Artist Profile: Garth Swanson
It’s not unusual for New Orleans people to tell Garth Swanson they recognize some of the individual subjects of his most recent series of paintings. Sometimes they even have their own names for them.
“A lot of people know the one they call the ‘tree of life,’” says Swanson, referring to the monumentally large live oak that grows in Audubon Park on the downriver side of the Audubon Zoo.
Others can pinpoint the locations of trees he has painted in City Park near his Mid-City studio or subjects he has found along the city’s streets. Some can even tell the difference between certain live oaks as they were painted and as they stand now, still on the mend from the violent pruning delivered by Hurricane Katrina.
For Swanson, painting the distinctive, resilient live oaks of New Orleans has been something like a melding of portrait art, plein air landscapes and nudes. The trees seem to grow along the same proportions as the human form, he says, and, like painting a nude, he builds the trees’ depth of color and texture from a small palette of oil paints.
“I had never seen trees like that before I moved here and I was captivated,” says Swanson. “Each one has its own character. You’ll never find two that are alike.”
Swanson grew up in Los Angeles and New Hampshire, where he studied art at
the University of New Hampshire. He continued painting and displayed his work
in group shows after graduation, but says he struggled to find the right direction for
his painting. He found it after heading to New Orleans.
He arrived in the Crescent City in 1998 with every intention of staying for just a
year or so, but like many another transplants he soon found himself calling it home. He began attending classes at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, where he found both the camaraderie of other local artists and the guiding hand of academy director Auseklis Ozols, who he credits with helping him define his artistic focus.
“I thought I knew more than I did, but he brought me back to basics and from there I learned more and got better,” Swanson says.
Swanson’s other work include still life and abstract works, with some inspired by the patterns of bark found on the same live oaks he paints more fully on other canvasses. His first solo show will be held at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts in April.