“Thomas Swanston’s current body of paintings reminds us that the overarching theme of migration carries a multitude of connotations; most notably, migration speaks to the mystical movement through space and time, from one location to another then, with an ultimate return Home. The recurring pattern of Sandhill crane migrations speaks to us of nature’s ability to hold both as true: rhythmically change and a remaining consistency, throughout the seasons. To the end, such is the human life. Like migratory cranes, physical and spiritual travelers alike explore new & familiar places, to return to the one singular locale that they call “Home.” In their seasonal Migration and in their triumphant return from near extinction back into the cycle of life, Sandhill cranes uniquely notify the viewer that all journeys have a purpose and an end, no matter how long they might be or how far away from home they take us.” Thomas Swanston’s studio practice connects passion with purpose.

The materials I use span the history of technological innovation. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Coptic Egyptians attributed magical properties to the wax of bees; they heated it, added pigment to it, and used it to paint exquisite portraits of their dearly departed. Since 1981, the United States has launched space shuttles with skins made of aluminum honeycomb sandwich panels. These paints and panels, major technical achievements of their respective eras, are what I use to create my paintings.

My work is the end result of an omnivorous search for meaning. It emerges from the love of many seemingly disparate elements, including the history, processes, and materials of art making; Nature with a capital "N”, then, with a small "n"; an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to color; classic Haiku; the comical of shapes and things paradoxical; Technologies old and new; the spirituality of the natural world, and close observation of simple things come together to form the conceptual underpinnings of my work.

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The Brilliant Colors of a Swan

by Stephanie Roberts

Serenbe is a little piece of heaven on earth - a 900-acre sustainable living community tucked away in Palmetto, Georgia. It’s a green space where Mother Nature reigns supremely, gently hypnotizing her inhabitants. It’s not surprising, that Studio Swan owners and accomplished artists, Tom Swantson and Gail Foster inhabit such a place. On a recent trip to Serenbe, I had the pleasure of meeting Tom and submerging myself in the depths of Studio Swan...


Written by Jerry Cullum, senior editor of Art Papers; Published in Thomas Swanston: Paintings 1997, on occasion of a solo exhibition with the Lowe Gallery in April/May 1997
i. preparations for the journey: on learning how to look at Thomas Swanston’s paintings

Perhaps all paintings are metaphors, in that special sense proposed so long ago by Philip Wheelwright: vehicles to carry us beyond our present condition of being, into some realm of inner or outer vision perceived by the painter. Perceived, and shared through skill that makes an embodied equivalent of what first was glimpsed by intuition. Or it is more accurate to say that the voyage is in the making; the destination is both discovered and invented, and the physical object that is the painting is at once goal, vehicle, map, and journey.

These are proper reflections with which to begin any consideration of the work of Thomas Swanston, whose paintings, not so long before the present ones, concerned themselves openly with journeying or mapping.

But these present works are different, more emotionally elusive, and it takes long contemplation to bring us to the subtle point of insight captured in them, which Swanston has aptly termed “the twilight between observation and imagination.” In twilight, things seen are half-seen; the other half is interpretation, and interpretation springs from our own memory and our own dim past as well as from our present reflection. (Of this, more in a moment or two.)

However, Swanston meets us more than halfway, to be our guide in this particular selva oscura. Swanston’s twilight is, happily, unlike that of the Dantean forest in the Divine Comedies, though on the one hand our destination may not be the lost purity of Paradise, on the other hand we shall not have to traverse all of Hell and Purgatory to get there. Swanston’s joys and revelations are less ultimate, though ultimately no less mystery-laden. Indeed, his mixtures of light and darkness carry us along paths that are far less easily named than the ones trod by Dante. (It is, perhaps, genuinely ironic that the invisible world of historically defined transcendence is far more familiar to us than Swanston’s visible paradoxes – perhaps because these latter works involve the creation of a private visual vocabulary that will communicate clearly, if still mysteriously, to others.)

Let us, then, look at a few of these coruscations of color and texture, and see what they may begin to reveal to us, in a journey that, as always, lasts not less than a lifetime. We meet the painter in a ground of visual conversation that involves, first of all, seeing what forces he is attempting to engage, and some of the ways he goes about it.

ii. the journey, or the meeting: notes on the subjects and strategies of Thomas Swanston’s newest works

Though unified in sensibility, the encaustic paintings here presented cover a wealth of imaginative territory. These are rich, roiling fields of color, rather like the light refracted through scrims of forest branches – and their implicit imagery follows suit. Though these panels imitate no existing landscape, they provoke memories or imaginative reconstructions of many different ones. The works are greatly abstracted, but not by any means purely abstract.

Each layer of wax is adhered to the previous one with heat; scraping and other simple yet painstaking techniques render the layers transparent and translucent. “Encaustic is permanent yet very fragile,” Swanston observes, and this ephemeral eternality appeals to him. In like fashion, the subject matter of these paradoxical paintings is soft, in one sense, energetic and decisive in another, literal yet symbolically evocative, non-objective yet referencing landscape traditions, with exactly the hazy precision of a dream. Titles come after the work is finished, simply to establish some ground rules for the viewer’s vision – When We Were in Thailand, or Around the Garden Hills being two examples.

“Transparent,” “thin,” and “glossy,” the physical characteristics of Swanston’s chosen medium of heat-bonded wax, do not translate to “superficial.” These paintings have an implicit depth, and a recognition that the making of beautiful things can be, in itself, a worthwhile discipline and a medium of discovery.

Swanston’s art may actually draw upon some of our oldest wellsprings of emotion and perception. It has been argued by at least one theorist that human beings take pleasure in landscape because it replicates the situation of looking out onto an open vista through protecting vegetation – exactly the condition in which our earliest ancestors would have felt most secure. And it is greatly to the point that many of Swanston’s paintings possess just such a region of light, surrounded by what might well be read as a leafy canopy. It forms an emotional haven that may refer back to physical refuge.

And yet this opening of light also corresponds to imagery from the world’s initiatory traditions, as practiced in widely diverse places. This light-door or simple opening into the clearing is celebrated in many times and places, so many that it is evident that the image has some deep resonance with our most central core of being…and this is the case regardless of whether that core of being comes from evolutionary biology or from the realms of spirit of which Swanston, like most Americans of his generations, can address only as absence or as a figure from a distant past.

Perhaps there is something of a secular analogue for initiatory revelation in the light-filled quality of these paintings, which substitute an ancient technique for the ancient certitudes that have now fled from so many. Exploration, not certainty, is the keynote here; the journey, and not the arrival. The pleasures of a complex yet untroubled surface replace the satisfactions of a lost dimension of depth.

But do they not in fact replace much of what has been lost? One possible reading of the experience of the 20th-century involves the discovery of human inwardness in the things of earth – a journey that is, most of all, a journey not of fresh discovery but of re-interpretation, or a fresh knowing of forgotten places. “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And to know the place for the first time.” John Fowles made magnificent, unexpected use of those lines from T.S. Eliot in his 1950s novel of existential initiation, The Magus – wherein his protagonist was led to see that here and now, in our aware and responsible relationship to the world around us, there were truly (to use the worlds of Wallace Stevens) “things to be cherished like the thought of heaven.”

This is a point of some importance. At the turn of the millennium in the historic calendar of our particular culture, the collision between a resurgent fundamentalism and a beleaguered rationalism has almost wiped out other considerations of the human condition. Only a few decades ago, we were beginning to establish a new understanding of our place in the universe, and the distinctive quality of the human activity of making when it is undertaken for reasons beyond pure survival. For countless millennia, human beings placed on valuation or another upon such making; all those valuations rested upon a worldview that science has, indeed, called into question. But is there, nevertheless, a species of depth or of transcendence that dwells within what we have called “the beautiful” – though not necessarily for the reasons that older metaphysics gave? Or rather, may we reach an understanding that might leave such questions open while affirming the possibility of deeper value? Our own personal responses to Swanston’s paintings might shed light upon such questions.

Swanston is clearly open to the history of past metaphysical gestures. He is quite aware, for example, of the venerable antiquity of the technique wherewith he operates; his use of pigmented wax is, as he avers, closer to that of the Greek makers of Egyptian sarcophagus portraits than to the practice of his own contemporaries. Swanston may be exploring a human mystery, but it is a mystery nevertheless. Regardless of the efforts of generations of reductionsists, the experience of beauty, interpretive sense, and underlying order remains a mystery, and not a mystification.

These paintings remain wrapped in their self-declared modesty. But they open out nevertheless to vast unspoken vistas.

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