Charlie Swanson bakes bread—but not just any old bread. Charlie bakes bread like a scientist clones DNA—through research, experimentation, and finally, technical mastery. In its simplest form, Charlie’s bread rouses the senses, much like the lush environment in which he lives and works. Both are the perfect alchemy, an art based partly on science and partly on magic, and it’s here I discovered the art and science of Charles Swanson.
“I guess I’ve always been that way,” Charlie says as we head to the porch room—a nod to origins in the southern US. In tones of chocolate plum, pale avocado and golden tangerine, it’s a room designed for the comfort of friends. Today is washday, and the family cats have relinquished the couch for piles of freshly laundered shirts nearby.
“What I mean by that,” Charlie continues, “is I’m a bit fanatical in terms of my approach to learning about a thing. I’ve had many passions over the last 40 years, both as a person and an artist, and with each one I understood initially that I was in need of further education.” To be honest, Charlie actually said, “I was still pretty stupid…” but as the writer here, I’m taking creative license.
Charlie Swanson didn’t start making art until his early 30s. After acquiring a Degree in Business and Economics, he owned a construction company for a while, and that fuelled his love of woodworking. Feeling once more humbled by his lack of knowledge, he took himself off to a ‘fancy woodworking school’ in Rochester, NY where, as Charlie puts it, “I had my first exposure to a new kind of creative thought.” A Masters Degree in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design launched a career in furniture design at a time when Wendell Castle and George Nakashima were leading figures in the craft. It was also around that time period that Charlie met Eck (Follen) and together they opened a studio that would eventually encompass 10,000 sq feet and 10 artists. “Sometimes I miss that kind of creative collaboration,” Charlie said as we talked about the role of the studio in an artists work. “But I don’t miss the management and maintenance of having a studio that size.”
The house is filled with Charlie’s sculptural work from that time period, and we talked about his ongoing need to experiment with materials, as evidenced by his NASA-approved painters easel in the studio. “Most of my ideas were generated not so much from deep conceptual notions, but more from experimenting with materials,” Charlie shared. “The series I created of plaster work and steel rods was originally inspired by a grocery shopping cart full of plaster that a sculpture student had left outside the woodshop door. I was obsessive in my experimentation, which is typically the way I work, and the end result was part design, part engineering and part artistic expression.”
This is the second year Charlie will take part in the Merida English Library Artist Studio Tour, but this year, he’s turned his focus to photography, another medium he’s trying to master. “Actually”, Charlie said, when I asked about the shift from painting, “photography preceded my career even as a furniture designer. But life took me in another direction and I’m excited to re-discover both the medium and the technology. I’m not done with painting, but right now I’m fascinated with the capability to compose images that are familiar yet somehow almost impossible. And I’m living in a city that can fuel that fascination.”
Which brings me to the inevitable question – why Merida?
“Merida itself seems to me a city in transition,” Charlie answered, “part of a developing process, if you will. I’ve always considered myself a work in progress, so I think we’re a pretty good fit.”