Swan takes systematic approach to expression

Sculptor Craig Swan stands in his studio, where his compositions progress as both systems and works of art.

Craig Swan has only resided in Norman for a relatively short time but he’s made an impact here that could potentially last for centuries. 

The sculptor’s seven-foot-tall, lipstick-red steel sculpture “Sundial” is part of Norman’s collection of public art. 

His stylized depiction of scissor-tailed flycatchers in flight is a permanent installation on a Main Street sidewalk (when the sidewalk isn’t under construction) and has, in a sense, welded him to the community.

“I am so pumped to be a part of this place,” he said. “I moved here from Boston and art students at OU are trying to get out to the coasts. Big cities are OK but you can do a lot of good in a town like Norman by being really passionate about art and sharing that with the people around you.”

Swan was born in Ireland in 1985 and his parents brought him to the U.S. at age 4. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts at 22 and has been in Norman since 2009. Swan has been an artist since he was a child.

“My mom loves to tell a story about how I fell asleep with crayons in my hand when I was 3,” he said. “She gave me a set of these big round crayons. I’d drawn with them all day and night, then dozed off with a flashlight next to my head and crayon in my hand.”

Much of the artistic inspiration from his youth still finds its way into Swan’s work today. His drawings and paintings often celebrate the human form. Sculptures are made from wood or steel. Sometimes they masquerade as utilitarian objects including a life-sized oaken anvil.

“Most of the things I make are informed by a love of comics and the movies,” Swan said. “It results in an illustrative style. A lot of my pieces resemble stories in the middle of happening with a bunch of little vignettes going on. In art school I gravitated toward figurative sculpture and looking back, it was all the Legos. Tons of Legos and not necessarily building from the instructions. But having a set of things that I could work in a system and create anything. Understanding my materials became really important to me.”

These skills have led Swan to become a sought-after instructor for art students who are presently ages 10 to 72.

“I just came from a lesson with three little girls over at Speeding Bullet (Comic book store),” Swan said. “The first thing I did today was talk to them about how art is not just about putting things on paper. We are learning to manipulate and to create systems. When you do a composition you’re creating a system. The items inside it work in a certain way. Understanding this can help you in so many areas of your life and opens your mind to the ways systems work.”

Swan provides private art instruction for a fee. However, posted at craigswanart.com, under the blog tab, there’s a free and intriguing entry titled “10 Things You Should Know about Art School.” It’s well-written, humorous and full of practical and esoteric advice. University of Oklahoma history professor Catherine E. Kelly, who studies drawing under Swan, read the thousand-word treatise and made it required reading for her graduate students.

“She said it doesn’t just apply to art school, it’s about how to be a good student generally,” he said. “Which was high praise from a very smart person. It’s all about communication, trouble-shooting and helping people navigate a complex system.”

Swan has been successful in other endeavors besides art. He’s worked in customer service at a large retail chain for 10 years. Now there’s a new opportunity that appears will dovetail well with his interests and skill sets.

“I’m going to be an academic advisor in OU’s college of engineering,” he said. “It’s funny in a lot of ways but I think it makes sense. Fundamentally, the things that pull together advising and teaching complicated things like drawing and sculpture have strong similarities.”

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