Swanson's easel is propped in the corner, and recently held the groundwork for a potential piece. This is important: Rather than cleaning his brushes and dumping paint down the sink, Swanson whips the leftovers on to a new panel. This abstract mix of dark and light strokes might ultimately become part of a sky or trees. It might turn into a portrait of elephants.
It's a step that makes it easier for him to start painting, he said. "The more colors and activity, the more free it is," Swanson said. "A blank canvas is intimidating. A canvas like this — it's already a mess. I already can't screw it up. It's giving me something to work with."
Swanson majored in art at the University of Minnesota Duluth and stuck around after graduation. But he tested other careers and continents on his way to becoming a full-time artist. He's been a bartender and a chef. He's been a boating coordinator in Antarctica. While he was there during one of three trips, he organized the first South Pole Art Fair. He's done winter plein air painting near the Boundary Waters. He's had an artist residency in Sweden.
After Sweden, he decided to become an artist full time. "I think I can make it," he remembered thinking. "I had five commissions on the docket. I always expected to go back (to bartending) — I still do. Then, I was one or two months from it. Now, I'm eight. I could last half a year."
Swanson's artwork began cropping up around town in about the past five years: He had a show featuring his signature bicycle portraits at now-defunct Ochre Ghost. He's shown his stuff at Pizza Luce. He's featured at a coffee shop in Cloquet. Both Siiviis and Sivertson Gallery carry his work. He was selected by the City of Duluth to paint the mural that accompanied construction of the new chalet at Spirit Mountain as part of the One Percent for the Arts program.
Swanson estimated that 50 percent of his work is commissions. He might paint another version of an elephant portrait for someone after the original has sold. He does family portraits and pet portraits. It wouldn't be out of character to add a penguin to a piece. It's imagery that appears in a lot of his work.
"They're cute, funny, foreign," he said. "They seem out of place anywhere but Antarctica. You can put it next to a horse and it's like ... 'Why?'”
Excerpts from the Duluth News Tribune article: ARTIST SPACES: A tale of two homes by Christa Lawler