Karen Swanson is the kind of artist who questions authority.
She’s not a lawbreaker by any means, but when it comes to the so-called rules of art, that’s another story. Her first act of defiance occurred at the age of 5 when a student teacher announced to a classroom full of impressionable, budding artists that the sun “should go in the corner.” Swanson looked around and, sure enough, on every piece of paper, the sun was in the upper right hand corner.
“My sun was burning up the sky, hanging far away from the corner, and that began my understanding of art,” she said. “It was personal and sometimes even private.”
Swanson, 51, was born in Japan. The child of a serviceman, she ended up in Spokane at age 18 when her father retired and settled near his hometown of Chewelah. She found a job in retail and attended night classes at Spokane Falls Community College, focusing on art.
At 23, she married and made a daily habit of painting without ever moving her sun to the corner. “I learned that through composition, color and symbolism, art can be a private way of screaming your secrets,” she said.
At first, she struggled with the process. Constantly comparing herself to other artists and their “placement of the sun,” she worked diligently on technique. “I look back on this period of time and I know that I was missing ‘the eye’ which is necessary in marrying the form, color and message. I was greatly intimidated by the talent I saw around me. I did not understand that I was not competing with other artists, I was competing with me. Once I realized this, I became a more prolific and proficient artist.”
After mastering a level of technique she was content with, she focused more on the message via symbolism, carefully and intuitively selecting her imagery – it came to her in dreams and life experiences including the time her 3-year-old nephew was going through chemotherapy.
Creating art became an intricate part of Swanson’s daily life. In 1995, while she was working for Spokane County, she lost sight in her right eye. After three months, it returned but her left eye became a gray void. “I felt like my world had been stripped of color and essentially, it had. I continued working my 8 to 5 job, but art became lost to me. My new enemy was multiple sclerosis.”
Depression and anger consumed her for a while. and then she started painting again; relaxing and drifting, she learned to love the creative process even more than she could imagine.
In 2009, she stopped working and painting fills her days. She has shown her work sparingly at Raw Space and in juried shows at venues like the Chase Gallery in City Hall. Her work exudes freedom, with imagery that translates her desire to ask questions and make sense of senselessness, far from the upper right hand corner.
“If there is a general message I hope people take away from my paintings, it would be simply ‘Be kind.’ There is so much pain involved in simply living, that I believe we should spare each other as much as we can,” she said.