ARTIST SPACES: A tale of two homes
Finding Adam Swanson's house — part vintage log cabin, part modern addition located about 30 miles from Duluth — requires keeping a keen eye on street signs and minding one's veers.
The visual artist and his wife took an easier route:
"We found it on the internet," Swanson said recently.
Adam and Katie Swanson didn't fall in love with it at first, he added. The photographs online were cellphone-quality and taken in the winter. It was a foreclosure that needed a lot of work. But they liked the idea of owning land. It included 10 acres in Cloquet — ample room for gardens, walking paths, a treehouse-looking chicken coop and the studio the visual artist — known for his bicycles, penguins and surreal juxtapositions — has imagined next to his garage.
And it was within their budget. So here they are in the woods, technically on the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Swanson said he misses the ease of living in downtown Duluth with immediate car-free access to Movies in the Park or the Great Lakes Aquarium. But "Moving out here has been a dream," he said.
A tale of two houses
Half of Swanson's house is an actual log cabin, with log walls, log support beams and a peaked roof. It's a single room with a kitchen island, a small table in the corner and the wood stove Swanson added to the space. A steep spiral staircase makes a tight twist to a lofted two bedroom space where 5-year-old Jasper sleeps with a view of the chicken coop.
He keeps watch over them, Swanson said, once alerting him to a fox in the yard.
A pulley system has been incorporated for ease of bringing things up or down the stairs.
A sliding door leads to the other half of the house. It's a newer addition with a cement floor, high ceiling and walls made of sheetrock. This living space is filled with artwork by others — including Rick Allen and Ithaca, N.Y.-based artist Kate Winchell — plants and musical instruments.
Swanson's summer project is a patio off the room's double doors, he said.
Swanson's studio is a jut of a room in the northwest corner of the addition. An almost hip-high baby gate stands as the door between the family's main living space and the room where Swanson keeps business hours, painting four days a week and averaging two to three pieces in time span.
Swanson's easel is propped in the corner, and recently held the groundwork for a potential piece. This is important: Rather than cleaning his brushes and dumping paint down the sink, Swanson whips the leftovers on to a new panel. This abstract mix of dark and light strokes might ultimately become part of a sky or trees. It might turn into a portrait of elephants.
It's a step that makes it easier for him to start painting, he said.
"The more colors and activity, the more free it is," Swanson said. "A blank canvas is intimidating. A canvas like this — it's already a mess. I already can't screw it up. It's giving me something to work with."
He keeps his collection of acrylics and brushes at his right. To his left, taped to the wall, is source material: a portrait of his wife and his 1½-year-old son, who have appeared in his work: They are the in the foreground of a winterscape that includes yurt and in that version, Katie Swanson is a bird.
There are also potential titles for pieces. Swanson comes up with these before the paintings and enjoys the juxtaposition of random phrases affixed to his paintings, things like:
"I Didn't Expect to Sleep Through the Night" or "The Monsters Are Just Trees" or "One Good Reason."
There is also a handwritten to-do list filled with the shows and pieces that are pending. During a recent visit, he crossed off the Great Lakes Aquarium gig.
Some of his work leans against the wall at floor level. Among them is a piece by his 5-year-old son, who sometimes paints at his feet.
"I've talked to other people who have a home office who've said it's easy to get distracted," he said. This is not the case for Swanson.
"When I'm here, it's a separate space. I feel energized to be in here — with the white noise of the kids running around and Katie on the phone.
"I'm really thankful. I'm really grateful," he said.
A penguin with hot air balloons
Swanson majored in art at the University of Minnesota Duluth and stuck around after graduation. But he tested other careers and continents on his way to becoming a full-time artist. He's been a bartender and a chef. He's been a boating coordinator in Antarctica. While he was there during one of three trips, he organized the first South Pole Art Fair. He's done winter plein air painting near the Boundary Waters. He's had an artist residency in Sweden.
After Sweden, he decided to become an artist full time.
"I think I can make it," he remembered thinking. "I had five commissions on the docket. I always expected to go back (to bartending) — I still do. Then, I was one or two months from it. Now, I'm eight. I could last half a year."
Swanson's artwork began cropping up around town in about the past five years: He had a show featuring his signature bicycle portraits at now-defunct Ochre Ghost. He's shown his stuff at Pizza Luce. He's featured at a coffee shop in Cloquet. Both Siiviis and Sivertson Gallery carry his work. He was selected by the City of Duluth to paint the mural that accompanied construction of the new chalet at Spirit Mountain as part of the One Percent for the Arts program.
The Great Lakes Aquarium is hosting "The Animals and Me" through July 21.
Penny Clark of Lizzard's Art Gallery & Framing, which has a wall of Swanson's work, bought a piece featuring an image of a bird she collects while at Lake Avenue Cafe.
"It's a heron on the back of a goat," said Clark. "I jokingly said 'Do you think you could add a penguin?' He looked at me with a shocked look. I said 'It's a joke, Adam.' "
But it's not, really. Swanson estimated that 50 percent of his work is commissions. He might paint another version of an elephant portrait for someone after the original has sold. He does family portraits and pet portraits. It wouldn't be out of character to add a penguin to a piece. It's imagery that appears in a lot of his work.
"They're cute, funny, foreign," he said. "They seem out of place anywhere but Antarctica. You can put it next to a horse and it's like ... 'Why?' "
It's this whimsy that catches attention at Lizzard's, Clark said.
"What I find interesting about knowing him — so much of his personality seems to show up in his work," she said in a phone call. "It's just funny. He uses colors you don't see other people put together. I'm looking at a penguin with hot air balloons."