Friday, January 20, 2012

Ten Minutes with Gary Swanson, The Modern Primitive

Last Friday night there were three art openings within walking distance of one another in Downtown Duluth. That morning I wrote about the PRØVE, Ochre Ghost and Washington Galleries in the hopes of generating a bit of a Gallery Hop that evening. Gary Swanson's sculptures were on display at the Washington in a unique presentation with two other artists.

Earlier this week I met with Swanson to learn more about his background and motivations. His American Primitive series is simply marvelous. I don’t know if all public school art teachers are this thoughtful and insightful, but if even only half were I believe I’ve found a new basis for hope in public education.

Ennyman: How did you first take an interest in art?
Gary Swanson: My interest in art stems from watching my mother while growing up. She was a very crafty lady. She was creative at using materials she could find. She grew up in the Depression era. She never threw anything away. It left a mark on her. We couldn’t eat at the kitchen table because it was always covered with projects she was working on.

We were also a musical family. My father taught and we sang a lot as a family. I also had a cousin who had an effect on me, Louanne Peterson. She was a painter who also did collage and assemblage art.

E: You got a BFA in 1980. What attracted you to teaching art to elementary school kids?
GS: I didn’t find teaching. Teaching found me. While getting my art degree I took education courses, “just in case.” Teaching was Plan B.

My wife Jean and I were hired in Solon Springs. They were seeking to fill one position with a person who had both art and music training. We said to them, “Hire us and we’ll split the job.” This worked out great for us as one of us was always at home while the other was at school. She’s now choir director in Solon Springs. After eight years I moved to the Maple school district where I’ve been for 23 years.

The more time I spent in the classroom, the more it felt like a calling.

E: What prompted you to return to school and get your MFA?
GS: There were incentives. You could raise yourself on the salary scale by continuing your education. The district wants you to continue picking up credits. It was different when our kids were little. In 2005, when the kids were grown it made sense.

When I went back I decided to focus on outside art. By that I mean the art of primitive cultures, children, and, let’s say, cognitively challenged. All of these groups are highly intuitive, self-taught artists. I wanted to focus on outsider art and its influence on modern art.

I began with German Expressionism and how it became a bridge to modern art. This became the foundation of my concept of “Modern Primitive” in which I fuse discarded materials with modern manufactured materials.

I’ve always wanted my work to be authentic. I wanted to make a statement.

E: What role does art play in the schools? Why is it important to support our art programs?
GS: Thankfully, in our district we’ve had strong support (for the arts.) But you have to make an effort to make the art visible. Any time I can put artwork for public viewing . I’m all over that.

Children’s art, from the standpoint of creativity, problem solving and fostering imagination, is key to education. Art movements have shaped our culture. And fostering imagination I vital.

There can be an emphasis (in our culture) on herd mentality. Art and music offer a reprieve through freedom of expression.

I like to say that I’m an art facilitator, not a teacher. Their art is just as just as important. They inspire me.

E: What kinds of objectives does an elementary school art teach set for his students?
GS: I try to give them a variety of materials. Materials drive the pieces. It’s your reaction to the materials that create the outcomes. Different kinds of paint, wood, etc. I plan out materials and let them discover, giving them a chance for discovery.

Swanson explained that “You have to keep your art behind the curtain.” By this he meant that it is the natural inclination of the students to want to emulate the teacher. In the art realm, his aim is to avoid this happening so that their on innate creativity emerges.

E: You went to college in the late 70s and again this past decade. How has the teaching of art changed over that period of time?
GS: The technology, especially the Internet. In the 70’s you would dig through the library to find artists and study their work. Now, there is so much online. You can find examples of every artist’s work. You can reference and cross-reference…

In my experience there’s more emphasis today on environmental issues. Green art wasn’t even on the scene. Social issues are also being reflected in today’s art. There’s a greater awareness of political correctness. There’s also a greater sensitivity to community, which surprises me a little. There’s a greater sense of community and community action.

E: Who are your favorite artists?
GS: I’ve been attracted to the work of Jean Dubuffet. Raw art. His work is fascinating. I also like the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Marc Chagall. Louise Nevelson. The list could go on and on.

Gary Swanson's assemblage sculptures reflect a certain comic streak that is within the artist himself. When he describes some of the ways he teaches, including wearing costumes at times, you get a sense that here is a thoughtful man who knows he is blessed at having found his calling. It was a joy meeting him last Friday evening and again for this interview Tuesday.



ENNYMAN said...

A quick note about last week's
Lost, Found and Reassembled show at the Washinton. Gary's son Jacob and his wife Madison Ohm helped bring Gary's creative work to a higher level. You really needed to see it to fully appreciate it.

Mike Savage - Savage Press said...

Gary's a treasure, a true treasure.