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In Conversation: Charlotte Swiden

We’re delighted to kick off our 2020 exhibition calendar with a solo show from Melbourne-based, Swedish artist Charlotte Swiden titled Foundations.

After a 10-year hiatus from painting, Charlotte returns to her roots with this stunning body of work – a series of abstract paintings in a muted earthen palette.

Here on the journal, she talks us through how her heritage and love for Scandinavia will always inform her work, and her ongoing fascination with languages.

Charlotte's body of work, 'Foundations', was born from a desire to start painting again after having her second child.

Can you tell us a little more about what Foundations means to you, and why you created this body of work?

After I had my second child I started collaging and painting again and I took my practice back to my foundations. Time became so precious, I needed to simplify and become more minimalistic in what I chose to do. Once I started painting again it was all so clear and easy. It was like I had an 800 page novel waiting inside, burning to escape.

She describes her return to painting as "clear and easy", like having "an 800 page novel waiting inside, burning to escape".

You’ve studied graphic design and worked in illustration and product design, so what was it that lead you to painting?

It was really the other way around; I started with painting (Mum taught me how to paint with oils and mix colours the proper way – I still feel a sense of guilt when I use a full black rather than mixing my own darks!), then I pursued a career as a graphic designer.

For about 10 years I didn’t have a proper canvas in front of me, but I focused on illustration, product design and print because that’s what I’m passionate about. So I never stopped painting, collaging and drawing by hand, I just weaved it in to my career.

Charlotte's mother taught her how to paint as a child, and ever since, illustration, collage and product design have been a huge part of her life.

Do you feel a strong pull towards your roots in Sweden while living here in Australia? How does this affect or inform your work?

Language – verbal, cultural and visual – fascinates me. When I was a child, one of my dreams (besides becoming an artist) was to be a writer, but ever since leaving Sweden and my mother tongue, I’ve focused my creative energy on visual communication. Identity is so entwined in both what we say and how we act. I’m glad I’ve found a space to play somewhere in between those borders with my painting practice. 

Language - verbal, cultural and visual - fascinates me and identity is so entwined in both what we say and how we act. I’m glad I’ve found a space to play somewhere in between those borders with my painting practice.”
— Charlotte Swiden

I think anyone moving from their homeland to another country can relate to that feeling of lost identity and “re-rooting”. Sweden has a very ‘uniform’ culture and strong traditions, which I think is something I wanted to escape as a young woman. I didn’t really feel like I had enough room to be myself within those frames.

Then coming to Australia I suddenly felt very Swedish, like I didn’t fit the Aussie mould. Perhaps I didn’t truly understand my heritage until I left. Some of the themes in my works are stories around that identity split. Some are around nostalgia from home, of being immersed in nature, community and a solid social infrastructure.

Her connection to her homeland of Sweden is strong. She says: "Art in public spaces in Sweden is amazing. There's beautiful big murals, ceramic tile walls, weavings and more. Growing up surrounded by this probably influenced me more than anything else."

You’ve said that returning to painting after having your second child was ‘so clear and easy’ and as though you ‘had an 800-page novel burning to escape’. It sounds as though you felt like you were coming home. Can you elaborate on this time and feeling?

Having two little people in my life changed a lot of things. Something had to give, and for me that was the time I gave to my art. So I had a lot of creativity building up inside, growing and growing. When I was able to get a little more time back for myself it was just like a big roar inside welling out. I started longing desperately for my paints, and so for my birthday I went and bought myself a canvas and took a day off. That was it, it was like a big piece of myself that had been missing just fell in to place. I can’t really describe what that was like. Something like; “Right, this is where you’ve been hiding all this time. I’m not loosing you again.”

I like order and structure around things - it's a Swedish trait I can't shake. I schedule my creative time; line up my paints, brushes and scissors; and choose what music to listen to beforehand… but then I let the subconscious go to work. I love that freedom of letting go once I've built the space for it.”
— Charlotte Swiden

Tell us a bit about the imagery involved in your paintings? Is each work a specific story? Do symbols have a wider context?

Each painting has its own personal story to tell, fiction or non-fiction. They have a special meaning to me but I don’t want to take away from the viewer’s ability to interpret it, to make their own story. It would be my greatest pleasure to have someone tell me what they experience and feel through my artwork.

Some symbols are universal, some cultural, some have more personal interpretation, that’s the beauty of imagery isn’t it?

How does it feel to be focusing more on painting?

I think you are right in what you said; it’s like coming home. It’s being able to be myself. When I paint, I flow. Because of my personality type I feel as though I’m always trying to control the process, so my goal is to be brave and keep letting go of that.

What matters is that I’m able to keep expressing my world and my emotions through whatever medium I have at hand. I somehow worry that sophistication of a tool could become an impediment to the power of that expression. I’ve always enjoyed working with different materials and I don’t see painting as my only outlet. It’s probably my favourite medium of expression but I have to keep experimenting and trying to stay free in my making.

Charlotte likes to leave the interpretation of her paintings up to the viewer, saying: "it would be my greatest pleasure to have someone tell me what they experience and feel through my artwork."

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