone’s experience and I can feel it in my bones that it’s just perfect. By some alchemy I have captured the spirit of the memory in the box, and I can feel how moved they will be when they receive it. It feels important, and like magic.

Those hoping to catch a glimpse into the Swerling Circus of Small can head to our King’s Road Gallery from November 22nd, 2018.  

For your chance to win one of Lisa’s Glass Cathedrals, enter here.