by Saskia Ozols, Originally published by the French Quarter Journal, 2022
A large garden of native Louisiana irises grows between Frances Swigart’s uptown home and her studio, a charming cottage behind the main house. The flowers, reflective of the drawings and series of prints gracing her studio walls – as well as the designs on Newcomb pottery from her alma mater – lead the visitor toward a garden gate, down a path and into her life-filled studio.
Lined with artwork and installed salon style, Swigart’s studio showcases a lifetime of her own work: paintings, prints, and drawings. She has been creating art for at least five decades and moving through her atelier is a deep dive into artistic archives reflective of a unique productivity. She is currently preparing for a new exhibition, and the excitement, flurry, and energy of preparing, printing, and painting is effervescent.
In addition to her own artistic practice, she curates, maintains, and overseas the collection of work by fellow artist, printmaker, teacher and mentor, her late husband Jim Steg. Swigart studied printmaking with Steg at Newcomb College of Tulane University where Steg maintained a vibrant studio, following, and position as professor.
Steg achieved national recognition and was celebrated for his innovations in printmaking. The two artists worked alongside one another for decades and although some of their processes overlap, Swigart’s work tells a unique story. Her story and work illustrate both dedication to her own aesthetic, as well as devotion to the position of care-taker, often making sacrifices traditionally expected from the women and wives of visual artists.
Swigart works with traditional processes for etching on copper plates. She uses her own antique press, centered within the space. An inspiring compositional structure and heart of the studio, the press bed reveals new work. Familiar images, yet altered, different, new in some way.
Swigart’s recent work revisits some of her favorite themes, plates, and prints. Images of architectural elements, interiors, landscapes, and flowers grace surfaces everywhere. Plates from earlier in her career are printed differently, presenting a subtle window into the combination or movement through past, present, and future. This complex relationship exists not only in the physical objects and artifacts of her studio but in the very work itself.
The current printings of earlier plates are made in subtle earth tones and include a deep rendering of atmosphere and environment. Perspective plays an enormous role, especially evident in the architectural pieces. Both linear and atmospheric perspective are addressed with equal intensity, creating a sense of drama and air that may not have been as clearly realized in the earlier printings. The incorporation of a painterly atmosphere in the new prints provide a beautiful place for contemplation enveloped in mystery and the thickness of air.
The new work addresses the narrative of distance. A delicacy reaching through veils of luminescence beckon entry to the viewer. Crisp color is combined with her sense of atmosphere in the series of 12 flower prints.
All hand drawn and with line reminiscent of Japanese wash drawings, these long, tall, vertical compositions accentuate irises, lilies, and bulbs in upward reaching poses. Viewing them is pure inspiration and provides a much-needed whisper of beauty amidst our challenging contemporary circumstances.
A trilogy of past present and future come together through an incorporation of retrospective as well as new work that leaves the viewer wondering what could come next or how the artist might re-interpret them again. The opportunity to view the plate that the prints are made from allows an understanding of the process that would not otherwise exist.
With Swigart’s printmaking, we enter moments of multi-media: of painting, printing, drawing, relief, and sculpture through the opportunity to view the etching plates she created, the prints that came from them and newly imagined interpretations.
Swigart’s lifetime of artwork combines historical techniques with a well-trained yet expressive voice. The result is a breathtaking visual journey through five decades of dedication to a craft as well as expression through art.