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Lisa Swerling’s Glass Cathedrals

Miniature worlds that explore and celebrate the human condition

by CH Contributor
on 13 February 2014

by Eva Glettner


To view Lisa Swerling’s "Glass Cathedrals" for the first time is a magical and powerful experience. Perhaps it’s the dimensions that grab you, or how the real and the surreal blend together, or the way it conveys just how tiny we are in this gigantic universe. No matter what, the viewer is sure to be charmed by the little worlds Swerling creates. The artist spoke with us about her muse, her inspiration and her message.

How did your very first glass cathedral come about?

I was given a tiny architect figurine about 10 years ago. This little guy was in a triumphant pose—arms upraised—except he had lost both arms above his elbows. His resilience touched me. I felt sorry for him and kept him around—I often feel empathy for inanimate objects. It's like they're telling a story, and I'm listening. 

About a year or two later, on a whim, I put him in a plain wooden box. He was instantly transformed, no longer to be pitied. He owned the space. I knew something interesting and wonderful had happened with the combination of figure and box. And so "Glass Cathedrals" were born. 

Can you tell us a little about your motivation and inspiration?

I am coming at my art from the perspective of making connections, juxtaposing surprising things to create new meaning—be it poetic or absurd. So the motivation for me in putting a tiny figure in a relatively enormous space is less about the miniaturization per se, but about the spark that is ignited by looking at the human condition from this new perspective. I think people's empathy for the figures goes beyond the specific scene reenacted, we get a glimpse of how infinitesimally tiny we are in the vast universe. Which is insane enough for me.

Your work is so whimsical and energetic, but working on such a tiny scale has its limitations—is it difficult?

It is so very fun. Physically, I live in a whirlwind of glitter dust and amongst hordes of miniature people. I chide them when they slip from my grasp, I accidentally cut off limbs, I paint pubic hair on fairies—honestly, that's when I knew I loved my job. It doesn't get boring because I continuously come up with new ideas. So many of the random thoughts I have, not amazing in themselves, can translate into a resonant artwork when crystalized and put in a box. For example yesterday I thought, "Isn't it hilarious how (mostly) men proudly hold up the fish that they catch, and take a photo." Simple enough observation. Can I make a Glass Cathedral from this subject? Well, if I get my hands on some guy's lifetime collection of such fishing photos, and make a gallery of them in a box with him as spectator in this style, I can communicate this passing thought at a deeper level. 

Suddenly, we can appreciate his incredible dedication, the epic passion this guy has experienced fishing. If our life's work is doing what we love, why shouldn't it be fishing? It's simultaneously absurd and inspiring. We begin to identify him with ourselves—as humans we are all small, in space and time but we feel important. Maybe our own seemingly prosaic existence is equally epic? 

Do you have a favorite piece?

I love the custom artworks I make to capture a people's particular memory or relationship. I loved making "Land of Giants" for the family who'd just finished an amazing trip in Southern Africa. Or "Wow, What a Ride" the title taken from a quote meaningful to this couple, engaged in their shared passion: Rock-climbing.

I am surprised every time how the "Glass Cathedrals" manage to capture magical moments. And I like my connection with the person who's commissioned the artwork. It's a strange thing; to have a relationship via tiny figures, with people I've often not even met. It feels alchemical, like we are all characters in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book. 

Swerling's "Glass Cathedrals" are on show for just one night at London's Millbank Tower on 17 April 2014. RSVP for the private show online.

Images courtesy of Lisa Swerling

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