Organizations* : AOA, AWS, CAA, NAWA, OPA
“When you get to know people through painting them, you dig deeper than the wrinkles in their skin. You understand why they have that twinkle in their eye.” A painter of contemporary life, Ray Swanson focused his attention on real people he met during his journeys throughout the desert Southwest, Morocco, China and Europe.
However, Swanson is best known for his paintings of Native Americans, who he discovered in the mid-1960’s when he visited Arizona. His friendly, soft-spoken persona found a welcoming response on the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Apache reservations. From that time on, Swanson documented hundreds of Indians, young and old, many of whom became members of his extended family, painted from birth through adolescence to maturity.
In that same trip to Arizona, Swanson also began visiting the state’s working cattle ranches. Taking thousands of photographs of men at work, he transformed them into quintessential portraits of the cowboy way of life, from preparing food at the chuck wagon to roping a calf for branding.
By the mid-1980’s, it was clear to Swanson that he had to live closer to his subjects, and so he moved from California to Carefree, Arizona, where he built his studio, decorated with his personal collection of artifacts. The textures of his collection, ranging from worn leather to rusted tin and silky velvets to silver conchos, inspired Swanson, who challenged himself to convey these inherently different qualities in oil and watercolor.
Swanson’s childhood, growing up on a farm in South Dakota, colored his choice of subject matter. Hands-on farm work, grueling and yet rewarding, was the substance of his own upbringing and a continuing theme in his paintings. His works often show Navajos caring for their flocks or processing the wool that will become a fine rug. Or they may be shown weaving baskets, making piki bread or carving kachinas. His interior scenes are noted for their dramatic lighting and for the still-life compositions the artist so carefully constructs using the tools and objects used by the subject to create their product.
Swanson was a member of the Oil Painters of America, the American Watercolor Society, the National Association of Western Art, and the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America. In 2005, his family established the Ray Swanson Memorial Award for the Cowboy Artists of America.