Paul is telling me about the most beautiful thing he ever saw: a missile test over Los Angeles in 2002. A vapor rainbow stretched across the sky, making it look like the end of the world: iridescent, scary, beautiful. “The original thing,” Paul calls this experience. A minute ago I asked why he became a ceramic artist, and although the description of the missile test is not exactly an answer to that question, something in his words seems to answer it obliquely, deeply, as befits someone who responds to the world most acutely through objects made to be seen.
Paul and I are looking at images of his work, starting with a 2004 installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Specter of the Brocken—Brocken being a kind of spectral optical effect common to Germany’s Harz Mountains, an eerie natural phenomenon long given a pagan gloss. He points out the magic circle in the piece, the staging area for familiars, the Plexiglas and shadow spirits drifting through the space. “This was when I was heavy duty into exploring the occult, and witchcraft, and my heritage in Salem,” he says. Certainly you can see that in the work, but with bright oranges and fluorescent greens, mirrors and turtles and bright dangling filaments, there’s as much of light here as of darkness.
Paul Swenbeck is ICA’s Chief Preparator, which means he’s in charge of making sure our shows get installed well and on time. There’s no room for extensions or excuses in his business. Paul has appeared in this blog often over the years, patiently and with unflagging good humor permitting me to hang around and take notes and photographs and ask questions. This summer Paul was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, which is sort of Philadelphia’s answer to the MacArthur Genius Award. In addition to noting the strength and singularity of his work, and the beautiful alignment between his ideas and his technical capacities, the panel called Paul’s colors and textures “inviting and also a little scary—like a carnivorous plant or a seemingly benign fantasy that turns dark.”
Those sculptures were based on the forms of prehistoric fossils and of contemporary crinoids—undersea animals like sponges and corals that look like plants. “Like a starfish on a stalk,” Paul says. “They’re very feathery.”
A course in paleontology informed this work—not necessarily a natural progression from earlier interests in magic and science fiction, but a productive one. Another recent project consists of haunting photographs made with prisms, bringing elements separated in space together in one frame, “making a new window, or portal, inside a landscape.”
Paul and Joy also run a business together, making custom art crates. They both learned the preparator trade from Bill Rumley, who had ICA’s chief preparator job back in the 90s when the couple moved to Philadelphia from Boston. Paul grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, a town still notorious for its 17th-century witch trials. As a kid he worked at Salem’s Witch Dungeon Museum, a tourist trap where the trials were reenacted and rough tableaux showed people doing what Paul describes as “horrible things to each other. My job was to go in in the morning and turn on the lights and clean up. I was thirteen, and I was scared.”
Paul and Joy lived in Boston for ten years. “Then we eloped—packed everything up and drove south. When we got to Atlanta, we made a sharp U-turn and came back to where we knew people.” That’s how they ended up in Philadelphia, working at ICA and later at the Fabric Workshop, running their business, and of course, making art. Paul’s studio is in their Fishtown house, though until now it has lacked both heat and running water. He’s had to rent another space with a kiln, not a situation conducive to making work that requires breaks for materials to set or be fired. The Pew fellowship money will enable him to build what he calls “a more four-season set up” in the studio, not to mention purchasing kilns that work better. He wants to experiment more with glazes and different clays. Having made drawings using his own blood for a show about Black Sabbath, Paul is nothing if not devoted to the exploration of new materials. One of my favorite pieces, a drooping plant with a root ball which, as part of ICA’s 2004 Big Nothing show, was sited over the front door, is made from black wrap, a substance often more used for lighting snoots than for art. “It’s a great sculptural material,” Paul says. “It looks very gothic.”
He also made this fabulous painting for me for this snake-inspired blog:
We scroll through images of sprightly Starsprout sculptures based on mandrake roots, a sun oven he made with Joy, a miniature obsidian landscape. On a plinth, a baby bird with its mouth open sits beside a predatory bat: “The two parts of my personality,” Paul jokes.
The mandrake root, long used in magic rituals, is conjured in John Donne’s famous poem as an image of the impossible: “Get with child a mandrake root.” Yet wondrously infusing a thing with new life is exactly what good art—what this art—does.
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