A Spirited Swann: Heather B. Swann - Art Collector

Issue 65, July - September 2013

The drawings and sculptures of Heather B. Swann are layered with her passion for history and endless curiosity for the human condition.

Heather B. Swann, Lump and sticks 2, 2012. Ink and wash on paper, 30 x 40cm. Photo: Graham Baring. Courtesy: the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne.

Heather B. Swann’s forthcoming exhibition at Karen Woodbury Gallery was inspired by a notion of the human body as a collection of lumps and sticks. “I went to this exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London of work by Jacques Henri Lartigue” states Swann. “He took these fantastic photographs at the beginning of last century of his family in the countryside. There were photographs of his niece doing somersaults – she looks like a lump with her two legs sticking up in the air like birds’ heads. That is the sort of idea I have played with in this series.”

In a manner typical of Swann, after seeing the Lartigue photographs, connections started to appear everywhere: “I saw this drawing by Francisco Goya of a man falling down some stairs – it’s also like a lump with two sticks. Then I found an image of Joy Hester doing a somersault. Later I saw this man in King Street in Melbourne’s CBD. It was a Sunday morning and he had obviously had a heavy night previously. He was sitting on a windowsill, fast asleep, with his legs sticking out – totally wrecked – and I took a photograph of him. All these came together to inspire me to do a series of the body collapsing in on itself so it becomes a lump with two sticks. The body can look a little bit broken like this but there is also a sense of tumbling and having fun. I like that ambiguity; I like that doubled-sense, that enigma. You can read it all sorts of different ways.”

Building up layers of complexity within an artwork is crucial for Swann. This is an artist who delights in creating strange metamorphosing shapes and forms that bounce between the figurative and abstract setting up poetic resonances as they go. This lends an enigmatic quality to her work. “I try to make work that you can go in and out of and find all sorts of different entry points. That way, you can have it around you for a long time – it’s not a one-liner. It might be naughty and funny but also a bit frightening, or perhaps sophisticated and crude – or elegant and in your face – at the same time. I am often trying to get all of that loaded into the one work.’

All of these connections come out of her freewheeling creativity combined with ideas gleaned through her deep love of history and books. Before coming to art, Swann worked for years in a bookshop and would often nominate herself for the late night shift so that after closing she could “lie on her tummy in front of the poetry shelves” and devour books. After a while, selling books was not enough so she made the lateral move to become a bookbinder. She enrolled in a graphic design course with a bookmaking elective but soon sought out the relative freedoms of the art school down the hall (“I hated being told what to do!”).

“I came to art as a 27 year old’ says Swann. “I didn’t have an art education before that. I didn’t come from a family in which art was very important. The first artists that I felt close to were people like Hieronymus Bosch. I love mythology and stories. When I discovered Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable it absolutely enlarged my imagination – I am fascinated by the idea of metamorphosis. I am also very interested in the Surrealists. I am fascinated by the way they are deep and dark and brooding but, at the same time, also crazy and funny.’”

After art school, a residency in Paris at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris proved to be life changing. “That was my first trip overseas” she states, “and I discovered history. I discovered that’s what I really liked. When I went to museums and looked at the art of the world, my horizons broadened – I just sucked it all in. I fell in love with the Cluny Museum, a medieval museum – all of that fabulous history loaded into sculptural objects. I was besotted with the medieval, the romanesque. I would fill books and books with drawings and notes – I drew tiny little pictures because I was cramming so much in.” Swann is a spirited and passionate person who in conversation is animated by the evident pleasure she obtains from history, writing and art. “What I am looking for from art is grace and sensuousness,” she states. “That’s what I want from it and therefore that’s what I want to make.”

Some days after my interview with her, Swann generously sent me some more artworks to look at including an image of Vanilla, a sculpture of a girl whose torso is comprised of writhing flames. Her description of the thought process behind making the sculpture gives wonderful insight into Swann’s brain and her artistic process. “When I moved into the studio in the garden at Billilla in Brighton as part of a residency last year, I took some shapes with me that I had made some years earlier. These constructions were hollow, made of plaster bandage and shaped like pupae or ants’ eggs, an organic shape, quite like the nose on one of [Pablo] Picasso’s lumpen women sculptures. I found this quite funny. I laid these empty eggs out on the green grass in front of the studio and pondered their nature. Standing in the garden I decided to make them into a bush-like shape – a small tree that would also be like a flame. Together then, a burning bush even. With legs, ready to travel. A girl inside a burning bush, a girl burning up? As I made this construction I thought it also looked like an ice-cream. A girl inside an ice-cream that is also a bush and also a flame? A Bombe Alaska? An ice tree? Consumed by ice-cream? Did this girl want to be licked?”

Phip Murray

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