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In the Studio With Henry Swanson

Henry Swanson’s art is for everybody. The Dallas-born painter feels most inspired by his earliest memories of what art is: arbitrary creativity. Now based in New York City, he carries on that youthful spirit with a childhood innocence embedded within the imagery and materiality of his world.

A pre-COVID-19 visit to Swanson’s Brooklyn studio is warm, inviting, and revealing. This space, where fine oil paints lay beside piles of streamers, bubblegum, Play-Doh, and plush soccer balls speaks to his practice: an evolution of labor and care, the struggle between meticulous process and meaning. 

Before and during quarantine, we’ve checked in with the artist about how his practice is rooted in memory and how it cultivates a feeling of home. 

First off, what did an average day in the studio look like for you?

Walking in at 9 AM, almost always stopping for coffee on the way and then making an entire pot right after entering. Dumping out my entire tote on the floor to find my hotel slippers and headphones. Paint until around 3 PM. Get lunch at the bodega. Then paint feverishly until 7:30 PM, then go get a beer. 

And what does it look like now? How has working in a self-quarantine environment impacted your studio practice? 

I’m doing the same coping things everyone is doing with an emphasis on cooking and binge-watching movies. I’m taking the time to experience forms of art that aren’t my field and trying to absorb things from those areas. 

The atmosphere is different for sure. I can’t go to the supply store whenever I want… sometimes limitation inspires creativity and I’m getting ideas from other mediums. Being deprived of paint has opened me up to a whole new world. 

Before, we all adjusted to the speed of art. I wish I saw more work that felt loved or worked through instead of a product someone made quickly. With no access to the signifiers that make you you as an artist, how do you reform this identity knowing nobody will see it? How do you become self-assured when there’s no incentive other than your own happiness of making? 

It’s a prime opportunity to make horrible work…it’s like one long shower thought but with more booze.  

Your studio is full of memories and artifacts, much like a home. When did you move into this space and what does this environment you cultivate add to your practice? 

I moved into this studio last August and it didn’t feel like home until about 3 months in after I amassed a lot of my own work and to look back on and objects to refer to. It is helpful to make something in a room full of my own thoughts.

I feel like every artist feels the same, all the spaces I’ve had have to feel like a lived-in space, a home away from home. Every studio has been full of non-art things to create this feeling. For example, I did a residency a few years ago where I had a sleeping bag covered in piles of magazines and coloring books that stayed there during the exhibition. After that, I had a space with a kitchen and I’d invite people over for dinner all the time. The studio is how I’d live at my most authentic self, which is why a studio visit is a privileged and vulnerable experience. 

The notion of home and memory is prevalent not only in your studio but also in your work. Tell me about how growing up in Dallas, Texas influenced your practice. 

A lot of the memories have to do with growing up in a heavily masculine environment where making art wasn’t supported in school or socially. It wasn’t an interest that was nurtured. Then, when you get all this way to a point where making things becomes your full-time job there’s this demand to explain what you’re making which takes all the fun away from making things in the first place. You begin to miss the time where making things was creative and arbitrary. So a lot of the work is referential to the time every artist has before we entered this formal world of the “creative practice.” The first time someone told me something I made was “good” was in 2nd grade when I did a construction paper drawing of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. That has been rooted in my memory forever.  

That explains a lot of the materials you work with on the sculptural sides of your paintings, like floor panels strewn with streamers or candy stuck in a carpet. 

There’s something gratifying about these arts and craft materials that are once art objects that you grow out of, like a sculptor who started playing with Play-Doh as a kid and now uses materials worth hundreds of dollars. 

Your studio looks as if those red toy vending machines exploded all over the floor. What is the weirdest purchase you have made for a piece? 

Yesterday I found a Fisher-Price children’s car called a Cozy Cruiser. I ordered two. 

What are you planning on doing with it?

Well, that’s actually the second weirdest purchase…a heat gun to melt the cars into a pile that looks like a pancake.

Why did you choose to start incorporating this textural element to your work and what do you think it adds to the imagery?

Working with sculptural elements became the most meaningful thing in my recent practice because it’s the part that feeds me but relates to others. I was choosing imagery that resonated with me, sometimes not knowing why. The texture calls to where in my memory that image lives. The two sides, sculptural and figurative, feed into each other. The imagery is a question, and the texture is an answer. The real challenge is putting someone in the environment where I see the image live, and that’s why both halves are necessary. 

What makes an image resonate with you?

An image that resonates with me, usually on an objective level at first, exists in an almost campy level of the classical painting genre. So usually that means images involving dark, natural palettes that feel decadent when painted in oils—because ultimately, the work is about oil painting and what the medium represents. Content-wise, It needs an element of mass cultural relevance without being outright pop. It’s more of an under the radar cultural signifier like a muppet but not the main muppet, an Irish Setter painting, or a Shen Yun billboard. These things carry a weird collective significance and tell stories. 

Tell me more about how your work is about oil painting and what it represents. 

I’m using this expensive and historically opulent medium to depict the domestic, not chic, victorian defects of opulence. Its a back and forth of reasoning between a high-class art form and white trash object. It’s ironic, like myself. Given my background, I should have gotten a law degree or gone into petroleum engineering or whatever Southern boys do. Every time I go home and tell people I paint they respond, “oh, commercial or residential?” Every step I enter further into art there’s more of a need to remind myself that anyone can be an artist. 

So do you hope that the person who has never walked into an art gallery, doesn’t think art is a viable career, or might even be intimidated by art resonates with your work?

Those were the first people who bought my work. Those people, my people, need to be kept in mind at all times. I don’t want my work to be obscure and uninviting. Art is for everybody.

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits. 

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