Master of All Arts

Artist James C. Swartz demonstrates how he uses a palette knife to give his paintings texture and dimension. Photos by Omar Mosleh.

James C. Swartz, shown at home where his walls are covered with his work, uses post-photography digital techniques to manipulate images.

Ask artist, photographer, jazz musician and carpenter James C. Swartz if he’s a jack of all trades, and he’ll answer your question before the words leave your mouth.

“A jack of all trades is a master of none,” he says with a steely gaze.

Swartz is no master of none.

Take a stroll through his house and you’ll see he is a man of many layers.

The same goes for his art — Swartz’s favourite utensil is the palette knife, a blunt tool used to give his paintings a sense of texture and dimension.

“You are literally drawing the knife across the canvas, and I ridge it to create a vein,” he explains. “I really love the layers … some people say in a way I’m a bit of a sculptor when it comes to the palette knife.”

Swartz, who has worked at Leaside Community Gardens more than 30 years, has also practised photography and carpentry for a quarter of a century.

For the past five years he has undertaken fine arts studies in Italy, France and here in Ontario. He is currently exhibiting For the Masses – A Photographic Pilgrimage, a double entendre. The exhibit focuses on churches.

Although his job at the Leaside Community Gardens may seem out of place, Swartz points out there’s a common element in painting, photography, tile work and carpentry.

“They’re all connected,” he states simply. “Hands and eyes.”

He describes his full-time gig as a supplement to his passion. “It gave me stability. It was a secure, stable job, a constant steady income … It’s given the security that I think every artist needs.”

That security has let him amass a large body of work. How large is a mystery even to him.

“People ask me how many paintings do I have. I tell them I could fill five galleries in a heartbeat, like that,” Swartz cracks with a snap of his fingers. “My motto is, and I swear Nike stole it, is ‘Just do it.’ ”

Having performed 10 years as a jazz artist at Toronto venues such as the Ford Centre for Performing Arts, the El Mocambo and the Chicken Deli, Swartz describes his life as a whirlwind.

Or maybe it’s more appropriate to call it a teeter-totter, to align with the centrepiece of his living room.

“Everybody asks me why I have a teeter-totter in my living room,” Swartz says while bouncing up and down lackadaisically. “The simple answer is because we love it.”

The teeter-totter was purchased at a fair by Swartz’s wife Catherine and has been a pivotal part of the family ever since. They didn’t put it outdoors so they could have access in the winter.

“The teeter-totter actually helps (with my art),” Swartz said. “We talk, we converse, we solve the world’s problems, we throw around ideas, we critique … And we get a work out to boot.”

Swartz’s son, Courtlandt, is a successful artist. He’s sold numerous pieces and is now studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

It’s easy to see where Courtlandt finds inspiration. Finding an empty wall in Swartz’s home is a lesson in frustration, and his parents were artists, too.

For Swartz himself, it’s safe to say he doesn’t have to go looking for ideas.

“Everything I see is an art piece,” he said. “Absolutely everything … the world is your canvas, and what you try and do is extract from that.”

Much of Swartz’s photography is a particular example of that process. One technique he’s been dabbling in is photographing materials such as stone and using digital manipulation to create an unrecognizable image.

“It’s abstract in its own right,” he said. “A lot of people say that’s a beautiful watercolour or painting, and I tell them it’s actually a photograph … That’s actually a piece of stone and I extracted it.”

He also uses his design and carpentry skills to create mixed media.

“I’m always collecting,” he says as he opens a drawer jammed with metals, pipes and licence plates. “You must think I’m a pack rat, but inevitably, in some way, these will work themselves into a piece.”

Considering he sees art in everything, one can’t help but wonder how Swartz holds down a full-time job and finds time to create.

“I don’t know what not to paint, I’m going crazy,” he said. “I’ve always said I need like 10 of me just to keep doing what I need to do.”

In addition to being asked how many paintings he has, why he has a teeter-totter in his living room, and why the shutters in his kitchen are indoors rather than outdoors, Swartz frequently receives another inquiry.

“Everybody asks me, ‘how the hell do you do it?’ ” he said. “What’s my motto? ‘Just do it.’ ”

For the Masses is being exhibited at the Contact Photography Festival at the Columbus Centre from May 3 to June 4.

To see Swartz and his teeter-totter in action, click here.

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