Discover why the artist is at a turning point and how she landed on Folly Beach
As a visiting artist at the Gibbes Museum of Art in 2021, Jen Swearington worked on a series of carousel pop-up books, including Sacred (held here), which was inspired by portraits and tombstones.
Multimedia artist Jen Swearington is coming off a period of intense change. In spring 2020, just before the pandemic, she moved from Asheville, North Carolina, to create a new home on Folly Beach. Having made a living for years designing and making custom clothing, she shifted her focus to fine art, creating carousel pop-up books and architectural paper-cut sculptures. It was a leap of faith, given that she had created a thriving one-woman business with a list of loyal clients.
It was also a return to her roots. Swearington grew up in Indiana and was inspired by an aunt who was an artist. By the time she was 12, Swearington knew she wanted to be an artist as well. “My aunt showed me it was a viable career,” she says. “I was lucky I found that out early, and had an example, a mentor, when I was young.”
Swearington completed her undergraduate art degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and her master’s in fiber arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She moved to Asheville in 1999 and spent almost 20 years steeped in the city’s arts community. Swearington, who’s been exhibiting at Piccolo Spoleto since 2004, decided to move to Charleston to begin a new chapter.
Overboard (tunnel book in vintage suitcase, 14 x 16 x 6 inches, 2021)
Now, with a Gibbes Museum visiting artist residency last spring under her belt, a fiancé, and a growing collection of paper-cut sculptures, she’s found her footing in the Lowcountry.
You can find Swearington’s work at Revealed Gallery in downtown Charleston; she’ll be exhibiting at ArtFields in Lake City in April and New Orleans Jazz Festival in May. Here, she shares her goals for the coming year.
How it started: In 2018, I needed a break from sewing. I was burned out on studio production and wanted to concentrate on art and travel. I did a few month-long artist residencies in different countries: Bulgaria, Mexico, Greece, and Finland. I traveled with a sketchbook, an X-Acto knife, and my cutting mat and started creating carousel books [pop-up books that can be unfolded into a circle]. It was an incredible experience—but it was when my ex-husband and I were splitting up, so it was also the most heartbreaking time of my life.
(Left) Jen Swearington’s intricate paper-cut sculptures built into books and vintage luggage—such as this detail from Broken Spiral (paper-cut and ink illustration in suitcase, 16 x 23 x 12 inches, 2022)—are inspired by her world travels and represent a turning point for the artist; (Right) Swearington made the Cocktail Dress (paper, drink umbrellas, silk, 2012) for a fashion show in Asheville.
Unpacking inspiration: I moved here because it was time for a fresh start. Now I’m doing those same structures as the carousel books, but in a bigger form. I’ve been building paper sculptures into old suitcases and mirrors—things I find when I’m running. I’ve found about eight vintage suitcases just thrown out on the side of the road, and my fiancé, Sam, has a bunch of vintage suitcases as well. I realized that instead of looking for a box or a frame, I could build my sculptures into these—they’re already cases. It made sense.
Fine fashion, fine art: I’ve always done fine art, but fashion was primarily how I made my living. I’ve been sewing clothes for 18 years. I always loved drawing, as well, and so with my business, Jennythreads, I’d screenprint my drawings on the fabrics I used. Every print was one I created, either drawings or paper-cuts. It let me create products that were still unique and my own.
Wearable and not-so-wearable art: My fashion work is super wearable. I’m of the mind-set that if you’re going to pay $150 for a shirt, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether you can wash it. The exception is the cocktail umbrella dress, which I built for a fashion show fundraiser in Asheville. You had to pick a medium, and I chose paper. It’s inspiring to be given an open-ended assignment like that. I built the dress out of silk and started gluing umbrellas onto it, then finished with shellac. It was wearable at the time, but now I’ve converted it to more of a sculpture, which is on display at Revealed Gallery.
Goals for 2022: My goal for this year is to make work that comes from my heart and make it beautiful, poignant, and significant. I still do some custom sewing, but I’m tapering that off and pushing full force into fine art. I want to see if I can make a living at it—it’s kind of like going back to my original Plan A from a long time ago.