‘Always be making’: Creativity and hard work intersect in ‘Johnny Swing: Design Sense’ exhibit

Courtesy photo
Johnny Swing’s “Wall Lamp” (2003) is made of steel, satellite dishes, glass jars and lids, electrical sockets, wiring, and bulbs. Also shown here are his “Dollar Bill Rug” (2017) and “Ring Chair” (2014).

Staff Reporter

Entering the lobby of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, the first thing you’ll see from the exhibit “Johnny Swing: Design Sense” is a piece that looks like a very modern, abstract representation of a chaise lounge.

And that’s exactly what it is.

Visitors are encouraged to sit or lie on it, to enjoy the art. Inside the Murphy Gallery, the exhibits are mostly hands-off, but in the lobby patrons are encouraged to interact, to test how well the form succeeds in its function.

The artist’s form may be abstract, but his art is very functional. And comfortable.

Swing’s furniture has many dips, sways, hollows that just cry out for one to relax, offering “multiple points of comfort,” said Kory Rogers, the Shelburne Museum’s Chief Curator.

The chaise piece is aptly named “The Quarter Lounge” because it’s made of approximately $380 worth of quarters, each welded in four different points.

The Swing exhibit is the opposite of a usual show, where sketches and other preliminary studies are a small adjunct to the art. This show illustrates how Swing creates his art, so the preliminary studies comprise about 80 percent of the show and finished pieces constitute another 20 percent, Rogers said.

It’s sort of like getting a glimpse backstage to see how the onstage magic happens, but it doesn’t make the show any less magical.

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The Shelburne Museum was pleased to get Swing’s “Collection of Anvils” because they see it as a tribute to the blacksmith shop, one of the 39 buildings at the museum.

For example, on display are many of the tiny tinfoil sculptures that Swing makes of the ideas he’s imagined, to test how they might look or work as a physical piece. Next are the life-sized foam blocks that he carves from his tinfoil creations and covers with fiberglass and auto body filler to make a negative. Into the form, he pours concrete to create a fireproof surface onto which he welds thousands of coins.

Besides quarters, he has welded pennies, nickels, half dollars and dollar coins (dimes are likely too small). Swing’s furniture requires between 30,000 and 80,000 welds per piece.

Some of the pieces sit on mats made of dollar bills.

According to Rogers, Swing struggled to get a straight answer from the federal government regarding whether they would charge him for being less than tender with the legal tender. Finally, someone in government told him, “We don’t care if you burn it, just don’t make it,” Rogers relayed.

But the exhibit is not just about the money. Swing creates his art out of other found objects, like jars, satellite dishes, metal trusses, the foot rest from a dental chair, I-beams, ceramic bowls, and the flywheel from a large metal valve.

And each of the pieces requires much work to attach and manipulate the found objects into a workable and dazzling piece of art.

“One of the things that interests me is the intersection of ingenuity and creativity in the artistic practice,” said Tom Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum. “This is one of the reasons we were so interested in working with Johnny. The purpose of the Shelburne Museum is to engender creativity. The yin and yang of the museum is how do you toggle between creativity and ingenuity.

“Creativity is just hard work,” Denenberg said.

“Always be making,” added Geeda Searforce, Shelburne Museum Marketing and Communications Manager.

That idea is key, as the Johnny Swing exhibit is the first in a series the museum is sponsoring that explores the creative process of artists working in New England. The staff is particularly happy to start the series with an artist who is based in Vermont, as Swing is from Brookline.

“Johnny Swing: Design Sense” runs through June 2.

This Saturday, Feb. 9, from 7-10 p.m., is SHINE!, the Barnstormers’ annual winter party and a celebration of the John Swing exhibit. The Barnstormers is a donor organization supporting and volunteering at the museum.

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