Trevor Swanson, offspring of an iconic painter father, is asserting his own talent as one of SCI’s favorites
Long before he was old enough to drive, and only a short while after he passed hunter safety, Trevor Swanson set out on the first of several African safaris. For
him, it was the inaugural trip–to Kenya back in the 1970s–that still looms largest. The teenager came in contact with lion prides, leopard ambushing prey in tall savanna grass, thundering elephants, and temperamental rhinos darting alongside the Land Rover.
The memories are sacred, he says, because the journey was chaperoned by his late father, Gary, who, at the time, was rapidly rising as one of the better-known contemporary sporting/wildlife artists in America.
“He wanted to give me a taste of wild Africa because he was worried that, in the future, it might be gone—and he was right. Much of it is in danger of being lost,” Swanson reflects. “I saw how art became a personal statement of what he cared about, what his values were.”
Trevor Swanson today can tell you a lot about the meaning of heritage and values. They flow through the feelings he has about hunting, family, nature and art. In his clan of remarkable painters, there is no line of separation between what one does and who one is.
When collectors buy his paintings and lithographs for their walls, just as they did his famous father’s and uncle’s, they know there’s a deeper story behind them.
In “Remnants of the Old Field,” a 30 X 20-inch oil, Swanson takes us nostalgically to an old homestead cabin in the Rockies near Grand Junction, Colorado. There, a band of mule deer has reclaimed the abandoned sagebrush-covered pasture. The painting speaks to nature’s resilience and the power that resides in wild landscapes.
Now, with autumn approaching, Swanson is again locked in his Arizona studio, finishing more than a dozen new oil paintings of big game animals and birds that he’ll roll out at the 2014 Safari Club International gathering this January in Las Vegas.
“SCI was always a place my dad loved because it brings together friends from around the world,” Swanson says. “I’m proud to be carrying on the tradition. I’m honored to be creating art that appeals not only to those of my father’s generation but to a younger breed.”
Indeed, Swanson’s booth is a fixture at SCI but not everyone is aware of the course that led him there. “Trevor’s one of the good guys out there. He’s genuine and sincere in his painting,” says his friend and contemporary, the well-known wildlife sculptor Tim Shinabarger.
Born in California in 1968, Swanson was raised in Prescott, Arizona, where he had ready access to his father and uncle Ray who nurtured artistic expression in younger members of an extended family.
Trevor absorbed a lot of the instincts about painting that his elders possessed by joining them on research missions, hunting trips and watching them in the studio. During high school, he would draw incessantly in class and open his sketchbook again at night when he was supposed to be doing his homework.
His father charmed Trevor’s teachers, convincing them that allowing the boy to travel would do him good, he said. His “learning adventures” led him to spending months on the plains of the Serengeti beneath Mt. Kilimanjaro, in South Africa and Botswana. During summers and autumns, they went to a ranch outside Livingston, Montana and ventured north to Alaska and British Columbia.
“Both Ray and my dad would say ‘No matter what you do, you need to identify the things that energize you. Whatever charges your
batteries, go find a way to pursue it. If you’re a painter, go out and witness it, study it, bring the memory of it back, and then paint it.”
In 1994, Swanson attracted national attention when the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep named him artist of the year. A recent work that dramatically shows Swanson’s command with alpine scenes is “Dwellers On High,” a depiction of mountain goats.
As Trevor’s reputation grew, Gary and Ray Swanson offered him critiques, if asked, and they were careful not to dole out false praise. When it came to art, they imparted tough love. One afternoon, for example, Trevor was toiling on a figurative painting of a trapper. His uncle stepped forward and with the flick of only a few brushstrokes put a face on the subject.
Trevor admired Ray’s contribution, believing it would help sell the work. But just as quickly, the elder pulled out a rag soaked with turpentine and wiped the image away, leaving the challenge for Trevor to overcome.
If there’s an enduring lesson that his father and uncle taught him, Swanson says, it’s knowing the freedom to start over, or even to scrap a painting that isn’t working. Better than forcing a work to be something it isn’t, or trying to pass off an inferior work to collectors, is to walk away and start anew.
“Dad and Ray had a ritual. They would take a knife and shred the surfaces of any paintings they weren’t happy with or didn’t live up to their standards. I have a couple of swords I use and it’s strangely liberating,” Trevor explains. “They said ‘Don’t be afraid to chalk up a bad painting as a mistake and aim to do better the next time.’ They believed that great painting is a product of numerous failures.’”
Gary and Ray also painted with a sense of urgency, as if they knew they didn’t have a lot of time to waste, Swanson says, an allusion to the fact that Gary (1942-2010) and Ray (1937-2004) died relatively young.
Today, Swanson himself gives back to young artists and aspiring older painters by hosting classes and workshops. Jennifer, his wife and mother of their two teenage children, describes Swanson’s studio as a “beautiful disaster.” “I claim that moniker with pride,” he says. “Who has time for filing when there is painting to be done?”
In reality, the studio offers a glimpse into how Swanson thinks and what he treasures. Painting frames, piles of sketches, glass jars filled with dry paint brushes, and stacks of art and nature books abound. Inhabiting easels and leaning against the wall are 10 different paintings in various stages of completion. Above, there’s an old warrior mask made out of seal guts by Inuit artisans in Alaska. And nearby, his father’s backpack that he used to carry Trevor into the wilderness more than 40 years ago.
When Swanson isn’t at SCI, he shows with a number of art outlets, including Legacy Galleries in Scottsdale and Jackson Hole. He’s been with Legacy since it opened a quarter century ago.
“Trevor grew up with hunter’s eyes and he sees things the way that hunters do,” Brad Richardson, Legacy founder, says. “He puts loads of information into his paintings. If you’re a hunter and detail is exactly what you’re looking for, then Trevor is feeding meat to the hungry.”
One of those with in insatiable appetite for Swanson’s work is Gail Zimmerman, an oil industry veteran who lives in Casper, Wyoming. At the 2013 SCI convention in Reno, Zimmerman bought a desert quail painting titled “At Home in the Santa Rosas.” Swanson captured the scene after studying the covey for hours one evening just before sunset.
“It looks lifelike and realistic and the colors are vivid,” Zimmerman told me. “Trevor knows his subjects. That, to me, is important.” The work is one of several that Zimmerman owns. Others are a moose painting and a grizzly with cubs.
Richardson notes that it would be difficult for any son of an icon to tread in the same business terrain as his elder, especially given Gary Swanson’s stature at SCI. But Trevor, he says, has handled it extraordinarily well and come into his own.
“Trevor’s been at it for many years. He enjoys a devoted group of collectors and yet he, unlike a lot of other artists his age, has stood the test of time,” Richardson says. “If you don’t have talent and persistence, then you won’t have staying power and your tenure in the art world is likely to be short term.”
He adds, “Here’s what I find interesting. Trevor has longevity because his whole life has been spent around artists and yet he himself is still relatively young. If he continues to evolve, if he is willing to challenge himself and push beyond his comfort zone, then I think he has the potential to be among the greatest artists who ever showed their work at Safari Club. The future is up to him.”
Swanson’s painting style is in the midst of a subtle shift. Rather than adhering to ultra-Realism, his works have taken on softer edges and a more diverse range of color. Fully half of his collectors today are women who hang his pieces in the living room while men tend to display them in the den.
“I don’t have to paint the biggest elk or rams with full curls or a hulking lion. I don’t feel compelled to paint giant trophy animals like I used to. I paint what I see when I go into the field,” he says. “It’s not the size of an animal that lingers in the memory. It’s all of the different aspects that I try to bring together. That’s what hunters can relate to.”
For years, Trevor Swanson shared a studio with Gary. It took him a decade, at least, he says, before the apprentice informed the teacher that he had enough confidence to strike out on his own.
“My goal is to paint the things that inspire me and take my breath away,” Trevor says, reflecting on all his encounters dating back to the first safari with his dad in Africa so many years ago. “Growing up, I had a lot of those kinds of moments. My family is a big part of my good fortune. Painting is my way of remembering.”– Todd Wilkinson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Todd Wilkinson, a lifelong sportsman and journalist, is author of the critically-acclaimed new book, “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”