In the Hands of Carly Swenson, Anything Can Be Art
Published in DI Domingo 03 March 2013
Reporter: Carina Barcelos
Photography: António Araújo
Four years ago, the North American, Carly Swenson, surrendered to art with her body and soul. Her paintings combine traditional art materials and common imagery in a unique way, providing viewers with an interesting new perspective. The results can be seen the Museum of Angra do Heroismo.
Until the beginning of June, Seven Social Sins, the works of American artist, Carly Swenson, will be on display in the Dacosta Gallery at the Museum of Angra do Heroismo. Three individual pieces pertain to each sin. In a conversation with DI Domingo, the young artist explained she took on the artistic challenge of portraying Gandhi’s seven social sins when she became inspired while attending classes in England. Apprehensive at first, having only learned of the sins, Swenson began enthusiastically creating canvases.
“The seven deadly sins responsible for social injustices are: wealth without work, pleasure without conscious, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, politics without principle, religion without sacrifice and science without humanity,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
Born and raised in the United States of America, the artist uses the canvas to express her perceptions of American society, based on the concepts of Gandhi’s seven social sins. She explained to us, for example, her criticism of the vision of feminine beauty imposed by society onto women. Her piece Commerce without Morality I, emphasizes societal expectations encouraging women to seek a form of unattainable perfection, through plastic surgery.
In the piece, Politics without Principles I, she highlights a fuel spill, claiming sometimes politicians place their personal agendas before the interests of humanity as a whole. Swenson intends for viewers to take a critical view of the bleaker aspects of culture, however, she also wants people to enjoy the imagery. “There are many serious things in this world that are worth our consideration. We should take time to understand how our actions impact others. Our world has evil, but I don’t want to make art that is solely negative. I want to create work that is thought-provoking, but also aesthetically appealing” she stresses.
Transition to Terceira
We are in a cafe on a rainy morning, in Praia da Vitoria, a village she knows better than Angra. The image of Carly Swenson attracts attention in rural Terceira. She is very tall, with bright red streaked hair, tattoos visible on her arms, and a smile on her face.
She speaks only English. Even after two years on Terceira, the language barrier hasn’t presented many difficulties. She was only 21 when he married a U.S. Airman. Since then, she has been moving consistently.
For the past two years, her husband has been stationed at Lajes Field. They are scheduled to remain on the island for another year, but they don’t know where they will receive orders to next. They arrived in Terceira after spending the previous four years in England. Her Seven Social Sins series, now on display at the MUA, was created while living in the UK. However, her past years in Terceira have been equally productive.
She confessed the island is beautiful and inspiring, emphasizing the sun, which contrasts with the gray days of England. The beauty of the sea, has filled her with the desire to create. She also finds the people are different. “The culture is more relaxed and friendly here,” according to Swenson. “I don’t know if it is simply the general attitude of those who live on smaller islands, but I love it. People here have been very warm and welcoming, between the people and the island itself, this experience has been incredibly inspiring.” she explains.
The young American artist has two part-time jobs at Lajes Field, but spends most of her free time working in her home studio. When not creating, she works at the base kennel, which Swenson describes as a hotel for pets. Recently, Swenson began her second part-time position with the base marketing department, where she takes photographs and creates print marketing.
As far back as she can recall, she has been doing something artistic. Since childhood, she drew, painted or created with whatever was on hand. “I used to loving making things from milk jugs and glue things together,” she recalls. Four years ago, she decided to seriously pursue a career in art. While living in England, she devoted forty hours a week to the local Air Force base marketing department. By the time she left, five people were performing the amount of work intend for a staff of nine. “We worked very hard, it was incredibly stressful and I no longer enjoyed working there,” she explained. These circumstances contributed to her decision to take on a career as an artist.
She began devoting more time to creating original artworks and submitting proposals to galleries. This inevitably lead to many rejections, but also many acceptances, and she has already begun to sell a significant number of works. Like any artist, Swenson hopes to eventually earn a living from her work. However, she does acknowledge that her aspiration will be difficult to achieve. For now, she is perfectly content dividing her time between creating art and her part-time employment. “Since creating art is a large part of my life, I’m fine working in a kennel or as an assistant,” Swenson says. This allows her to work as a creative without her job causing additional stress.
At age 29, she understands her art career is still very new. Swenson’s supportive husband and parents have been crucial in her development as an artist. “My husband keeps me grounded, motivated and focused. When I am insecure and fear failure, he still believes in me and my work,” she explains.
Carly Swenson was born in Havre, Montana, and is unphased by the island’s predominately rural environment with its fields and cows. She has acclimated to the more mild temperatures.
Swenson completed her BFA in Visual Arts with an Art History minor from Bemidji State University in Minnesota. During her time in college, she studied abroad, which allowed her to visit foreign countries including China, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. She has gained exposure from several exhibitions in the United States as well as artistic magazines and publications. This is already her second solo international exhibition on the island of Terceira. Last March, she exhibited her work at the Academia de Juventudee das Artes da ilha Terceira. Swenson describes her career in art as slow but steady. “With each year, I create more work, I sell a few more pieces, and gain more exposure,” she explains. The feedback she has received from local people, she has described as “surprisingly positive.”
“People tend to really like my work or really dislike it. I realize that not everyone will enjoy my imagery, so I’m not offended if people don’t like it. However, I have received a generally positive response to my Angra exhibition thus far,” she says. Swenson describes the opportunity to exhibit on the island as amazing, especially since she is a military spouse. “When we are associated with a military base, it is sometimes hard to take advantage of opportunities within the local community,” Swenson emphasized. “I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to meet people who live here, to have exhibited my work and gain some visibility, which is wonderful. I certainly was not expecting so many good things happen here. It’s truly fantastic,” she adds.
The young American artist identifies her work as mixed media collage. She considers her work conceptual and slightly surreal. “I like to use figures and forms that people recognize. There is usually a landscape, or decipherable background,” she explained. Swenson said her studio is a mess with piles of paper and objects that she could be used in her work. She utilizes many traditional artistic mediums like ink, acrylic, watercolor and pencil, as well as more unlikely materials.
“I find things like leaves or interesting pieces of litter to use in my work. I pick up shells on beach and cut imagery or text from magazines,” states Swenson. The past two years on Terceira have been very productive and she is already preparing for a new exhibition at the Academia de Juventudee das Artes da ilha Terceira inspired by Greek mythology. Fourteen of the twenty works to be included in this exhibition have already been completed. She started this new body of work last November.
She has also developed works inspired by the island, specifically emphasizing the ocean and fish. These works also include found objects like broken glass. Swenson has also photographed abandoned buildings, which will be featured in another solo exhibition this summer in the United States.
(Article translated from Portuguese)