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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Art lovers will be in ‘State of Awe’ over nature reimagined by painter Vanessa Swenson

By Azaria Podplesky For The Spokesman-Review

Growing up, Vanessa Swenson spent hours wandering around wheat fields, climbing trees and admiring wildflowers, often with a coloring book or painting supplies in hand. The daughter of a music teacher and an art teacher, she was never short on paper, colored pencils or creativity.

Her younger self would be happy to know that as an adult, Swenson is doing pretty much the same thing, only now she has set aside the coloring books for canvases, creating original pieces inspired by the beauty of the outdoors.

Swenson’s solo show “State of Awe” opened Friday at the Terrain Gallery and runs through March 23.

Swenson’s family moved around a lot while she was growing up, so she had a near-constant supply of beautiful scenery throughout central Washington, but it wasn’t until she moved to Bozeman for college and began camping and hiking that she realized just how much she could use the outdoors for artistic inspiration.

“I was studying graphic design there and art history and then was also exposed to incredible access to mountains and rivers and the Montana landscape,” she said. “I think that’s when I more like ‘Oh, wow, being outside in these places is always coming back to what I want to create, at the end of the day.’ ”

Swenson’s artistic expression is at the whim of the seasons, as most of her year is occupied by managing Wildland Cooperative in Greenbluff with her husband and a team of employees. She found out she would be showing at the Terrain Gallery over the summer, so when they closed the farm for the winter in December, Swenson got right to work on “State of Awe.”

“I’ve found in the past few years that winter is really my time to take all the experiences I’ve gathered in life and photos over the course of the other seasons and then actually dive into painting, because things slow down a little bit,” she said.

Swenson had a few pieces that were created in 2023, but most of the pieces in this show were inspired by photos she took while outside backpacking and on the farm.

“I laid them out and dove into what called me first to paint,” she said. “I appreciated that there wasn’t time to overthink. It was just following what you wanted to paint next and reflecting on all the life that I’d experienced outside.”

As she began working on pieces for the show, Swenson found that many fell into one of three categories.

The first is what Swenson calls the alpine collection, as it features works that highlight the Selkirks, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the North Cascades. Then there are the shrubsteppe pieces, which highlight the areas in central Washington where Swenson would roam when she was growing up.

“People always drive through central Washington and think ‘Oh, it’s flat. There’s nothing here,’ ” she said. “But if you drive barely off the freeway, you’ll drop into these canyons of basalt cliffs and incredibly rich habitat that I think is overlooked.”

The third category features moments of awe from harvesting flowers on the farm and wandering in her backyard.

Looking at the show as a whole, Swenson sees “State of Awe” as an opportunity to highlight moments of awe – big and small.

“At first I was going to make it super specific to eco regions and landscapes throughout Washington,” she said. “Then as I started going about it, I was like ‘Awe isn’t limited to these vast landscapes you have to hike miles into.’ Of course, that is definitely one way to experience it but oftentimes I’ll do my little backyard walk here and find a patch of moss and I’m like ‘This is incredible.’ All the lines and colors and forms you see in one little patch of moss or a flower petal or what have you. Awe on the grand and small scales, I think both are so important.”

Connecting “State of Awe” back to its sources of inspiration, Swenson is donating 5% of proceeds from art sales to the Lands Council. Originals will be available for purchase, but, to make art more accessible, Swenson will have prints available for purchase at the Terrain Gallery. Those interested in larger prints can pre-order them on her website for pick up at a later date.

“That was a commitment I made mostly for myself, ‘This is why I make art,’ so I want to find ways it can support those places and things I love,” she said.

After years of being inspired by and painting the outdoors, Swenson doesn’t see herself getting bored anytime soon. There are still hikes she’s yet to complete, areas in Western Washington, like Olympic National Park and the coastline, she’d like to explore, and she’d happily return to the North Cascades year after year. In short, she said, nature just calls to her.

“There’s awe absolutely everywhere to see, and it’s endless if you choose to look for it,” she said. “It definitely sometimes takes that mental fortitude; we can all get in funks. But every time I’m like ‘OK, I’m going to go outside and sit here for a minute and look and listen,’ I feel better and walk away with something I’d like to share or to help others find that sense of comfort and awe.

“It feels innate. I don’t know if I could shake it if I wanted to, a way of wanting to be in the world and making art from these experiences helps me really reflect and revisit that sense of beauty and not take it for granted.”