Henry Swanson - Fine art painter
Photography by Rachel Cliver
"I don't call myself an artist. I call myself a painter. I don't think you decide if you're an artist. Other people decide that for you."
HOW DID YOUR ARTISTIC CAREER BEGIN?
"I watched a lot of cartoons and I didn't really take art classes. I thought the idea of art classes was stupid. When I was in elementary school I kind of felt like you either want to draw something or you don't. Art wasn't supposed to be a learning experience. So, the way I saw it, if you made art into a learning experience it would take away all the fun."
I spent a lot of time trying to draw cartoon characters and stuff kids like. I really really liked Looney Tunes, old school cartoons, Charlie Brown, The Wacky Racers, and Pink Panther. Weirdly, nothing from my lifetime was a cartoon I was really watching. Oh and Calvin and Hobbes! My parents bought me a ton of that. And I even spent a lot of time trying to draw cartoon characters from cartoons I didn't really understand. I spent a solid month and a half once trying to draw Dilbert, and I really didn't think Dilbert was a funny comic. I didn't understand workplace humor.
I tell this storyI guess cause it's my "first artistic moment"...
In second grade we were supposed to make some holiday schtick for Thanksgiving, and I made a drawing of Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes. It was the best one I can remember doing, and my teacher noticed I was not doing the assignment. I thought she was going to be mad, but she was like, 'It's so good!' and then she displayed it in front of the classroom. From that point on, I was known as "that guy who draws a lot." So, most of my early artwork was based on being allowed to draw in school."
DID YOUR PERSPECTIVE ABOUT ART & EDUCATION CHANGE WHEN YOU GOT TO ART SCHOOL? OR DID YOU STILL SEPARATE ART FROM EDUCATION?
"I think if you asked my friends they would all say it didn't change. I was probably the most combative I've ever been just as far as feeling confronted with what you think art is versus what other people would like to tell you art is. Many students show up to fine art institutions, and they have their shit down. They already knew art history and some theory. For me, I didn't arrive with that knowledge. I simply thought to myself, 'If this isn't fun, I'm going to loose interest in art school really fast.' In the end, I had to make peace with myself - not comparing my approach to my artwork with anyone else's approach. "
ART IS BECOMING MORE CONCEPTUAL AND MOVING ALSO TOWARDS TECH AND COMPUTER ART. DO YOU THINK THAT AFFECTS YOUR WORK? WILL YOU MOVE WITH IT?
"It really scares me. Mostly because art can move in directions that I don't even think looks good. I think that that's the part that worries me most.
This was the big hump that I never got over: An art teacher once told me, "It doesn't really matter anymore if it looks good, it's more about what it means."
I just thought to myself , "That is the most absurd thing ever to tell an art student."
That's like the furthest thing from true. You could make some profound statement make a very ugly thing seem like an important piece of artwork but it's really just an ugly thing. That just doesn't seem right at all. It's impressive, you know, I have major appreciation for painters who can make paintings that don't really work but are sold on concept. I think, though, sometimes there's a need to ask "Do we need these things added into art?" "Do we need more technology to make the ideas we have work?" "Could we really not make this idea through any other medium that exists?" It's funny too, because so many people who champion that, who are also teachers of art, would tell you that restrictions are actually the key to coming up with a better idea. That's a large part of the reason I like painting because it's like "How can I constrict this to something I can paint?" That alone does wonders. I have friends who love making art with technology, and I love talking to them about that because it's all just more food for thought for painting. Personally, I don't see myself using any of it." But that's just me, and I am okay with that."
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR AESTHETIC/STYLE?
"Panicked. Ill-informed probably. Obnoxiously arbitrary. I think if I were to write a review about my style it would be "he seems radically confused." I like to embrace arbitrary decisions and then come back and think about them.
HOW DO YOU ENCOURAGE YOURSELF AS AN ARTIST?
"When I don't know what to paint, it's always helpful to go and make more canvases. I make them with an old art teacher of mine. We work in the wood shop and talk about art - where art is currently and where its going. This helps clear my mind so I can return to my art refreshed and filled up."
DO YOU WORK IN SERIES OR ARE YOUR PAINTINGS STAND ALONE?
"The story of my life is never working in series. It's led to more friction than anything else as a painter. But, weirdly now that I'm alone, working on my own in my own studio space, the work all of a sudden looks a lot more cohesive. I'm much more aware, now, of things that I like."
"Oh someone tried to pay me with a fraudulent check once."
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AS A PAINTER?
"To never ever ever ever have to get a real job. Right now this doesn't feel like a job, and it's the best. Honestly, I'd like to do well in art for Dallas, I think it's really overdue for that. I'd like to do a good job representing Dallas and Dallas's group of artists for the entirety of my time painting. I'd like to show in another country. I'd like to have a solo show. But mostly, I just want to make a living off my art. Maybe eventually teach art, at a college level. I'm way too mean to be a high school art teacher. What else? Quietly retire painting in the Hamptons. Apparently that's a big thing for old white guy painters to do; retire painting in the Hamptons with weird celebrity friends. That'd be cool."
THERE ARE SO MANY ARTISTIC CITIES YOU COULD LIVE IN, WHY DALLAS?
"I think it's drastically underrated. I have blown so much grief on Dallas my entire life, just like any kid who grows up anywhere blows grief on their hometown. I've taken some short trips to places that are considered "art cities" and wanted to pull my eyes out of my head. There's just something about people in Dallas, the way they interact with art that's such a mindset that I can identify with. Which is actually just wanting things to look nice. They don't really want to hear your schtick about why it's a good painting and they don't really want to one-up people with their intellect about painting. You can't really put bullshit passed the people here about "well this is what it means." They don't say they want it once you have told them what it means. There's a lot of potential Dallas has to be a place where taste can actually happen. But, also it's like really hot here. That's the only negative thing I have to say."
ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOU?
"Everything I've said in the last hour and a half is complete garbage. I meant to be more interesting. Here's a personal add on: Shop at Transit Bike Shop and purchase art from Marisha Lozada."
DISCOVER HENRY SWANSON