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August 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
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Brian Swanson. . . from page 1

Swanson’s furniture, for which he is best known, is formal only in the sense that it is functional and very comfortable.|0| Massive tables with beautiful wood, stone or metal tops, high stools of shaped perforated metal,|1| deep lounge chairs with arms wide enough to accommodate a drink, a couple of books and a small vase of flowers, and a laugh-out-loud, diminutive chair with a stove manifold for an arm and worm gear leg are just a few of his works you’ll find at Gallery 24 in Torrey, Utah. Such humorous visions come as a surprise to those who know only his quiet, soft-spoken side.

Swanson’s skill and creativity with metal flow naturally from his early background. Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois – at the time “the machine tool capitol of the world,” he proudly states – Swanson grew up in a family loaded with engineers. He began working for his father at the age of thirteen, learning how to fabricate, repair and detail packaging machines; Oscar Meyer bologna and Curtis candy bars were some of the items wrapped by the machines they produced. In those pre-computer times, detailing meant drawing each part by hand. Swanson also learned to make custom parts as needed, including for his own Harley chopper. He says he learned from the experienced machinists in his father’s machine shop, “the old masters.”

At college he majored in art, but to support himself and his family Swanson worked in construction for several years, completing projects as intimate as home remodels and as major as sewage treatment plants. After serving in Vietnam for two years, he moved to northern Utah, where he continued to work in construction while skiing and taking art classes whenever possible.

In the mid-‘70’s Swanson enrolled in the graduate program in sculpture at Central Washington University. At first he “tried to make things that look like art,” but soon realized that his own direction was very different. A local character, Stan “the Man” Barnett, sold him farm machinery parts and other items from his junkyard that Swanson used for his class assignments, inventing useless machines and other projects. The faculty committee that judged his final M.A. project questioned whether his fabrications were art. He turned the question around and managed to convince the committee that any definition of art was too broad and vague to exclude his approach, and his M.A. degree was approved. Or, as he puts it today, “If this ain’t art, what is it?”

In the early ‘80’s Swanson’s marriage ended, and he moved to Seattle with his son. He returned to construction and moved into a management position, overseeing large corporate projects. The job was “not a good fit,” but it allowed him to send his son to a good school. Meanwhile his art was beginning to be shown in a number of galleries across the country and by 1987 he was able to devote himself full-time to art, combining his studio practice with an installation business that serviced museums, banks, and other public institutions.

Swanson now lives in Utah’s Wayne County, a place he has been coming to since the ‘70s when he began to come on annual vacations to fish and hike with friends. In 1986 he bought ten acres near the town of Teasdale. When, in 1993, he introduced Wayne County to his new spouse, Pat Priebe-Swanson, she fell in love with the area, too. The local landscape inspired her to begin painting. They built a house on Brian’s property, and settled there permanently in 1999. Swanson had always wanted to be “off the grid,” and they have succeeded magnificently, creating a beautiful, functional home, with a great deal of hard work.|2| They did almost all of the construction themselves, partly out of necessity, because local builders were unfamiliar with solar-powered home-building.

For several years the couple would spend a few winter months at Priebe-Swanson’s cabin on a remote island in the San Juans, a dramatic contrast with the high desert of Teasdale. They sold it eventually because it was too hard to maintain two homes, and there was no studio or shop space.

In 2001 the couple joined two artist friends, Karen Kessler and Sally Elliott, to open Gallery 24 -- a place to exhibit contemporary art by themselves and others -- in a rehabilitated building in Torrey.|3| Three years later, Kessler and Elliott moved away, but Swanson and Priebe-Swanson still own and run the gallery, which shows mostly local and regional artists.

During the season, April through October, the gallery is open six days a week, and it’s difficult for the couple to make their art and also staff the gallery. They say it would be impossible without the two volunteers who take over two days a week: artist Ray Conrad, and Jerome West, husband of another local artist, Nancy Green. Swanson also says that the others are much better than he at engaging the public, so he’s always grateful to them and their more outgoing personalities. The gallery is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Priebe-Swanson’s ink and watercolor landscapes have always been among the gallery’s most popular offerings, and Swanson’s furniture fills the floor space.

Swanson’s art has always tended toward the functional and practical because, he says, it’s less scary to design something useful than to confront a blank canvas.|4| His public work has been moving in the direction of “humanizing spaces,” through landscape design, sculptures, plantings, and site work.|5| He’s on Public Art Rosters for Washington State and other entities. One of his public projects is a beautiful pair of 15-foot tall metal chess pieces, king and queen, with seating and tables, at Denver’s downtown light rail station.|6| He’s especially proud of a recent installation at Columbia Basin College in Washington that incorporates arbors -- in spring the wisteria assaults the senses -- red rock, and benches.|7|

Benches have become a popular staple of his work. He designed and built benches for the Magna Senior Center,|8-9| and in his own town of Teasdale he has built three memorial benches in the town park. Each bench includes the same surprising and delightful elements that he’s been working with since the beginning. One bench, in honor of a ranching couple, includes a tractor seat at each end; on another he fashioned an arm that holds a real glove, to remind us of the man who always wore work gloves. When he’s not working in the studio or at the gallery, or skiing, or fishing on Boulder Mountain, he’s likely to be scrounging for interesting bits of scrap metal in friends’ backyards and old town dumps. As long as there are elements to discard, we can depend on Brian Swanson to use it to surprise and please and make art we can live with, and laugh with.

Brian Swanson in front of his masks at Gallery 24

Relevant 2011 . . . from page 1

Once the idea for Relevant was in place, Kimball Art Center turned to Spiro Arts |0| for guidance. Spiro Arts Executive Director Justin Parisi-Smith has been facilitating two six-week artists-in-residency programs at Spiro for many years. Marrouche says, “We have an amazing resource in Spiro Arts here in Park City, whose core business model is this artists-in-residence program and that’s not what we were doing. So we reached out to Justin and said, ‘teach us about residencies,’ so he was a co-creator in this endeavor of ours." Parisi-Smith was excited about the collaboration. “I think it’s important to develop partnerships with local organizations and that way we can share ideas and create innovative programs."

In the first year Parisi-Smith and the artists in Spiro's residency program served as mentors for Relevant. The program’s inaugural year was a tremendous success. “It was incredible to watch how a life can be changed in ten days,” Marrouche says. “This one student showed up with $13 in his bank account and walked out with not only a sale, but then got commissioned from a really well-known art patron.” Another artist became the subject of a documentary film when the University of Utah's Humanities in Focus program approached the artist, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and produced a film about his experience with the residency program and how it helped to define him as an artist. “Right out of the gate with year one we had successes that exceeded even our own expectations,” Marrouche says, noting that another resident secured an internship at the Guggenheim in New York. She anticipates that this year’s group of residents will have equally great success. “There is authentic purity to [these artists] that’s really touching,” she says. “For instance, one of the students had to google what a gala is because she’d never heard of one." She was too embarrassed to admit she didn't know what was meant when she was told her work would auction at a gala. "She said she realized that once she did her research a gala is just an adult prom.”

“Above all it feels amazing to offer this level of collective guidance,” Marrouche says. This not only includes providing the residents with mentors but also holding round table discussions with gallery owners where the residents learn the ins and outs of how to approach galleries and pitch their work. It also creates a supportive community where the residents have opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other.

For example, each night they gather at the Kimball Art Center, where one resident and one mentor give a short presentation about his or her work. One evening Nelson Parrish, a professional artist from Alaska who loves color and draws inspiration from Americana, shared a pivotal moment in his artistic journey: he was nearly broke when actor Rob Lowe purchased half a show of his work and displayed it in his home for a feature in Architectural Digest. Parrish is mentoring Ian Leinbach,|1| who in his own presentation confessed he is still finding himself as an artist; it is apparent that with some gentle guidance from Parrish, Leinbach’s raw talent and drive will launch him on a promising career.

Spiro Arts in Park City houses the Relevant residency program
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The residents aren't the only ones who benefit from Relevant. Tracy Snelling, a multi-media artist who has had solo exhibitions around the world, is mentoring Ryan Ruehlen and says she has found ideas and inspiration in their work together. “I think they chose really well to put us together.” In their discussions Snelling has offered Ruehlen suggestions about the direction to take his work, like doing a room-size installation piece. For his part Ruehlen, who enjoys working with scavenged materials to create abstract architectural pieces, is finding the residency experience quite beneficial. For the upcoming auction Snelling is giving him guidance on a piece that he describes as a “thunderhead cloud sculpture” -- yards of material tucked and meticulously folded in a soft wavy pattern.|2| It’s an ambitious project to tackle in only ten days but Ruehlen says, “It’s nice to know that I can pull this off in such a short period of time. Now I’m going to have to start to set my own standards higher."

Molly Kaderka, another resident, says she has worked under similar time constraints and she is enjoying her time at Spiro Arts.|3| “The facilities are ideal, it’s just the right amount of people, the light is great, and the landscape is inspiring,” she says. This residency is allowing her to contemplate a transitional period in her career and the help of her mentor Sean Diediker is instrumental. “It’s been really great to talk to someone who is a professional artist who has been doing it for a long time. We sat down today and talked about what it takes to put yourself out there. That’s an art form in and of itself."

Through the Kimball Art Center and Spiro Arts, these young artists are finding in their mentors a helping hand to tune their creative voice to the right pitch. It’s opportunities like these that allow the arts world to remain fresh and vibrant, because as Bill Kimball said, “No one of talent should not not succeed through lack of opportunity.”

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