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Artist Profile: Craig Swan by Curtis Jones

-Amanda Deng

July’s Second Friday at Resonator will feature paintings and sculptures by artist Craig Swan. His show, titled “Part of a Part of a Story,” will be open to the public from 6-10pm Friday, July 12, 2019. Our video interview with Craig gives a behind-the-scenes look into his studio space and artmaking process. 

Artist Bio: Since graduating from Boston University with a B.F.A in sculpture in 2007, Craig Swan has shown his work in over 25 exhibitions, taught drawing and sculpture classes, and served on multiple arts committees including several at Resonator. Craig also contributed two pieces of public art to the city of Norman, Oklahoma: Sundial for the West Main Street Sculpture Project, and Ziggy Star-Duck for the Parks Sculpture Project. He likes house cats and heavy metal and lots of other things.


Q: In the description of your show on Facebook, you were talking about wanting people to form their own narratives around the different pieces.

 A:  So, like, when you read a book in school, in any school up to any level within any academic kind of setting, there is a more correct or accepted interpretation, right, the thing that makes the most sense. I think that that's the kind of critical thinking skill I would hope a viewer might employ, and look for connections between the pieces or look and say, "this must be an earlier one because he took that thing and did it a different way over here, and it's more complicated now than it was before." Or like, "he learned something from these not-so-great colors that he picked in these and did something else over here, or he must really like this or that. If I were better at telling really specific stories I probably wouldn't make paintings. I would probably write a book instead and build the world in there, and the concerns and everything would be different.

 (On the symbolism of anvils and birds in his work)

Detail of mountain bluebird on anvil, Craig Swan

Detail of mountain bluebird on anvil, Craig Swan

 The anvil I did with two-by-fours that I laminated and jointed. It's big and heavy but also completely not functional, which is sort of the's meant to be this like, I guess, an inert version of an even more inert object. Like, it can't be used like that, and it's a completely functionless kind of thing. But anvils always kind of looked like birds to me too, because they have the beak and the other thing...

 Birds are a weird symbol in my work too because they're...We think of them as like these sing-songy beautiful soft creatures. But if you ever go near their nests, or if you ever have been dive-bombed by a bird while you're on your bike or something like that—you do not want to deal with a pissed off mama bird at all. And so I think that that duality of intention, disposition, and you know just whatever the situation is—that things can be soft and beautiful and good or evil at the same time. Or hard and strong. And so that's kind of what the anvil bird metaphor thing is about.  

 Q: Crows or ravens?

 A: Both. I'm a little fidgety on which one it ends up being, but I think that ravens have a better wing shape, but that crows make better sounds. Ravens have this weird thumb-feather-thing and crows are kind of flat, and ravens are kind of hairier, too. They have like, this mane about them, but it's hard to do that in a drawing or a painting and do it right, and make it not look like a Death Cab for Cutie cover or something like that, you know. So it's tricky.

 Q: Can you talk about the symbolism of bodies to you?

 A: It was central to my training as an artist. There was tons and tons and tons of figure drawing, and it was like this, this most revered kind of art form. And I don't know, I just like them. I think I think that you can appreciate the body in multiple ways, right? I mean there's the obvious, right, the magazines and the all of this predatory advertising that plays on people's insecurities. 

 But I think like, even just seeing people out jogging during the day—maybe I'm projecting—but there's like a transfixion that happens. This person is using the thing that they have in the way that it was intended, and it's kind of beautiful. And you see things that you don't see in really cloistered or closed off or "proper" environments. I think that it says a lot about a person like, your back tells a story no matter who you are. Your hands tell a story.

 I think that we as a culture, as a society, don't express ourselves with our bodies necessarily enough. I think that there could be more of that and it would create, maybe, more equality and appreciation for all kinds of things like privacy, and consent, and respecting distance, and being able to appreciate from afar. All that kind of stuff. It evokes so much for viewers.


Tempestuous Sleep,  Craig Swan

Tempestuous Sleep, Craig Swan

(On Harry Clarke)

 He did these really crazy stained-glass windows that, as insofar as a stained-glass window can be iconoclastic, he did it...telling stories of Irish mythology or the Bible, or history or whatever. It's kind of what I'm doing a poor imitation of, I think, where he has these...there's all these little dots and details and animal forms. 

 And his style is connected to the illuminated manuscript tradition from the Middle Ages of all of these floral kinds of animal motifs, and things like that. And in terms of, I don't know, identity and personal history and all of that kind of stuff, I want to be able to at least—in some small visual way—connect to that and feel like I'm participating in it, and that it is a part of what I do and the way that I do it.

 Q: So you're Irish?

 A: My family came to America when I was four and then I lived in Massachusetts for a long time, did a brief stint in Pittsburgh, and then moved to Norman ten years ago.

 Q: That still comes through in a lot of your work.

 A: It's kind of an inescapable part of me, I think. I didn't get my American citizenship until I was…it was like, the very end of Obama's second term. Because when Obama became president I was like, "fuck yeah, I'll do this so I can vote and stuff," and then I got my citizenship. But up until that point it was so hard to give up what felt like the last vestige of my identity on paper that confirmed that I was...more complicated than "white America."


wooden anvil sculpture by Craig Swan

wooden anvil sculpture by Craig Swan

 Q: In metal there's a lot of references to mythology. Is that what connected you to metal?

 A: The Sword’s first album Age of Winter there's a whole song about Freya, this Norse goddess. It's just cool shit to sing a song about and have like this kind of epic sound. It only really fits in a certain type of metal, like a genre within a genre kind of thing. And I don't know, I just like it. There's a song by High on Fire where he talks about the plains of Tiamat, and it's all got to do with Babylonian gods, and Marduk, and this conquest. And you can see dudes on horse...all kinds of exciting things in there. Yeah, it's probably connected. It has the same sort of aesthetic.

 Q: So who do you listen to?

 A: I've been listening to High on Fire, Mastodon...I didn't like their new album as much as some of their older stuff. The first five Metallica albums and sometimes the most recent, too—we don't talk about what they did in the 90s. I listen to Meshugga sometimes, when the mood strikes. The Sword for sure, but again, not their most recent work. I go up to about Apocryphonand that's it. I've had the Deftones on repeat for a while. I've also got Elvis Costello and The Tallest Man on Earth. It's not all metal, but metal is the thing, it's the core of the stuff.

 Q: Are you familiar with Jinjer?

 A: I don't know them.

 Q: They're a female-fronted Ukrainian metal band...I saw them in September at the Diamond Ballroom and they were one of the openers for a couple of other really masculine really aggressive bands.

 A: That's kind of the thing too, what you said about these very masculine kinds of...I think that some men get their masculine identity from sports, or working out, or you know, various other stupid things. My stupid thing happens to be metal. I went to a High on Fire show in Pittsburgh like 12 years ago. It was at the Rex Theater, I think. It has this bar above it called Jimmy D's, and they play very inappropriate things on the TVs, and they have pool tables, and tons of beer, and all kind of stuff. Down in the showroom--the room was half empty, and it was probably like 200 sweaty dudes in this really smelly room. The whole crowd was this enormous circle pit taking over your entire was the most we're doing the same thing together kind of feeling. The beer probably assisted in that but it was really good to engage in that kind of thing.

 Q: Books, movies, podcasts?

 A: So in the last year I subscribed to Audible and I found that—not sponsored—I found that it's easier for me to read books that way, but I've been a big fan of reading audiobooks and reading in general for a long time. I will sometimes put on “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, read by Douglas Adams. I have this audiobook version of “Ulysses” by James Joyce that I only ever get so far in. I'll try again very soon. I started reading books about psychology, cognition, and creativity like a year ago. 

 There's a book by a statistician and psychologist, Daniel Kahneman—he's one of the big names in this field. It's called “Thinking Fast and Slow”. It talks about the two systems of the brain, and the way that we can mistakenly employ a system of fast thinking when slowing down would be really more effective for getting some kind of result, and about managing your emotions, and things like that.

 I had never read “Dune”—I read the first four books in the last year. I read a book called "Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, Or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything" by Ulrich Boser. It sounds like a self-help book but it's not. It teaches methods for studying, and for managing your emotions, and how to learn how to learn how to do anything. 

 There's another book called "Creating Things That Matter," which talks about the dovetailing of science and art and how they're both aesthetic pursuits, and how the thought processes and the way that people get to them are different. "Culture and Imperialism" by Edward Said is one that I have on my list right now. I read "Circe" and "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller, those are really good.

 Podcasts...I listen to “Making It," which is three YouTubers that talk about making stuff. There's another one that's called "Fools with Tools" that is like an offshoot of the "Making It" podcast. I listened to Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" is another podcast. I don't know if you can tell but I spend a lot of time just ingesting stuff. 

 "The BlindBoy" podcast is another one. He's an Irish guy who's in a band called the Rubberbandits. Sometimes he talks about Marxist theory, or he talks about social-political issues, he's done multiple podcasts on the origin of Pride Week... He's done things on cognitive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy, mental health, stuff like that. And there's one that I just subscribed to yesterday called "With Our Arms to the Sun." There's a guy who does all the stage art for Mastodon called Skinner and he got interviewed on that, and it's like five metal guys talking about drawing Satan and stuff, and I was like, "fuck yeah, into that." So, give that one a try.

 Q: Who are your favorite artists that you follow?

 A: I would say Mike Mignola, the creator of “Hellboy.” He did a run of X-Men in the 90s but you can tell he was kind of rushed. He does, now, watercolor paintings where he really invests in these pictures of Hellboy and things like that. I collect the novels and comics and things and I only buy the ones that he's drawn. In the back of the trade paperback they have the Mike Mignola sketchbook, and those are so good to see. 

 As far as living artists besides him I would say Zak Smith. He's a strange person, he also does porn under the name Zak Sabbath. Half his head is shaved and his hair is green, and he's got a big tattoo. But he also does a podcast that I listen to sometimes called "We Eat Art." I follow James Jean on Instagram because the man is crazy with the work that he does.

There's this Korean savant guy named Kim Jung Gi...he does these crazy, enormous, detailed drawings off-the-cuff, and it's like, complete in his mind before it comes out. And it just falls out like a, I don't know, like a peg through a hole, it just goes BOOM and there's the drawing. But he hangs out with a guy named Terada Katsuya, and they both do these amazing completed things.

 Q: Anything else you want to say to the people?

 A: Read the blog but don't judge. I tried to make them thoughtful essays, but I don't know what they ended up being. I've been working on a new thing to put in there for like seven months, but I kind of got a little a little scared putting it out there. Come to the show, please.

 Q: Are there any other shows that you're excited about? Art shows, music shows, performances?

 A: People have been telling me for a few months that I should go and see Glen Hansard when he comes to Oklahoma, so I'm still thinking about doing that. I've never seen Metallica live but I should probably go do that. I think they're probably gonna go on tour soon.

acrylic painting by Craig Swan

acrylic painting by Craig Swan