"I felt an internal need to express something after the 2016 presidential election. As that administration continued to be staggeringly awful in almost every fathomable way, I grew increasingly angry and disheartened by the ways Trump openly promoted rape culture and diminished the importance of those who identify as female (and basically anyone else who wasn’t a Cis-white heterosexual Christian wealthy able-bodied male)."
Carly Swenson is primarily an acrylic intuitive painter originally from northern Montana. She spent more than a decade as a mixed media artist before shifting to acrylics. Swenson received her Visual Arts BFA/Art History Minor from Bemidji State University (Bemidji, MN). She’s traveled and lived abroad, studying in China, traveling throughout Europe, and living in England and the Azores, Portugal. The influence of this exposure to other cultures and her love of art history is especially evident in her earlier work. Throughout her career she’s created several bodies of work playing off themes of feminine ideals, gender roles, and social justice.
Swenson’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions throughout the US and internationally. Her freelance writing and mixed media journals have been published in nationally distributed art magazines. She facilitates art workshops for various age groups. Her work is also included in the permanent art collections of the Angra do Heroismo Museum (Terceira, Azores) and Bemidji State University.
Currently, she lives in St. Paul, MN with two weirdo dogs. Carly says they’re nice.
(If you click on some of the images it will take you to her site where you can read blog posts about the work - how cool is that?!)
Jes: Carly, I have always admired your art. Please tell me more about your background. When did you first call yourself an artist?
Carly: I have been creating art, honestly for as long as I can remember. As a child, I wanted to create something out of everything I could find. Despite receiving a BFA in Fine Art, I didn’t call myself “an artist” until about my mid-twenties. At that point, I realized I didn’t need outside permission or acceptance to be considered an artist.
Your series Bloodwork is so intriguing. When did this work start and where do you see it going now that you have built such a body of work with this project?
I felt an internal need to express something after the 2016 presidential election. As that administration continued to be staggeringly awful in almost every fathomable way, I grew increasingly angry and disheartened by the ways Trump openly promoted rape culture and diminished the importance of those who identify as female (and basically anyone else who wasn’t a Cis-white heterosexual Christian wealthy able-bodied male).
My breaking point, and ultimate artistic inspiration came after Christine Blasey Ford’s brave and vulnerable testimony flooded my social media with women sharing their own experiences and gratitude for Ford’s selfless willingness to speak up in a culture that will do everything to discredit her. Menstruation felt symbolic of all the ways women (or those who identify as women) experience the world differently, yet are conditioned and expected to minimize their experiences for the comfort of maintaining a patriarchal narrative. One piece created in 2018 (Trump painted in menstrual blood surrounded by his own misogynistic quotes), turned into a series of 6 portraits, and 50 statement pieces by 2020.
Bloodwork incorporates so many elements of social justice, politics, the body...your personal voice. How have people responded to this work? What kind of audience reactions have you received?
I have been lucky in the fact that most people who’ve seen this body of work have responded fairly positively to it. I’ve seen the comment threads from other artists working with blood and I know how angry, insulting, and cruel people can be toward this type of work. However, it’s a very thought-provoking body of work for anyone willing to examine or move past their initial discomfort with my artistic medium.
In turn, I think the positive response is due to the fact that I’ve been unable to build much interest in this body of work beyond my own social circle. For any artist, it’s difficult to get people to pay attention to your work, and the social commentary/political nature of these pieces combined with menstruation seems to be a difficult sell, even to organizations or artistic institutions that I’d thought might be more receptive to this work.
I enjoy your intuitive paintings - they have such narrative. It’s so easy to get lost in them! How do you get started? Do you just dive in or is there something that spurs or inspires a piece?
With my acrylic intuitive work I just start painting with no expectations, I’m fully embracing uncertainty with colors, textures, and brush strokes that simply feel right. I try to enjoy the act of creating, instead of focusing on the end result. Abstract layers eventually become atmospheric. Implied forms reveal themselves and I intuitively fill in imagery. It’s similar to the way we find animal shapes in clouds or faces in tree bark. Painting without an identifiable concept of success is daunting and beautifully freeing at the same time. I’ve found the finished works take on an unintentionally surreal quality.
COVID has put a pause on so many things. Life just isn’t the same. I am wondering how COVID has impacted you and how are you coping or doing during these times?
Honestly, it depends on the day. Painting is already a solo activity, so when I’m deep in my element it’s calming because I can almost forget how strange everything is. Because my work schedule is more flexible, I’ve been able to paint a lot and try new things like making time-lapse recordings of my painting process. However, this prolonged isolation and sense of constant uncertainty can take a toll on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. For me, maintaining motivation can be tricky.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
I’m not good at talking myself up, and networking. As an introvert and empath I tend to be very, “Hi, excuse me, I have art you might like, but you might not, and that’s okay. I’m very good. But lots of people are very good, and plenty are better than me, so I get it if you aren’t interested…”
Again, the art world is a weird and difficult place to cultivate a living, and the constant challenge is to try to get anyone to care about what you are creating.
What do you love about being an artist?
Creating. I know that sounds sort of obvious and cliche, but art journaling, painting, sketching, has all become a very cathartic experience. Making art helps with my own mental health. It’s also an absolute joy when I meet someone who finds a work of mine that really resonates with them. I love learning what sort of atmospheric narrative or imagery they take from a piece. I love learning how it makes them feel and why.
What kind of resources have you used to help you with your art career?
Locally, I’ve taken several workshops from Springboard for the Arts, which is a phenomenal resource.
Thanks for answering my questions, Carly. Do you have anything else you would like to share?
I guess, just that I hope people are taking time to take care of themselves. The world is a very difficult place for everyone right now, and it’s important to be gentle with yourself.
Humans are creative, and it’s important for everyone to have a creative outlet. Something in our lives that we do simply because it makes our hearts happy–because we can get lost in the beauty of the process. People tend to avoid making art because “they aren’t good at it”. But it doesn’t matter, play with art because you enjoy the process.
In the same way you can enjoy playing guitar, but you don’t plan to pursue a professional music career. Or if you love golf, but are never going to qualify for the PGA, you still enjoy the game. If singing makes your heart giddy, you can still have your weekly karaoke girls night, even if you aren’t going to be quitting your day job. Art is the same thing, if you like making art–make art. You don’t have to be ‘amazing’, you don’t have to consider yourself an artist. You don’t even have to let another living human see it (but show it to your dog, dogs are great, they won’t judge you). Just make art because it makes your soul happy. You have nothing to prove to anyone.
Images courtesy the artist. Interview by Jes Reyes.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.