Pinellas Park's Clayton Swartz was one of 200 artists who exhibited at ArtFest Fort Myers over the past weekend. In between conversations with interested and intrigued festival goers, Swartz talked about his process and public art projects like Skyward, the brushed aluminum abstract sculpture accented by clear-coat enamel automotive paint that stands outside the south entrance to Herbert J. Sugden Hall at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Swartz started out as an abstract painter, a hobby he pursued while attending St. Petersburg College. However, after receiving his BFA in painting and sculpture from the University of South Florida, he began to transition into metal sculpture. Although he continued to paint during his 5-year tenure as an art teacher at St. Petersburg's Northeast High School (and even dabbled a bit in photography), he increasingly gravitated toward metal sculpture, developing a unique style that concentrated on color saturated biomorphic and abstract shapes that range from sealife to cityscapes. He then took to the road, exhibiting at art festivals throughout the state, quickly gaining a reputation and following that has enabled him to pursue art professionally since 2005.
Swartz prefers brushed aluminum because the bright white metal shows off the layers of translucent color that he favors. "Stainless steel tends to mute the colors," he explains. "Besides, it's hard to transport and hang because it's so heavy, and isn't nearly as weather resistant as aluminum is." Of course, aluminum is less forgiving. "Steel is more pliable and easier to weld. If you overheat aluminum, it just falls apart. But aluminum suits the bright, happy, saturated colors that I really, really like."
Those bright, happy colors attracted members of the ArtFest crowd all day, both days. "I want a heart," said a blond-haired, blue-eyed six-year-old, doing a happy dance as she implored her dad to buy her one of Swartz's small red $100 wall hangings as an early Valentine. "Please, please, please, please," the ersatz young collector importuned, sadly to no avail.
"Because I have a specific style, when somebody sees a sculpture that I create, if they know my work, they know I did it - even if they're driving by it at 80 miles per hour," said Swartz as the youngster's dad lead his disappointed daughter away, clasping her tiny hand. "While I am continually refining my process, I stick with a specific style and color pattern so that my work continues to remain recognizable by people who are familiar with my work." And that extends to his public art installations as well.
Swartz is perhaps best known for his 1,200 pound, 20-foot-tall sculpture at Park Station in Largo, The Heart of Pinellas. This monumental work aptly illustrates Swartz's signature style. The piece is crafted of brushed aluminum and features as host of interwoven geometric and biomorphic shape finished with automotive pigments that gives the topography of the sculpture dynamic colors and an iridescent sheen.
The piece at FGCU has a feel of lightness and fun that complements the inviting and spacious building it complements. "I describe it as a performance or dance with the material," says Swartz, "a chance to change something raw into something beautiful." Skyward soars 12 feet into the southwest Florida sky and measures 4 feet across at its widest point. It rests on a concrete pedestal to lend it even greater height and is accentuated by ground lighting which makes it visible to students and faculty at the Student Union located at the other end of the crescent-shaped lily-pad-covered pond that's nestled between the two buildings. Thanks to the building's open design, it is also visible to visitors as they enter Sugden Hall through its north entrance.
"It has a very uplifting theme," says Swartz , who adds that "[l]ooking into one of my sculptures will take you deep into a maze of parts, design, formal unities and holistic composition that will give you a sense of revelation into the sculpture's design and meaning."
In addition to Florida Gulf Coast University, Sculpture 360 and Largo's Park Station, Swartz's sculptures have been included in such major public and corporate collections as the City of Pinellas Park, Pinellas Gateway Chamber of Commerce, All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg (which has 20 of Swartz's brightly-colored creations), 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House Restaurant, Salt Rock Grill and Homewood Suites Tampa/Brandon (which features Swartz's 7-foot sculpture Shades of the Florida Reef to better connect extended-stay travelers with the community in which they are staying).
My medium lends itself more to public art," Swartz remarks, as he thumbs through a catalog of his public art installations. "It withstands the elements, and I tend to like to work big." But he steadfastly refuses to sacrifice his individual style in order to make his public artworks site specific, something that tends to make public art feel stilted and anonymous in way too many instances.
Swartz uses an array of techniques and processes to create his aluminum sculptures. "My metal working process employs MIG and TIG welding, plasma cutting, and grinding. When fabrication is complete, the color process begins. Using an array of brushes, airbrushes and paint moving tools, I coat my work with a saturated translucent automotive finish. These special techniques are used to create vital effects in the work that treat each shape as its own abstract painting while simultaneously working in conjunction with the whole sculpture."
His credits include honors at the 2011 ArtFest Fort Myers, where his art was used as the design logo for the event's T-shirts, the Award of Merit at the 34th Annual Mainsail Arts Festival in St. Petersburg in 2009 and a feature in The Tampa Tribune. Today, he showcases his work in his Pinellas Park studio, select galleries, art festivals and selected Tampa Bay charities.
"My work blends modern abstract sensibilities with formal subjects." His current work often contains ocean life, expressing Swartz's abiding fascination with the sea and hobbies including scuba diving, spear fishing and boating. His sculptures often incorporate hearts, which symbolize his deep respect for life and strong connection to his family, which includes two children of his own. "My modern abstracts illustrate a passion for vibrant color and form."
While shows like ArtFest have allowed him to build a portfolio and create a following, Swartz plans to begin scaling back the number of art fairs and festivals he participates in each year. "I plan to transition into more solo and group shows at galleries, art centers and museums," Swartz discloses.
"I'm a believer in the goalkeepers versus the gatekeepers. The goalkeepers are the people buying your work. Gallery owners and museum directors are the gatekeepers. When enough people like and purchase your work, the gallery owners and directors have to exhibit you."