Friday, January 15, 2010

Ten Minutes with Painter Adam Swanson

For a relatively small city Duluth has a fairly active arts community. There are, however, a finite number of spaces where one can show one's work, and once you start poking around you will quickly see who's actively seeking venues to display.

Ever since my show at The Venue last summer I have been returning each month to see who else is making pictures. It was there that Adam Swanson's bicycle paintings first caught my attention. Like some of my own work, he paints on masonite. And it is clear that he loves the whole process of painting in the same way that Diebenkorn or Picasso is "painterly." I then saw a few of his pieces at Lizzards, and currently his work is decorating The Red Mug, another high profile space in a very artsy setting in Superior, across the bridge.

This week I contacted Adam to see if he had time for a short interview whereupon I learned of his circuitous route to Duluth. And like most of the artists I have, their lives are as interesting as their work.

Ennyman: You mention that you are new to Duluth this past year. Tell me about your life before coming to Duluth?
Adam: My life these past 10 years has been fragmented into a variety of short, semi-related sections. Before coming to Duluth last February, I spent a year abroad. After living for 3 years in Ithaca, NY working as a book and manuscript conservator (and painting) I moved to Antarctica for a 9 month contract position fixing and working on boats used for science. The contract left me in South America where I spent a few months traveling. I eventually landed in MN last January, looking to set up shop somewhere to work on my art. I began at a cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior and finally found a spot in Duluth to work on art full-time in February. That lasted (and it was good) until August, when I started working at my current job.

Ennyman: What do you do for a living to support making paintings?
Adam: I am a bartender at Zeitgeist Arts Cafe.

Ennyman: What is your opinion of the current art scene in New York?
Adam: I don't know much about it. I like conceptual art quite a lot. In fact, concept is one of the main things that holds me in a work of art. Seeing art in New York usually excites me because with so many people, there are so many ideas floating around. I have been to New York City about a dozen times and always find something that makes me think about things in a new way. There is so much art to see in the whole world however; it is important for me to be engaged and I love it when I can key into a few personally meaningful ideas.

Ennyman: When did you first become aware that you had a desire to paint?
Adam: I have been making art since I was a child and began to take it more seriously during my undergraduate degree in studio art at UMD. I paint now because it's the best way I can think of to make imagery that grabs people and expresses some of my ideas. I like to paint because it is a meditation that I have on an idea. Painting is something I am working on getting better at, so that I can communicate more clearly. But I really love all art forms and would love to get into something else someday. Sculpture or film perhaps.

Ennyman: Who were your biggest influences as you pursued a life as an artist?
Adam: Vincent VanGogh, Andrew Goldsworthy, Talouse Lautrec, Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison (Architect's Brother), Edward Gorey and of course there are many, many more.

Ennyman: What's the story behind all these bicycle paintings?
Adam: Firstly, I love bicycles. Bikes are a symbol of human ingenuity to me. I believe they have character and are very lovely, efficient machines. If I could paint people better, I would probably paint them in their place much of the time. When I make my work I am primarily focusing on our natural universe and the human place within it. Bikes are also a great way for me to experiment with my technique. They are complicated objects with lots of little bits and pieces and it has been fun to (try and) pare it down to minimum components. Most of the bikes I paint are of friends or loved ones. Many are of the 1969 Schwinn Cruiser my dad gave me. I have put a lot of work into it and I love the way it looks.

Ennyman: Why the decision to paint on masonite panels rather than canvas?
Adam: I like the texture of masonite. The texture of canvas has always been something I struggled to get rid of. And I never roll it up, so having a painting on a board is roughly the same weight and shape as having it on stretched canvas. Masonite is cheap and sturdy, and often made of recycled materials. I have thought about painting on birch or some type of wood, to lower the acidity (though I am not sure it would). But masonite always seems to be so much flatter and straighter. And I gesso it up pretty good before painting. I think my paintings are fairly archival...? I take photos of all of my paintings, because the end image is really important to me. I would like to have better photos.

Ennyman: What's your current situation with art/work/life?
Adam: I live in Duluth in Central Hillside. I live with my girlfriend and we are getting ready for a baby. I have a studio in my house, where I work at least a few hours a day. More on my days off. And looking forward to having a couple of months again before my next show to do some more experimenting.

Note: To catch Adam Swanson's paintings in person, be sure to visit the Red Mug in Superior during the month of January. If that doesn't work for you, because you live in Portugal or maybe Brazil, visit and see why many people are finding his work exciting. And, for the record, his themes include more than just bicycles. Check it out.

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