“My grandmother would always say to me, ‘You’re my artist.’ She encouraged me from the start.”
That confidence inspired him to continue to pursue what, for many years, was his secondary occupation. At age 92, she attended one of Swearngin’s Missouri shows. It’s a memory he still treasures.
“Joan Cawley Gallery ended up being my first gallery, and I was with her for 23 years,” says Swearngin. “It’s also what ultimately brought me to Arizona. In 1997, I took time off from my graphic arts job to take part in the Knickerbocker Artists Show in Scottsdale. The people I met as a result of that show were heavily influential in guiding me toward where I am now.”
When Joan Cawley’s Santa Fe Gallery closed in 1998, Swearngin moved to show in her Scottsdale location and was soon a featured artist for the Scottsdale Symphony Orchestra’s Silver Anniversary.
“My experience is reminiscent of the stories in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers,” says Swearngin. “When I look back at my career, I was in the right place at the right time. It was a combination of raw gifts, opportunity, and divine intervention.
Another twist thrust him into the limelight when two pieces, Horse—Red, White and Blue, and Rugged Spirit were published by Cawley, unbeknownst to him, for a special showing at her New York gallery in December 2001. Cawley’s goal was to bring art to a city that was still reeling from the September 11 attacks. The fine art print of Horse—Red, White and Blue was then selected for the 2002 New York Art Expo 9/11 tribute. A steady stream of one-man shows, awards, and museum acquisitions followed as collectors fell in love with his contemporary take on classic Western subjects.
“The rest is history,” says Swearngin. “Horse—Red, White and Blue changed my life. I pinch myself because it’s a storybook tale. It’s what every artist dreams of having happen. It doesn’t make my work any better, but I was published nationwide and my art became more widely accessible.”
He begins with simple shapes, then adds underpainting and glazing. As layers of paint are added and adhesive frisket is stripped away, the effect of his subjects against stark backgrounds is dramatic. Though the themes are similar, each series offers a different perspective.
His Abstract Cowboy series is comprised of sketches drawn in the negative. Some have what he terms a heat register effect, which is appropriate for images of horse and rider that are full of movement and seem to vibrate with energy.
He’s been working on his highly successful Blue Roan series for two years. It relies heavily on underpainting and glazing to accent clear white backgrounds with graphic, blue-hued subjects that may appear simple from a distance, but a closer look reveals tone-on-tone detail.
The Abstract Navajo Horses series features indigenous Navajo horses. Swearngin notes that their unique build has adapted in such a way that they are perfectly suited for survival in the rugged, high elevation ranges of northern Arizona’s Navajo reservation. His abstract style marries well with his life-long knowledge of livestock.