The Colour of Music, Interview with Visual Artist Jim Swift

Because of an art opening Friday, May 9th, I turn my attention to visual artist, Jim Swift. I enter our designated meeting place and recognize him immediately. He looks identical to my husband – because he is. I put on my interview persona and prepare for another venture – this time into the art world.

Jim lives in Campbell River and lived in the Comox Valley for many years. He has shown his art work in the Bar None Café and Sundance Café; juried shows; student shows; solo shows; Comox Valley Art Gallery and a member’s show at the Campbell River Art Gallery. He has received honorable mention for his painting of beluga whales displayed at the Tidemark Theater and has painted two indoor murals for private sale.

Jim says, "I paint because I have to paint. I cannot not paint.” This is a man who believes he was "born an artist”. At 17 Jim applied to the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr) and was accepted on the six drawings he sent them. However he was unable to attend because art "was not considered a job”. Jim felt the huge loss of this opportunity and he stopped drawing and painting. He worked in various fields including longshoreman, commercial fishing boat deckhand, construction and labour, then served his apprenticeship and became a journeyman carpenter.

Jim says, "In 1978 I was living a colourful lifestyle” (and he’s not talking about his wardrobe – although he does have a few wild, bohemian-coloured shirts still). He came to a fork in the road and says he "took the road less traveled” which eventually led to a resurrection of his art. "It never really left me. I just kept pushing it away”. At the age of 40, Jim again picked up the paintbrush. "It felt like a tap was turned on, releasing what I was holding all those years.” Painting now invoked a spiritual awakening and Jim says "it turned my life upside down. It opened whole new world and changed my reality”.

Jim has painted and taken lessons with artists in the Comox Valley and has been to the Atlin Centre for the Arts in Atlin, B.C. in 1991 and 1994. Here he "experienced big artistic breakthroughs” and painted fourteen paintings in fourteen days. "Atlin’s a magical place, a pure artistic environment.” Jim says that "just painting was my complete reality” and what he kept hearing was "paint your inner landscape Jim”. He surrendered to this prompting and "magic happened – a phenomenal experience”. Despite being open-minded and adventurous, Jim says he was really challenged when he encountered the dynamics at Atlin. At the end of fourteen days, he says, "I was empty.”

Jim believed he would become a wildlife artist, incorporating his extensive outdoor experience with animals into his paintings. He says it’s very hard to articulate but he felt an inner push to express himself more fully and put his feelings onto the canvas. This experiential process continues with his abstract art and Jim feels his aboriginal lineage influences his painting also. His interests in mysticism, shamanism in aboriginal cultures and experience with wild animals and the natural environment bring life to his paintings, creating experiences which "border on being magical.”

Most of Jim’s paintings have a story. His painting entitled Vision Quest was inspired in Atlin on the summer solstice at 3:00 a.m. on top of Monarch Mountain. He describes the sun setting in the west while simultaneously rising in the east, and a hawk circling round. The vision for a painting came to Jim and upon his return home "a bear materialized” into his painting. "I completed the bear and I also put the hawk in the painting. It was a huge explosion of energy!” The story continues with Jim driving to a retreat he was building at the time. He went to get a ladder and right there, "the bear stood up in front of me”. Twenty-one days later driving to the same retreat a female killdeer was crossing the road with her chicks. He stopped to let them cross and says a red-tailed hawk "slammed into them”. One chick froze and the hawk covered it with its wing ready to take it in flight. The hawk then turned and "locked onto me and I looked right back.” Then the hawk flew away, leaving the chick unharmed.

People tell Jim he should write a book.

I’m as intrigued by Jim’s experiences as if I had not heard them many times before. . He tells me the "Colour of Music [theme] has evolved”. He loves music. He loves dancing. (Tell me about it – I can barely keep up to him). Jim believes "music can transform consciousness. It has a colour and I paint and listen to the music to tell me what dominant colour is in the music.” He listens to world music that has soul, like the Sacred Spirit collection by European producer Claus Zundel, Lesium and B-Tribe. With no perceived end result, "painting becomes a meditation.”

Jim’s occupation as a carpentry instructor "demands accessing lots of creativity.” So the type of painting he does alleviates stress from his workday. When painting Jim says "time is timeless and everything is absolutely perfect”. He feels he has the freedom to "push the envelope and push through my own boundaries” because he doesn’t have to rely on art for a living.

I ask Jim why painting is important to him. "It’s who I am. It moves me out of the basic 9-5 mentality and creates a different awareness about life and what life’s about”. Jim is inspired by artists like: Jack Shadbolt, Norval Morriseau, Carl Rungius, Michael Coleman, Bob Kuhn, Jackson Pollock, Allen Sapp, Norman Yates, Tom Thompson and Lawren Harris. He’s also inspired by the wilderness – including grizzly bears, wolves, spawning salmon and by the northern BC/Yukon mountain ranges, adding that wilderness experiences were a precursor to his return to art and painting – for example this tale of two grizzlies: In Kemano in June 1980 Jim was doing a creel survey on the river as a DFO volunteer. He and his Akita, Sam, parked and walked to the river to watch for Chinook activity on this large run. After twenty minutes they turned to walk back and in the 3 foot high grass, a large boar grizzly partially stood and stared at Jim. The bear was immense, about 1000 pounds, and had only one ear. To get to his truck Jim had to pass the bear. He says he avoided eye contact, didn’t change his speed of walking and pretended it wasn’t there. One-third of the way to the truck a 650 pound sow stood up behind the boar, and Jim just kept walking. The bears watched him and let him go. He says he got to the truck, turned to see where his dog was, and saw Sam come up off the river, stop, check the two grizzly bears, look at Jim, walk to the truck and jump in! Jim painted that experience from memory, stored away incubating, then he "saw the whole painting and painted it”. During this experience with powerful grizzlies that were not habituated to people, Jim says "I became acutely aware of how alive I was”.

Yes, he really should write that book.

Jim believes artists have a responsibility to help shift people’s consciousness, "creating a visual monologue”. He says art does not have to be political or shocking and that it can be beautiful, emotional and spiritual, – which depends on the viewer and where they’re at. "It’s painted energy. Artists must be true to themselves and respect their own artistic process.” Jim states that having a show is "putting your soul on the wall” and that it’s important to "just do it” with "no expectations.”

Next for Jim is completing his studio. He feels it’s important to have his own space to create, "like stepping into another universe – just myself and my creative process”.

I extend my hand to Jim and thank him. "See you at home” he says.

The Colour of Music

Friday May 9th 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Serious Coffee in Willow Point

BIO: Chris loves to write, dance and take long walks – for fun, spiritual fulfillment and rejuvenation. She encourages us to listen to our hearts and live consciously in the world.