The Quirky Bird Art of Paula Swisher
text by Anna Maria Johnson, bird imagery by Paula Swisher
I was privileged to meet Paula Swisher in 1997 while she and I were both studying art at Houghton College in rural western New York. Many late nights, we stayed up painting, drawing, and sharing our life stories. Paula is probably the hardest-working visual artist that I’ve met, and in the past decade or so, has created a rich and wide-ranging body of work in a variety of media–painting, drawing, graphic design, web design, and most recently, interactive media.
In light of recent NC community posts about the relationship between text and images, notably Wendy Voorsanger’s “An Exploration of Poem Painting” and Gary Garvin’s “There is a Use for Books After All” (not to mention the first ever Numéro Cinq Erasure Contest) I thought it would be appropriate to share some of Paula’s images which she painted directly onto the pages of discarded business textbooks. Many of her images are direct responses to the pre-existing graphs and phrases from these textbooks, but she re-interprets the business-speak through the lens of her personal experiences to say something entirely new and different.
For instance, Paula Swisher began this particular bird-and-text series during an extended bout of unemployment.
Hearing a statistic such as “the national unemployment rate hovers at such-and-such a percent” carries little personal meaning for many of us, but seeing a visual rendering of a delicately feathered bird living in the middle of the unemployment graph allows me to comprehend what the statistic feels like for many jobless Americans. Both visual and literary arts, at their best, communicate on emotional and subconscious levels as much as on an intellectual, conscious one.
Would it be overly melodramatic to say that I suspect that all artists, at one time or another, experience disappointment that feels almost as severe as a violent death? This particular bird image recalls Paula’s earlier work which depicted birds in graphically violent scenes, which she worked in multiple shades of glitter.
Slightly more hopeful is an interpretation of the “project life cycle,” which shows an endlessly circular path—but with the important caveat that each successive trip around the loop is increasingly fortified “with knowledge accumulated.” Some color theorists surmise that the color blue inspires creativity. If so, then the blue bird subtly modifies the text and accompanying graph and diagram so that they refer, perhaps unconsciously, to the creative process.
Many of Paula’s images, through their use of ample negative space and spare text, read like heart-breaking poems.
Is this bird searching for its own eyes? If so, one might interpret this image to be a metaphor of searching for one’s inner vision. Alternatively, it might simply be rather funny.
Then again, maybe not:
For Art’s Sake
Her “Cedar Waxwing: Sine Curve” is sheer beauty. In it, the textual content is important only for aesthetic reasons, revealing beauty in mathematical abstraction. It is math for art’s sake.
—text by Anna Maria Johnson, images by Paula Swisher (used with permission). Artist photo by Andrew Huth.