Growing communities through art: Ken Swinson uses art for himself and others

by Saad Ghosn

Raised in a Mormon family, he was taught early on to care and have compassion for others. In college, he took pre-med classes, seeking a profession to help people; he learned quickly, however, that medicine did not suit him. He quit, did not pursue his
undergrad education, and resorted instead to making art.

“Art was one thing I always loved to do,” he says. “It helped me in difficult times; I discovered it was a powerful tool I could also use with others.”

Swinson learned on his own the techniques of printmaking and pottery. At the time, his printed images were mostly portraits and landscapes; his pots, functional, decorated with painted scenes.

In 2003, when the Iraq war started, he got distressed, firmly believing the war unjustified; he also resented the direction the country was taking and the imposed climate of fear and control. He sold his belongings and wandered for six months in his van throughout Florida and California, camping, living mostly in natural parks. He drew and painted many nature-related scenes, peaceful subjects that took him away from politics, helped him meditate. Back in Northern Kentucky, he continued his own art but also became more involved in community activities.

Swinson’s art stems from his contact with and appreciation of nature, also from issues relatedto where he lives. Many of his prints, for instance, pertain to biking and its beneficial effects, healthy exercise, direct connection with the surroundings.

An avid biker himself, he rode all the way to Washington, DC, and documented visually his trip. “Up Hill,” a serigraph, shows him biking up hill, welcomed by cows and birds; “a Pig on a Bike” ironically alludes to his conviction that everyone can use the transportation mean to an advantage.

“Poor health due to sedentary living, and scarce and polluting fuel, are two important problems our country faces,” he says. “Bicycling is a natural remedy for both. Through my cycling artwork I try to inspire people to want a bike, raising at the same
time awareness about health and the environment.”

Also a video-maker, Swinson recorded in motion many of his nature experiences, trying to impart a sense of awe onto the viewer witnessing nature’s beauty, at the same time stressing the importance of a healthy natural living. His video, “Kentucky Canoe Trip,” incorporates his painted images with nature scenes, communicating a feeling of peace and harmony; “Birdwatching,” the pleasure of biking and discovering the world of animals.

Living not far from Ripley, Ohio, a key town in the Underground Railroad, Swinson learned more about slavery. He started a series
of paintings and prints illustrating heroes of that period, “brave people who stood upfor the right thing at a time it was the wrong thing to do,” he says.

His painting “John Parker” illustrates the story of Parker, a former slave who bought his freedom, settled in Ripley and became active in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to freedom. He is shown barefoot assisting a couple
and their baby he had just rescued, to escape.

“Eliza Harris,” a linocut print, is a portrait of the famed woman holding her child. Desperate for freedom, Harris crossed the partly frozen Ohio River jumping from ice flow to ice flow, braving death. Swinson incorporated the image of a white hand,
that of Chance Shaw of the Ohio Patrol who rescued her and stated: “Any woman who crossed that river carrying her baby has won her freedom.”

“A Better Life,” a screenprint, is in honor of all the nameless fieldworker slaves who dared to dream of a better life; it includes a dove, symbol of hope, and a river and the North Star, for freedom. Swinson later animated the print showing the dove flying.

“In the last four years I have been able to live completely from my artwork,” says Swinson. “I have been very grateful and felt the responsibility to give even more to the community.”

As a result Swinson became involved in many community-oriented projects. In Maysville, with artist friend Barb Clark he
started few years ago Art Walk, now a yearly community event where artists connect with various businesses, exhibiting their work inside their spaces; the event brings visitors downtown to view the artwork and discover, at the same time, what the town
has to offer. Also in Maysville he has been teaching a monthly free art class to both adults and children.

He recently arranged a screen-printing activity for residents to screen-print a design on their old cloth, thus introducing them to printmaking and to recycling. Volunteering for a neighborhood children Christmas party in the Pendleton area of Cincinnati where his studio is, he brought in his portable press and taught the kids how to print their own holiday cards. In Augusta with only one school and no art teacher, he will be organizing this November an art fair for local artists to interact with students, demonstrate and display their work, educate on the possibilities of art.

Living in a house with a large backyard Swinson opened it as a community garden, making it a rallying place for the neighborhood to gather, plant and connect. He also started Grass Root Arts, an independent social project to encourage community participation, reciprocity and generosity through the arts. It proposes communal art-related activities to help promote social causes.

“I have always been passionate about causes that improve community and society,” says Swinson.“I want to use art to help advance them. I also hope to inspire people to make their own art and contribute to a better world.”

Swinson is an activist through his artwork, his actions, his lifestyle. Very active in his community, he strives to make a positive difference… He uses his art to express himself, communicate, give and bring others together.

Artists as Activists is a regular column highlighting Greater Cincinnati artists who use art as a vehicle for change. Saad Ghosn is the founder of SOS Art. Ghosn can be reached at saad.ghosn@uc.edu.

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