BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Kevin Swallow’s studio in the Cornelia Arts Building is the usual familiar clutter one would expect — brushes stacked in jars, paint spattered floor, works in progress all brightened by daylight spilling in through a large window. The finished paintings scattered about the studio also have a welcoming familiarity, as they capture classic cityscapes a Chicagoan sees everyday.
Swallow’s recent work, featured in his first solo exhibit opening with a reception July 24 at Bucktown’s Firecat Projects, is a colorful grouping of images that spoke to him first through photography, which he later began using as inspiration for his paintings. There’s the L, old steel bridges, myriad nondescript buildings and rooftop water tanks, which have become a favorite.
“Water tanks especially drew me because of their history in Chicago and the fact that they are a disappearing element of the skyline,” Swallow says. “There used to be thousands but now they number less than 200. I like their unique quality in the urban landscape.”
Swallow was on hand last year when the 90-year-old water tank was removed from the roof of the Swedish American Museum in Andersonville where he lives. For years, the iconic tank painted to resemble the Swedish flag had been a marker for the neighborhood, and Swallow could see it from his living room window. One of the paintings in the exhibit features the tank.
“Kevin’s style of painting has the images you want to see in a cityscape plus it has a lot of humanity in it,” says Firecat owner and director Stan Klein. “His work has a beautiful directness.”
Swallow, who is mostly self-taught, says Chicago offers an artist interested in cityscapes “unlimited inspiration.” His brightly colored paintings capture the heart of an urban landscape with simple, straightforward details.
“I’m painting how I feel so the colors are totally different than what you might see in real life,” Swallow, 44, says. “I think it’s the reaction I have to the environment that comes through in the work.”
‘This Must Be the Place: Paintings by Kevin Swallow’
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday; July 24-August 22
Where: Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen
Info: (773) 342-5381; firecatprojects.org
What started out as an interest in water tanks has grown to include the L and steel bridges that Swallow says allow him to bring other elements to his work. “What I like about these is the abstract quality they bring to a painting,” Swallow notes.
Swallow grew up in suburban Crestwood and attended Northern Illinois University where he majored in media communications and ran the college radio station. He had developed an interest in drawing and painting when he was younger but it fell to the wayside until laid off from a job and looking for a new one, he spent time biking around Chicago and shooting photographs that would eventually inspire his cityscape paintings. (Also an accomplished photographer, his photos can be found on the walls of many Chicago businesses.)
It was around this time that Swallow was inspired to pick up a paintbrush (his first paintings were abstracts) and 20 years later he’s still at it on nights and weekends while working a day job at a digital advertising agency. He shares a studio in the aforementioned Cornelia Arts Building, one of the oldest all artist buildings in the city.
“When I moved into Cornelia, that’s when my art took on a life of its own and the cityscapes came into focus,” Swallow recalls. “As an artist you mostly work alone so it’s great to have that built-in community to visit with and get feedback from. Plus you can see a water tank from my studio window.”
NOTE: At 3 p.m. August 16, Firecat Projects hosts a gallery talk — “Accidental Beauties: the Aesthetics and Symbolism of Water Tanks (and Other Antiquated Infrastructure)” — with local author and historian, Bill Savage, who teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University and the Newberry Library.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.