With an eye for color and structure, and a memory for favorite places, Grace Swanson paints matchbooks from restaurants and hotels, many of which are no longer in existence.
What draws you to still life and your fascination with portraying patterns, forms, and colors?
It began with the simple task of trying to improve my composition and color mixing skills. I felt the best way for me to do this was to set up my own still lifes. I could repeatedly rearrange objects to try to find the most interesting combination of shapes. Looking at things closely from different viewpoints also makes me think more consciously about what I am painting. In the process, I found that I loved contrasting vibrant colors and defining shapes with light and shadows.
In most of my paintings, my subject matter consists of objects with one or two dominant colors, often complements of each other. I love the push-pull tension of red against green or white and black; the way they play off each other. In my new series of matchbook paintings, I have taken this to an extreme by creating a crazy quilt of contrasting color squares.
In the past your work included a lot of nature; flowers, fruit and birds - Why matchbooks? What do you like about the matchbook compositions - what’s different?
Sometimes, ideas will come from a visual inspiration – a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a bowl of candy, a trip to the market. The ideas will go pop—pop—pop in my head just like those light bulb images in thought bubbles.
About ten years ago, I was moving around my husband’s collection of matchbooks, which are kept in oversized brandy snifters. Nostalgia hit me as I saw the matchbooks of the many restaurants and hotels we had visited. That resulted in my first series of matchbook-themed paintings in 2003.
Then last year, I kept hearing in the news about how so many legendary New York restaurants had closed or were about to close, such as Tavern on the Green or Café des Artistes. It made me appreciate the matchbook mementos we had saved. I decided on a new series that places a greater emphasis on nostalgia by prominently featuring matchbooks from restaurants and hotels no longer in existence or combining current hot spots with those now extinct.
What is your art making process? Take me through the steps, if you will, from concept to completion.
To create the matchbook paintings, I began with photographing the front, back, and sides of the numerous matchbooks to create a source catalog that I refer to once I start painting. I then arrange a combination of different shaped matchbooks – square, rectangular, boxes, etc. to create a variety of compositions. It does not matter what is printed on the matchbook, and I use mostly white ones so that I can clearly see each shape. I take photos of the composition, sometimes as many as 200 different angles and set-ups.
Using one or two of the photos to refer to, I start by drawing out one matchbook near the center of the watercolor paper. Despite taking so many photos, there are always elements that need to be modified, especially with objects that are square because of camera distortion. I use a drafting ruler to make sure that the proportions and perspective are accurate. I then refer to my catalog of matchbook images and paint in the first matchbook. From there, I work outward, one matchbook at a time, weaving contrasting colors and shapes to create an overall pattern that can be viewed from any direction. Along the way, I also add a matchbook with my name in lieu of signing the painting when I am finished.
What satisfies you about painting?
The satisfaction comes from creating an image that can stimulate the senses and evoke memories. It may be the scent of a just peeled orange, the feel of silk embroidery or the recollection of matchbooks sitting in a kitchen junk drawer. As a photorealistic painter, there is also the gratification of trying to capture particular details that pinpoints the emotional element in the painting, such as the marks in a used matchbook striker or slightly caving in a corner of a matchbox.
I think my matchbook paintings are like memory quilts where scraps of baby clothes or old t-shirts are patched together to celebrate a person’s life. Only my paintings capture not only my history, but also a collective history of shared memories from everyone who may have driven by or stepped foot into any one of these restaurants or hotels. The best thing about having people see my matchbook paintings is that it often inspires people to talk about their own recollections of particular places. When a friend recently eyed the matchbook of Café Swiss in one of my paintings, he relayed a story about having a taken a girlfriend there more than 40 years ago.
Gone But Not Forgotten
watercolor 22 x 30"
What do you like most about being an artist? Least?
It has been the opportunity to meet so many people who love art—both those who look at it and those who create it. It is always fascinating to talk to the people as they are looking at paintings. It is often a spirited and endlessly engaging conversation. Each viewer brings new interpretations and those conversations will often spark the light bulb moments I mentioned earlier.
I am also very grateful for the many relationships I have made with fellow artists. That camaraderie has not only given me professional support to help me grow as an artist, but also led to many close and important friendships.
My least favorite aspect of being an artist is that it is often difficult to switch back and forth between the roles of creator and administrator. When I am painting, it feels like that is all I can think about. I turn into a zombie staring into a blank canvas or hunched over a drawing. Then, when it comes time to tend to the business side of things, that too can become all encompassing mostly because I find it so difficult. Sometimes I will agonize for days over writing an artist statement or even coming up with titles.
Are you continuing with this theme? What comes next?
I have several subjects that I rotate painting – fruit, flowers, animals, and matchbooks. My choice of subjects has come from that initial exercise to develop better compositions.
However, I often find that as I approach the completion of one painting, I get new ideas on how to improve the work. In the case of my matchbook paintings, I have had several people generously donate their own matchbooks to help build my catalog. Just hearing their stories that come along with their matchbooks make me want to keep the momentum going with this theme.
Grace Swanson's exhibition, Close Cover Before Striking, begins April 26th.