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Johnny Swing's unmatched passion

Susan Notes:

Public schools have never easily--or very successfully--accommodated a student like Johnny Swing. He was lucky to go to a high school that allowed him to focus on his art. As I read this story, I kept wondering what Johnny Swing would have done had he come face-to-face with the Common Core State [sic] Curriculum.

Enjoy his remarkable story. Go look at his remarkable coin furniture.

by Tim Johnson

BROOKLINE -- As the youngest child in an accomplished, intellectual family, he stood out for his bad grades. He loved to make things, though, and it was his sculptural artwork that sustained him through high school and that, miraculously, got him into college.

You might say college was a springboard to Johnny Swing's career as a masterful artisan of found objects, but it wasn't the only one.

There was that first gallery show in the East Village. There were the New York City years he spent as a kind of guerrilla street artist, working out of a converted gas station on Second Avenue. There was the 18,000-square-foot sculptural "installation" he and two pals constructed in an old Macy's warehouse in Long Island City, a breathtaking aggregation of scrap metal, a cut-up school bus and other recycled materials that one art critic called "staggering in its lunatic invention."

But it wasn't until he moved to Vermont that he got serious about adding furniture to his design repertoire. You might say that his breakthrough -- the point in his career when he finally achieved commercial success and a measure of fame -- came when a piece he crafted in his Brookline workshop came up for auction at Sotheby's in November 2009.

The New York Times ran a preview article, calling Swing's item "an eye-catching piece de resistance" among the objects for sale, with a prediction that it would sell for $15,000 to $20,000.

It was a couch. It was made of nickels, thousands of them welded to a metal frame. The 35,000 welds took him about two months.

It sold to a collector for $104,000.

Don't call him John

At age 50, he still goes by "Johnny." For him, "John" summons up old scoldings.

"I was in trouble a lot as a kid," he recalled. "'John Swing!' ... 'John!' It was like a chant in my house."

As for his surname ("probably Alsatian, Schwing"), "It's a great name, got a nice energy about it."

His paternal grandfather was a well-known radio broadcaster in World War II, a peer of Edward R. Murrow.

"He didn't transfer over to TV, but if you ask anyone in their 80s or 90s, they'll know his name: Raymond Gram Swing. As my father goes, 'My father's famous, my son's famous. What happened to me?'"

Johnny's father, who grew up in Putney, was a lawyer who was also an adept builder (boats, a house). His mother was a talented artist who adored him. She was also an alcoholic, which may have inclined him as a child toward attention-getting behavior, Swing said. He was accident-prone and sustained his share of concussions growing up.

"My goal in life was never to do everything right," he said.

He spent his childhood in northwest Connecticut and New York City. His older siblings were good in school; he wasn't, but he had a creative streak and received an elementary school art award.

"I think everyone is naturally creative," Swing said, "whether you turn that on or off. For me, it was an outlet to be healthy, it was my way of expressing myself."

When he was 13, a neighbor in Connecticut taught him how to weld.

"I learned the most basic welding from him, acetylene, which is really melting the metals until they fuse, finding that perfect balance," he said. "Welding is magical, god-like, because you're taking two incredibly hard materials, heating them up, and making them one. Two liquids join and become a solid. It's really amazing."

For high school, he attended the Putney School in Vermont, where he focused on his art. He'd make creatures out of scrap metal -- bicycle forks for legs, ball bearings for eyes â âyou know, like the garden sculptures you see people making now, with shovels and rakes and bits of metal. I could make anything.â

He skimped on his homework, but Putney didnât give grades. When he was a senior, he applied to Skidmore College, located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He loaded his portfolio in his motherâs car and she drove him there. The key to his getting admitted, as he recalls it, is that he persuaded an art professor to come out to look at his stuff in the back of her car.

"How could I forget Johnny Swing?" said John Cunningham, senior faculty member in sculpture at Skidmore, in an email. "He had (has) a passion for making things that brooks no interference. This guy has to make stuff."

"Physically, he had (has) no fear, and his time at Skidmore was characterized by a series of daredevil actions which resulted in him getting really smashed up. I remember visiting him at a hospital in Schenectady once."

"I was sort of a wild animal before I went to college," Swing said. "I was in the emergency room seven times my freshman year. I sawed off my finger at one point. I broke my ankle. I rode my bicycle into a brick wall. Things just happened."

Academically, he had a defiant streak.

"If someone gave me an assignment, I would feel my job was to do that assignment in the most oblique fashion possible. That was my assignment to myself, and it never made my life easier."

"My early professors would say, you know, 'if you'd made the pyramids, you'd have made them upside down -- as dangerous as possible.'"

Cunningham affirms Swing's self-characterization.

âHe was a real pain in the you-know-what,â Cunningham said, âbut on the other hand, I believe we were real friends while he was at Skidmore.â

Swing finally became a serious student in college, made the deanâs list as a senior and graduated in 1984 after just four years â âan amazing act,â he calls it. He aspired to be a professional artist, so he headed to New York.
New York, New York

To support himself, Swing got got a job doing construction on eastern Long Island.

âCarpentry is like sculpture with directions,â he said. âI can make things square if I need to.â

One of his construction buddies had a mother who was a secondary-market art dealer.

âShe said, âIf you ever have slides of your work, Iâd be happy to show them to galleries.â I said, âFunny you should say that, I have nine packages of slides here in my car.â â

âI expected that would be the last that was said of that,â he said. âThose things donât really pan out.â

They did, though: Within a week, he learned St. Marks gallery in the East Village wanted to talk to him.

âSo, I went into the city, met with them, and they said, âYour work is exactly what our gallery is about. Weâd like to see your studio.ââ

He didnât have a studio. All his stuff was in storage at his parentsâ place in Connecticut. Someone from the gallery drove up to see it, and the result was his first show.

âIt got reviewed in Art News,â he said. âIt got reviewed in The New York Times. It did well. Iâm not sure how much work sold.â

"It got me into New York, which was crucial. It got me relationships with other artists. It encouraged me that I belonged in that society and culture that were making work ... When you go to New York and find that, wow, you belong here, and this is the biggest stage, you know, there's a lot of affirmation you're on the right track."

Art still wasn't paying his bills, though. He got a job as a messenger, delivering dentures in the Bronx.

"I had a 750 Super Sport, a pretty big motorcycle," he recalled. "They said they never got their dentures so quick."

In the fall of 1984, he was riding the motorcycle upstate to visit a girlfriend when he was hit by a car, head on.

"I was in a coma," he said. "Then I was in a cast for a year and a brace for another two years."

The messenger service made him a dispatcher. "Someone thought I was responsible enough to help run the business," he said. "I guess they felt bad for me. I was one of their favorite messengers."

"Art always came first," he said. "Pretty early on I had a workshop ... at the corner of Second Street and Avenue B... It was an abandoned gas station. Somebody asked us if we wanted to have an art workshop in the back. We ended up getting the workshop for $100 a month. My shop had a dirt floor, heated by a wood stove -- in Manhattan!"

He called it the Space 2B Gas Station.

He picked up welding jobs. Meanwhile, as a sculptor, he had one foot in the standard gallery world â one-man shows at St. Markâs â and the other in a freestyle gallery of his own invention, the streets of New York City. With two of his sculptor friends â John Carter and John Veronis â he started making playful, eyecatching sculptures out of found objects and affixing them high up on municipal poles.

âSome were kinetic, attached to springs, mostly abstractions,â Swing recalled. âSome were political. My favorite political one had the shape of a pistol pointed at a no parking sign. Thereâs nothing more annoying in New York than trying to find a parking space.â

âThere were over 150 of them,â Carter said. âBack then, everybody in the city knew of them. They were everywhere, on sign poles.â

âDiscarded metal was everywhere in the East Village,â Veronis said. âWe all had pickup trucks weâd use to collect it. Johnny devised a bracket that would clamp onto the pole that made them really hard to get off.â

The pole sculptures and the gallery pieces alike exemplified Swingâs notion of what art should be: âMy job as an artist is to create an exit point for you as a viewer, for you to dream and to go somewhere else, a starting point for wherever you want to go.â

âI loved the work I was doing at the time,â Swing said. âIt was some of the purest work I ever did, a combination of abstract expressionist work ... all metal, covered with autobody filler and painted great colors.â

The street work came to the attention of a real estate magnate who was planning to develop an old Macyâs warehouse in Long Island City as an office complex. He hired âthe three Jâs,â as they called themselves, to put their stamp on the 18,000-square-foot lobby.

âHe needed it to be given definition, and he had this vision that we were the right people to do that,â Swing said. âWe ended up working on this installation piece for 2 ½ years, with a similar philosophy we had with the street thing. When we were done it was going to be the largest mosaic in the world.â

The floor tiles were made of recycled light bulbs. Fifty tons of sculpture were spread across the floor and hung from the walls and ceiling. As the Times described it, the tableau included âbathtub godsâ Poseidon and Mercury âfashioned of refuse from a nearby Long Island Expressway overpass; boiler parts and old saw blades soaking in porcelain niches, and a 40-foot-long fish fashioned from a pickup truck, with steel whiskers, hanging overhead.â

Then the warehouse changed hands, the new owner wanted the âinstallationâ out, and it became the subject of a federal lawsuit: the three Jâs contended that their work had to remain in place under terms of a federal statute, the Visual Artistsâ Rights Act, that had gone into effect in 1991. They won the first round but lost on appeal, and their work was removed â except for the elevator they redesigned, which remains intact with its contoured walls, monster imagery and fish-eye mirror.

âThe coolest elevator in New York,â raved a blogger who discovered it by accident and posted a dozen photos.
Back to Vermont

Swing got married and moved his family to Vermont in 1995, after his first son was born. âA fancy loft in Tribeca looks a lot less fancy when youâve got to take a baby carriage up three flights of stairs.â

They settled in Brookline in what he calls âthe dark side of Putney Mountain.â He had his eye on his grandmotherâs old house, which he eventually managed to buy â but not before they went through some hard times.

âWe lived in Vermont for five years and couldnât pay our bills,â he said. âSomeone wanted to hire me to be their full-time welder, but my wife and father said no. I think they both said that was sort of short-sighted.â

They wanted him to keep working on his art â which he did, taking small jobs on the side. His landlord gave him a cut-rate rent on a machine shed he could use as a studio. And in 2001, he made his first nickel couch.

It wasnât his first piece of furniture. That was a chair that he made out of dock washers, which look like oversized spikes, in 1986.

âThe hardest thing with found objects is finding enough of them,â he said. â Lots of times you pass a scrap yard and say, âoh, thereâs a lot of cool shapes, but are there enough to make what you want?ââ

Thatâs one reason he liked working with coins. He knew he could always find enough of those. He remembered the coins that John Veronis had welded onto a pipe for a piece, back in the street sculpture days.

âI knew I could weld coins, and I thought, wow, here are these pennies that are fairly cheap material, no one even bends over to pick them off the street anymore, theyâre basically discarded and theyâre pretty beautiful. I can always get more. My first piece of coin furniture was made with pennies. I made three of them â two chairs made with pennies. I made them in New York before my first son was born, finished them up here.â

There was a problem with pennies cast after 1981, though â copper plated zinc lowered the melting point and made them difficult to weld. He started working with nickels.

âCoins, what an amazing material,â he said. âYeah, itâs a coin, but itâs like a flowing fabric. I called a recent piece âMurmuration,â which is the pattern sparrows make when they get together. Iâm really caught up in the patterns the coins make. When you see them from a distance, itâs almost like a fish coming out of the water. You see this glistening shape. The facets of the coins catch the light, and as you get closer, you start seeing the patterns, you start seeing what theyâre made of. You know, this really dynamic experience a viewer gets to go through before he sits down. Is it comfortable? Do I want to sit in it? The layers keep adding onto the success of the work, besides its being a pretty shape.â

Some of his furniture pieces are on loan at the Newfane Café and Creamery. A customer can sit on a coin stool and put a sandwich plate on a table made of jar lids. A butterfly chair, one of Swingâs higher-priced items, occupied a corner in the café until it was shipped to the New York gallery that handles Swingâs furniture. It was comfortable to sit in, said Ken Schatra, the caféâs owner.

âHis welding is magnificent,â Schatra said admiringly. âHeâs playing chess, weâre playing checkers ... Heâs a major player in the contemporary art world. It took him years to get there.â

As a furniture maker, does Swing consider himself an artist, a craftsman, or some sort of hybrid?

âA combination of designer and artist,â he said. âWhat really differentiates craft from art is that art triggers an intellectual response.â

In his mind, the installation provoked such a response from viewers, and so does the coin furniture.

âMaking the installation, what I really liked was the interaction with the viewer,â he said. âCreating an experience for the art viewer. With an installation, theyâre surrounded with work, theyâre standing on it, theyâre looking at it, theyâre touching it, itâs above them, itâs around them, itâs in their ears, in their eyes. Youâre creating a space for them to have a really specific experience beyond just the visual.

âWith furniture, Iâm making something you can look at, and if you want to go further you can touch it, and if you want to go further, you can sit on it. By sitting on it, youâre having a shared experience with me and my work.â

He has made 22 nickel couches since that first one. A couch he made last year of half dollars, called âAll the Kingâs Men,â is his âorganic masterwork,â according to a Sothebyâs exhibition book that accompanied a themed âHunters and Gatherersâ sale last year.

Cunningham, the art professor, said that while Swing has been drawing notice for his âextraordinarily beautiful couches,âwhich Swing showed and discussed at a Skidmore appearance last year, âI suspect he wishes his less mechanically-crafted and more poetic works were as well received as his metal furniture.â

Told of Cunninghamâs comment, Swing said: âQuite to the contrary, I love everything that I make. Otherwise it would be a waste of my time.â

The coin furniture brings in a decent income, though, and then some. Heâs building a new workshop thatâs about 30 feet high and can accommodate outsized works.

âIâm also making sculptures,â Swing said. âTheyâre big twisted pieces of metal which are really very abstract, and what Iâm doing with that is breaking down structural materials and almost making them organic again. The natural curves and organic shapes are sort of what triggers my excitement in life. To find grace and beauty in something thatâs so rigid and unforgiving, and to have it end up being really flowing, like drapery or skin ..(is) really in my mind delightful. A lot of that carries through to the furniture, also, creating natural shapes out of unnatural materials.â

Of that first nickel couch, he said: âI made it and I started showing it in furniture shows. I knew it was a great piece, and it got a lot of attention.

âTheyâd say, how much is that for sale for, and Iâd say, Iâm hoping to sell it for $15,000, and theyâd say, good luck.

âWell, thank you for all the good luck, because Iâve certainly had some. Now people ask me how much does my stuff sell for, and I say, $140,000, and they say, good luck.â

— Tim Johnson
Burlington Free Press



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