Worldly South African artists find home in San Anselmo By: Megan Ann Hansen (email@example.com)
POSTED: Friday, June 29, 2018 – 11:19 a.m. UPDATED: TODAY
South African artists Ralph Lazar and Lisa Swerling moved to San Anselmo from England nine years ago. (Megan Ann Hansen photo) Nine years ago, South African artists Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar decided to relocate from London. They felt that California would have just the place for their little family to put down roots.
During a 10-day “reconnaissance mission” Swerling and Lazar drove from Laguna Beach to Healdsburg searching for a new place that would be the perfect fit. Marin was never on their map. After landing in Healdsburg on Day 9, the couple almost left, not finding a place that felt right to them. Fortunately, San Anselmo became a last-minute stop, and they knew it was home.
“We got a call from a friend who knew a South African family who had just relocated to San Anselmo from New York,” Swerling said. “I remember first driving through the area to meet them – it ‘spoke’ to us. We had arrived.”
Shortly after moving to San Anselmo, the couple sparked up a partnership with Chronicle Books. As a writing and illustrating duo, they published ‘Me Without You,’ a New York Times bestselling book. They then went on to create the internationally beloved ‘Happiness Is …’ brand through their creative studio Last Lemon. They may also be working on a new children’s book with the Chronicle that will launch in 2020, but it’s a secret. Separately, however, these artists have thriving individual projects that are showing up more and more in Marin County homes and spaces.
Lisa Swerling Just before moving to San Anselmo, Swerling was given a gift that has helped define her current artistic work.
“I was given a tiny architect figurine about 10 years ago,” Swerling said. “This little guy was in a heroic pose – arms upraised and face triumphant – except he had lost both arms above his elbows, I’ve no idea how. 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 later, on a whim, she put him in a plain wooden box. It was as if he, too, had found his new home.
“He was instantly transformed and I no longer pitied him. He owned the space. I knew something interesting and wonderful had happened with the combination of figure and box, his story was finally being told. And so ‘Glass Cathedrals’ were born,” Swerling said.
Glass Cathedrals are usually set in white boxes with scenic backgrounds and small, detailed figures that seem to transform ordinary moments into something extraordinary and larger-than-life.
“In this digital age many are obsessed with the documentation of their lives but the medium and method often feels intrusive and shallow” said Swerling.
Glass Cathedrals have been noticed all over the world, including by the women’s lifestyle brand Anthropologie. Their King’s Road location in London will be hosting an exhibition of Swerling’s work this Christmas. But many locals also own and commission Swerling’s work. You can find a Marin-dedicated part of her website at glasscathedrals.com and can see her work on display frequently at Trouve, in nearby Fairfax.
Ralph Lazar Lazar’s work seems to be everywhere in Marin. Which is fitting, since much of his recent work is inspired by it. His “Here, it’s beautiful” can be seen as a mural on the side of Trouve. It features Mt. Tam and captures a feeling felt by many locals who have stood on the striking summit.
“When you’re somewhere beautiful in nature, there is no need for a lot of words,” Lazar explains.
Lazar’s work is friendly and inviting. Another popular piece is a little smiling monster he created in 2015, named Lyle.
“Lyle is here to remind us that decency and beauty still exists, but needs to be protected,” said Lazar. “Some Lyles are solitary, but most prefer to move in herds from 10 to 50, and can grow up to 8 feet tall. Wherever they go they tend to make people smile and feel a bit better about the world as he seems optimistic regardless of the circumstances.”
Lyles have been popping up all over Marin in homes, but also in other interesting places. For instance, full-size Lyles have been sighted on some local mountain biking paths, but it is more common now to see him smiling in stickers along the trails.
“I’ve been very happy to learn that Lyle is fast becoming a de-facto mascot of mountain biking in Marin,” said Lazar. “He represents so much that is great about this place. Amazing trails, big skies, raw nature at its best, and people who get out there and play.”
Although Lyles are spotted worldwide in urban environments, Lazar insists that they enjoy Marin most. Being native to the county, he explains that their natural breeding habitat is coastal redwood forest and open canopy oak woodland.
Although both of his Marin-inspired works are here to stay, Lazar has been also developing something new.
“My current body of work, entitled My America, is an ongoing, contemporaneous documentation of our times,” Lazar said. “Watching the Trump administration’s assault on the Constitution, the environment and the U.S.’s international relationships, along with administration’s relentless divisiveness, as an artist I feel I have no choice but to highlight these issues.”
These works can be found on the Saatchi Art website at saatchiart.com, and will be showcased in Los Angeles in October and London next summer.
The San Anselmo Art Commission is looking to do a record of all Ross Valley artists. If you are a local artist that lives in the area, contact Kerrie McHugh at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to be added to their new website and to keep them informed of upcoming events.
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