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Susan Swartz - Seasons of the Soul at the National Museum of Women in the Arts June 17 - Oct 2, 2011
June 8, 2011  | 

Palette knife and paintbrush in hand, Susan Swartz is an artist on a mission. As an environmentalist and activist, Ms. Swartz’s vibrant landscape paintings express her appreciation and concern for the beauty and vitality of the natural world. “I approach my paintings with an underwriting narrative,” she says, “an urgent plea to notice, respect and preserve our natural environment.”

Currently working in a style she refers to as impressionism/expressionism, Ms. Swartz has always derived her inspiration from her natural surroundings. Splitting her time between the masculine Park City, Utah, and the more feminine Martha’s Vineyard, she hopes her work will remind viewers of the diverse majesty of the environment, and provide the inspiration for reverence and protection.

With early talent and a formal art education at Edinboro University, Ms. Swartz has been creating art for the majority of her life. However, it was during her battle with environmentally bred illnesses that art transformed into activism. “My paintings changed when I became ill. I was forced out of my comfort zone as an artist, forced to become bolder and riskier in my work,” she recalls. “During my slow recovery, I felt inspired – charged, really – to do all I could to protect the environment in its most pristine form.”

In addition to conveying her message on canvas, Ms. Swartz, along with her husband, Jim, has taken the message of social change into the realm of independent documentary film. As a founding member of the production company, Impact Partners, Ms. Swartz has helped produce several award-winning documentaries and worked with such notable environmentalists as Dr. Jane Goodall and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. “Film and painting are two different mediums to convey the same message and inspire the same outcome.”

Susan Swartz will be honored by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, with a special exhibition entitled, Seasons of the Soul beginning on June 17, 2011.  Ahead of this great honor, New Focus On had the opportunity to catch up with Susan about art, activism and her plans for the future:

You have said you hope your art inspires a visceral response in viewers. Most people, with even a limited knowledge of art, can intellectually appreciate it. Would you ideally like to see the emotional response to the art yield an eagerness to learn more about the subject and environmental concerns?

Absolutely.  Natural emotion, that gut feeling, is a much stronger reaction to art than an abstract intellectual response. The former is very personal, where the latter objectifies the art and automatically places a barrier between the creation and the viewer. I hope viewers are able to take pause from their busy, multitasking lives and appreciate the diverse beauty of our world. I hope that the reminder of this beauty is startling enough to spur them into wanting to help serve as stewards of the environment.

Can you tell me about the progression of your activism? Were you always passionate about environmental concerns or was the impact of your environment related health issues the catalyst?

I have always found solace and peace in nature. Throughout my life I turned to the natural world both for emotional release and for inspiration for my work. Because of this, I have long been a supporter of environmental causes, but on a much more surface level. About a decade ago, I was diagnosed with mercury poisoning, most likely from eating fish from contaminated waters. Six years later, I became critically ill with another environmentally bred illness: Lyme disease. I came so close to dying. While I still paint the natural world, it is now with a fierceness and passion unknown to me before.

Do you feel especially connected to any of your paintings in particular? Are there any that have a deeper, more significant meaning to you?

I leave a little bit of myself in every painting. It’s amazing to look back at work from years ago and remember at a gut level what I was doing and feeling in my life at that time. If I find I am shifting to a new direction during a painting, or especially the pieces created during my periods of most severe illness, those are the hardest to part with.

You sign GTG (Glory to God) on your work. Do you consider yourself a religious or spiritual person? Is this the basis for your love and appreciation for the natural world?

While I do sign my own names to the paintings, I want the credit for both the subject and the ability to go to their rightful Creator. I was raised in a Christian tradition and have always had a strong faith and sense of personal spirituality. If I can make people pause and really SEE what is beautiful and real during this busy age when we all hurry through our lives, looking at so many screens without really seeing at all - if through my painting I could make viewers truly see the unsentimental beauty of nature for one moment, then I will have met my goal.

Over the past several years, the concept of going green has been publicized everywhere. Do you consider this a positive movement? Are we as a nation moving in the right direction?

Some people say “going green” is a fad. I say the more informed people are about the challenges facing our planet, the better. Once someone truly understands the very personal impacts of environmental issues like climate change, mercury poisoning or air pollution—how it directly affects them and their families—they can no longer ignore the issue. I believe we are moving in the right direction, but would love to see more education for youth about the interconnectedness of all these issues. Education is everything.

Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with Impact Partners?

My husband and I became involved with Impact Partners as a form of activism; we aim to support documentary filmmakers who shed light on injustice. Under Our Skin is a powerful documentary about the science, the politics and the personal stories of Lyme disease. With The Cove, which won an Academy Award, we executive produced the companion film The Cove: Mercury Rising - the film examines the dangers of mercury poisoning as it affects society and the global environment.

In addition to being an environmental activist, many of the documentaries you have been involved with discuss feminism in the arts, the mainstream media’s objectification of women and girls, and human rights. Are these also important causes and issues for you?

I think it is critically important for all of us to understand the human rights issues that still blacken our world. And, as a female artist who began her career before the civil rights movement, I want to promote the history of the woman’s art movement and celebrate the intersection of art and feminism.

Your work will be featured at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, from June 17 – October 2nd. What else is happening right now? What are you currently working on?

I’m always painting. I’m working on a piece now from my studio in Park City. Mostly, I’m busy preparing the NMWA show, but I will also have some pieces at an Aspen Art Fair (Colorado) over July 4th weekend.

You have said your art has evolved over the years. Where do you see your art and activism in the future? Where do you see your interests leading you in terms of your creative pursuits?

I take each day as it comes. I still suffer bouts of debilitating illness, so I work through those with my family, my faith and my painting. I will continue to support independent documentaries and look forward to all the new stories that come my way.

For More Information:
Susan Bishopric
212 289 2227