Artist Interviews 2023
By Laura Siebold
Lisa Swerling is a miniature artist who creates miniature worlds in artboxes. She playfully invites the viewer to explore the world behind the glass and enter a world of memories. Lisa’s “Glass Cathedrals” are oftentimes commissions that recreate family portraits, weddings, anniversaries, and other special moments in the lives of her clients. Her art also addresses topics like social injustice and urges the spectator to engage with the topic through art. I first discovered Lisa’s art in 2021 at The Other Art Fair, when Covid was still on the rise, and was instantly captivated by her meaningful miniature art.
Lisa Swerling is also the better half of artist Ralph Lazar whom we’ve featured in Art Squat magazine many issues ago. In this issue, we learn more about Lisa’s magical parallel world that relates to us as “being funny little humans traveling around a big planet” and reminds us that life is extraordinary.
Moments in miniature
Lisa, your Glass Cathedrals are truly special, and something I had never seen before! Can you please explain to our readers what exactly it is that you do? What makes your art so special?
Thank you! I make miniature worlds in boxes called Glass Cathedrals - in fact I’ve made thousands over the last 20 or so years. I adapt model railways figurines to create scenes of tiny people doing extraordinary things.
The combination of working at the very small scale of 1:87, and the medium of the box, which one looks into from the outside, helps to create an other-worldly and quite emotional experience. You are looking into a magical parallel world, one that reflects back what is most precious about our own.
When did you first start creating your miniature art boxes? How did the idea come to life, and what has changed since you first started?
About twenty years ago, I put a chewed-up old model railway figure, given to me by an architect friend, onto a toy chair and into a plain wooden box. I am always moving bits and bobs around the house to create funny little scenes, so this was nothing remarkable at first glance.
But in fact, I noticed something quite extraordinary had occurred. The little guy, who had been quite lost and random outside the box, had suddenly been transformed into something different. He suddenly had his own space, had his own story to tell. Not just that, but I was overwhelmed with a feeling of awe and pity because I identified with him, so vulnerable but also powerful. I suspected this was how many of us felt about being funny little humans traveling around a big planet. The Glass Cathedrals concept was born in that moment. And that idea - and feeling - is at the heart of what I still am trying to achieve in my artworks twenty years later.
For the first few years of making Glass Cathedrals, I focused on expressing and distilling these kinds of big ideas. And turns out my instinct that these miniature worlds spoke to a shared human experience was correct. People from all over the world, and very differing walks of life, have responded so positively. And in fact, many of the designs I made in those first few years - “The world is a scary place, but I have armbands” and “The Nightjob” and “A Woman’s Work” - are still amongst my most popular designs today.
The World is a scary place but I Have armbands
The Night Job
Then I started getting requests to capture people’s unique important events and relationships in Glass Cathedrals. For example, memorable travels, family times, childhood memories, weddinggs:
I realized that what I had been doing all these years was capturing moments in miniature - and to be able to do this on such a personal level was absolutely life-changing for me, I had really found my calling.
Your commissioned miniature art boxes tell very personal life stories that are based on special moments like engagements, weddings, and family portraits. What is necessary for you to create a commissioned artwork, and how long does it take to complete on average?
Commissioned artworks are often simpler to conceptualize than you’d think.
Perhaps this is because the essential ingredients for what is precious in life are common to many people, in the best possible way. Meaning comes from relationships, a sense of achievement in one’s own life (which often come from the small moments more than the big) and a sense of connection to a time and place.
People often come to me already knowing what they’d like to capture, if not, I can help guide them. And from there, I get the literal details needed for the customization - the place, what the people look like, what they’ll be doing or how they’re interacting.
You capture the essence of a scene in the smallest details. How difficult is this process?
The scenes I create are often surprisingly minimalist - the challenge, and perhaps my talent - is to simplify and distill. Less is more! I want to create a feeling of a parallel world, not a theatre set - poetic not literal - and this is best achieved with an uncluttered, airy space.
Did you ever have to start over completely if you weren’t satisfied with the results of your work?
I have occasionally started over, yes. But it’s very rare because after twenty years, I am now pretty in tune with what will work or not.
Do you prefer working independently, or would you like to collaborate with other artists in the future?
My natural inclination is to work independently, but I do also love being surrounded by other artists’ work. A while back, I began a project called “Tiny Artist Box Worlds’ where I’ve been collaborating with artists to make box portraits of them in their creative element.
I ask the artist to somehow fill the box with their creation - usually this would mean them painting on the walls of the box, and then I make a tiny figure of them at work. So, their art immediately becomes epically big in scale, relative to the figure of them, and the interior becomes an expression of their whole creative world.
My dream is to build this collection to 20 or 30 portraits of brilliant artists from around the world, and to then exhibit the collection.
You have a very diverse background and have lived in many different countries and places – South Africa, England, the U.S., and Mexico. Who or what has been your greatest inspiration to this day?
My inspiration mainly comes from small everyday moments, which could take place anywhere. I am quite domestic in my inclinations, so the travels and adventures have been a happy coincidence, mainly fueled by my artist husband’s zest for life and need for a sunny rock to lie on. He is also an artist,
, so we do try to live ‘Life as Art’! Of course, though, I have been inspired by the energy and colors of beautiful places - Mexico in particular - and created work in response, for example a collection of Glass Cathedrals with miniature Frida Kahlos set against giant painted glittery flowers.
What I really loved about that was making miniature outfits for Frida! When I’m creating her clothes, I look through my boxes of treasures and ephemera as if through the eyes of a 3/4 inch Frida Kahlo and imagine the delight she would have felt. A single piece of glitter becomes a pendant, a scrap of golden thread a belt, a broken sequin becomes a headdress, and a torn strip of tape becomes a beautifully creased full-length skirt.
What is the main purpose of your artistic work? Elaborate.
Somehow, when people look into Glass Cathedrals, they can connect to the apparent contradictions of being human - the absurdity of life, and the glory.
There are so many troubles and challenges bombarding all of us - not least the foundational headfuck of being mortal - that it is a rare thing to be able to simultaneously acknowledge this, and also to be moved by a kind of uplifting compassion for ourselves, and others. So, you could say the main purpose of my artistic work is to help people cry and hug.
We are excited about future projects. Do you plan on doing something “outside of the box” in the future, or will the unique collection of Glass Cathedrals grow further? Where can we find your art next?
I always have lots of plans. Some are ambitious and unlikely, some are small and more likely to happen. For example, just last week I became disproportionately excited about a new idea: To create a collection of Glass Cathedrals featuring elephants disappearing into backdrops, “The Elephant in the Room”. I have made one already…but a whole exhibition of them… oo la la… watch this space!
Many plans take years to percolate, I just keep working hard, keep my eyes open for new connections and opportunities, and have a kind of irrational faith (is there any other kind?) that good things will burst forth, in their own time.
We are excited about past achievements, and future projects. Where can we see your art next?
I am part of an upcoming show at Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek Bay Area CA:
Bits + Pieces: Contemporary Art on a Small Scale
Bits + Pieces: Contemporary Art on a Small Scale explores the cultural phenomenon of miniature things. From teacup dogs and ships in a bottle, to tiny dinner tables set with a feast, fascination with pint-sized items has endured the test of time. The featured artists work in micro and small-scale, creating intricate paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and installations in direct opposition to their standard-sized counterparts. With a focus on minute, precise details, this exhibition celebrates the quirky anomaly that permeates our world.
Plus, this is a great article, Think Inside The Box, about how my art intersects with Barbie world :) I think that’s how you may have heard of me in the first place?