Swann Song

Artist Michael Swann balances his work on a fine line.

by Brett Levine    Photo by Jerry Siegel

If Michael Swann is anything, he is humble.  Apart from being a talented musician and woodworker, he is also a highly skilled, highly motivated and very modest visual artist, best known for his allegorical realist paintings and works on paper.  “I think my work is simply about choices in life, which is a concept that exists on a level that basically anyone can understand,” he says.  He makes this observation as he discusses the imagery in his most recent series of works, each of which contains an anvil and a dagger.  “I got the daggers when a family member passed away, and I started to consider the meanings we attach to these particular objects,” he says. His large painting, “A Diptych to Love,” which he describes as “a play on relationships,” will be featured in the Huntsville Museum of Art’s Red Clay Survey, which opened in late May and continues through September.  “One of the great challenges of that particular work is that the physical form of the work actually pushes itself off the wall, and towards the viewer, but in such a way that you have to look at it from a number of perspectives to fully understand its tension,” Swan says enthusiastically.

Michael Swann

This level of physical and conceptual complexity wasn’t always at the core of Swann’s creative practice.  “I actually started out as an airbrush artist,” he says, laughing, recounting his days working at various stores at both Eastwood Mall and Century Plaza.   “I didn’t really start painting properly, and beginning to think of myself a fine artist, until my senior year in high school.”  The opportunity to go to Birmingham-Southern pointed him toward an arts career, but one in which he tries to never confine or define his practice.

“I enjoy working in a range of media,” he explains.  His studio includes a space for painting, a printmaking studio and a woodshop.  “I see my love for both painting and printmaking as the way I can allow myself to approach my work in different ways.  In my paintings, I am always focused on the smallest detail.  When I work with etchings, although I make the subjective decisions early on, I still have the opportunity to work and rework a plate, and make the work both more subtle and more refined.”

This emphasis on printmaking has resulted in a very special, very personal project.  “Every year at Christmas, for the past 11 years, I have made some version of what I call my Christmas rose,” Swann says. “I do an edition of 20, for family and friends, and it is simply a way I can challenge myself to keep thinking in original ways about something that seems to be the same thing.”

Although Swann is known for his large-paintings, such as his Halo series that was exhibited at the former Bare Hands Gallery, he is comfortable working on a very intimate scale.  In fact, Swann is a pinstripe painter of exceptionally high caliber and is held in very high regard.  “I began pinstriping as an outcome of my airbrushing, and I’ve been doing it seriously since about 1993,” he says, smiling. “Now I travel to motorcycle rallies to work, I do restoration pinstriping for the Barber Motorsports Museum and I have even begun to teach other people to do it.”  He recounts the unexpected challenges of working in this way.  “You find yourself at a rally, and people seek you out.  What I always find amazing is simply how you really have to concentrate.  Pulling a long line, freehand, is something that you wouldn’t expect to be such a challenge.”

His capacity to move between painting and printmaking, between the fine arts and the decorative arts, between the subtleties of etching and the unexpected beauty of pinstriping, is what keeps Swann’s love for the arts so strong.  “Being an artist is challenging on so many levels,” he observes.  “For me, it’s always about finding the right balance between making a living and making work.  But, even more important,  it’s about always wanting my work to improve and constantly challenging myself.  I know that for me, art has a lot to offer.  It is just a matter of challenge, of choices, and really, although we don’t often say it, it is also about fun.”

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