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Mackenzie Swenson: Conversation of Brush Strokes Between Known and Unknown

At 25, Mackenzie Swenson’s art projects maturity that is way beyond her youth.  Her vision follows humanity’s progression through naivety, temptation, and struggling.  It concludes in coming to terms with the responsibility of mankind’s deepest, unique agency.  It’s a significant concept to compose at such a tender age, but at no point does it seem calculated.  It simply speaks of a comprehensible viewpoint on the importance of appreciating the wonders around us.

Observing Swenson’s intricate brushwork and her unobtrusive attention to details does leave a lingering, yet lonesome impression.  It is exactly this impression that projects maturity and richness of emotions and strikes with such delicate transparency.  

As MINUS37, we had a pleasure to chat with Mackenzie and discuss her childhood, her art education, creative process, inspiration, and being an artist in a span of current events.

"Envy of Eden" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen, 2018

Tell us a little bit about your life. Was art always present?

For the most part, I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin (less than 1,000 people) that didn’t have much in way of “cultural outlets.” One stoplight. One k-12 school. Eight bars. Nine churches. Pretty standard.

However, my parents and mentors always encouraged me to be curious, adventurous, and to think critically. I loved to draw, but I was also a voracious reader (still am!) and took every opportunity to explore or build forts in the woods. My sister, eleven years older and a childhood idol, did a lot of painting when she was in high school and won an award where she and my mom got to go on a trip to Washington DC. I couldn’t have been more than 7, but I absolutely remember that. I loved to watch her work and would go look at her paintings in her room when she was gone. Also, my father is a builder, and my grandfather did woodworking as a hobby. They passed on a love of craft—of taking pride in creating something beautiful and well made.

"Robert" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen
"John (In Profile)" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen

What is your artistic background, when and how did you start? How did you end up with the style you currently work in?

My art teachers throughout school recognized some ability, but my childhood mind (as pragmatic as it was eccentric) never saw art as a path to be taken seriously. That changed when I was around 12 or 13 and had the privilege of taking painting lessons with a family friend and artist. That’s when I began to see how the pursuit of art could uniquely weave together this love of working with my hands, exploration, and curiosity.

“It was an infinite playground on the border between reality and perception—a way to understand why the road to school was so beautiful in the early morning, but relatively uninteresting at high noon, or why fog could turn the woods into a setting for a fairytale. The same place or object under a different light turned the familiar into the unknown.”

Around this same time I was gripped by the realization that, like it or not, we all have a paradigm that is flawed and incomplete, directly paralleled in the way we perceive the visual world. When it was pointed out to me that shadows in snow are not grayish, but rather brilliant shades of blue, I began to notice the chasm between what we think we see and what is actually in front of our eyes. I began to entertain the idea of building a career exploring the visual world by making paintings. The phenomenon of vision is a curious example of the border between knowledge and naivety.

"Out of Context" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen, 2018

Everything I was curious about was rooted in this interplay between my conception of the world and the phenomena of what I was actually seeing. Because of this, I was drawn to the tradition of realism and the way artists throughout history have approached the translation of the visual world. The human figure, in particular, became very intriguing with its overflow of psychological influence and complex inner workings. I’m still in absolute awe of the human body, and human beings in general. We’re such amazing, complicated beings.

After 8 years of atelier training—4 in Minneapolis, MN and 4 at the Grand Central Atelier in NYC—my current approach to painting is a conversation of brush strokes between the things about the visual world that I understand and the things that surprise me and call into question that same understanding. I do my best to live on the border of known and unknown and make my paintings an expression of this aim, constantly updating my understanding.

"Andre" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen
"Emergence in Platimun" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen

How do you usually work, and from where do you draw your inspiration?

I work exclusively from life. I have no personal vendetta against photography and may use it in the future, but for my current purposes, photography fails to capture the unknowns that I find most fascinating. It captures the things about the world that we already understand, as it is a human-built machine with mechanical limitations.

I find myself drawn to visual experiences where the objects I paint capture my attention because of what they represent, and the way the abstract shapes and colors come together capture my attention aesthetically.  For example, in “Harbored at Dawn” I find the potential of adventures not-yet-had by this little yellow sailboat, with all its hopeful aspirations, to be very compelling. I also think the interplay of shapes with the arches, the vertical masts of the boats, and the large grouped dark and light shapes in muted hues of early morning to be abstractly engaging. (This can be understood by flipping the image upside down and asking yourself if the design still elicits a pleasing or compelling experience.) I hope each work I create meets both of these criteria, but usually my paintings lean in one direction or another.

"Harbored at Dawn" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on board, 2017

My “plein air” or, “on location” work—faster and often outdoors—tends to focus on the aesthetics of abstract shapes and colors. I find myself less concerned with the objects themselves. However, my figure work and portraiture tends to be more focused on the psychological weight we bring to the experience of encountering the universe that is another human being.

The interplay of what is vs. what we experience continues to be the driving question I always come back to and I am working on a number of allegorical paintings that are inspired by this idea.

Mackenzie Swenson at work, en plein air
Mackenzie Swenson at work, en plein air

What do you hope your work achieves or invokes?

I hope that my work compels people to reconnect with the side of themselves that is earnest, naïve, and prone to wonder. I translate the visual symphonies that surround me in hopes that people tune their eyes to their own symphonic surroundings. I hope that people are reminded of the miracle that is another human, and the miracle that is their own unique vantage point. I believe that if we are willing to undergo the delicate and humble task of curious seeing, we are rewarded through the way our perception becomes more sensitive over time.

I want to compel people to willingly investigate their own paradigms, and act in ways that elevate and appreciate rather than numb and depreciate. This is expressed in a desire is to encourage people (not just artists) to seek out ways of increasing connection to their senses. While there is some cultural movement towards awareness, the greater part of our culture is on the fast track to numbness through artifice and over-stimulation.

"Out of Context (Part)" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen, 2018
"Out of Context (Detail)" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen, 2018

I know it seems so minor… but the practice of drawing and painting requires engagement in a single moment. We are all humbled by a blank canvas, and forced to contend with our sorely inadequate understanding of the world. Elevate and challenge yourself to the hard work of increasing sensitivity and perception with the discipline of the arts. Pay now with sensitivity and attention, and watch the interest accrue. Observe the way it takes less and less to fascinate you more. The disciplines of the arts are a way of extracting more experience out of less stimulus.

In the modern world, we are not suffering for want of wonders, but for want of wonder,” is GK Chesterton’s poetic way of stating this idea. That’s my call to arms. Practice intentional art that requires something of you. I believe it’s an antidote to the numbness and apathy.

"Strength in Repose" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil on linen

How do you feel about being a young artist in a modern society?

I probably have similar feelings to any young artist who has lived in any society (modern as they always seem to be.) I have impossible ideals. I want to have a positive impact on the world. Half the time I’m with other people, I’m having my own internal conversations that I don’t know how to verbalize externally. I have an insatiable desire to be heard, but can’t help being a little bit scared when I step out and say something that might be ridiculed, or make something that might be badly reviewed or rejected. I’m painfully aware of the gulf between my aspirations and current mode of being; I don’t live up to my ideals, even in making an effort to move toward them. And in spite of all that, there isn’t anything I’d rather be pursuing—moving in the direction of my ideals, both in my art and as an average human, trying to maximize my potential. I sometimes think of it like sailors who use stars to navigate, even though they’re fully aware of being tied to the sea. Ideals are useful tools, even if they’re impossible as destinations.

"Atlas" by Mackenzie Swenson, oil based clay

Regarding our society, in particular, I’m so thankful for the freedom to express my views, and make my own choices about how to act in the world. In the scope of history, this is an absolute privilege. Of course, we have our own current realities to contend with. For example, the rise of social media and the internet means that there doesn’t have to be a discriminatory middle-man (editor, gallery owner, critic, etc..) between the artist and the public. This is a tremendous amount of freedom for both artist and viewer, but it also an ocean of content to navigate. It’s easy to get lost in all the possibilities. In some ways that have given me a deep respect for the wisdom found in traditional cultures and values—they seem much more focused on how to move through life with wisdom.

This seems to be one role of the artist, helping to resurrect, examine, and breath life into the ancient materials of inherited culture.  As a young artist in a modern society, I see myself in the place the artist has always taken. Visionary and path-finder, she attempts to understand the past from which her culture has risen, has ample respect for the unknowns and weight of the future, and translates her findings into stories or pictures that are mirrors for the world she lives in, casting a vision to aspire to.

I told you I was an idealist:)

All images and text courtesy of Mackenzie Swenson.

You can view more work by Mackenzie Swenson on her Instagram and website.

Intro written by Wynand Conrad

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