Member Spotlight – Beth Ames Swartz

This week we recognize the work of artist Beth Ames Swartz.

Coming from a spiritual and artistic grounding rooted in an urban environment in New York, Swartz initially struggled with a feeling of displacement and disconnection when she moved to the desert environs of Arizona in 1959. Over the following decade, her art began to transition away from representation and into the realms of landscape abstraction. In 1970, during a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the artist was transformed by the enveloping experience. She states “The desert became my mentor. Exposed to nature’s abiding cycles, I felt the dignity and continuity of the earth and needed to translate my feelings visually.”  Pilgrimage and associated rituals using fire then became a prominent strategy in her art, leading to multi-year projects where the artist traveled to sacred sites in the Southwest and Europe, where she initiated on-site paintings on heavy scrolls of paper, incorporating soils from each location into the works.

In the late 1970’s, Swartz made smoke drawings and imagery or  “fire works,” which were a material transformation she developed from the application of destructive forces, mutilation and fire onto her work. Her series Transformations: Mica, Fabric & Lint (above), then led to a series Process/Ritual, forms that emerged from her large site works (below).

“The crux of all my art is life, death and rebirth, the cycles of life both in nature and life. Entropy is misunderstood once we realize that this constant reordering is always an opportunity to reframe the past into new awareness, reconciliation and eventual transformation.”

Green Sand Beach #8”, 1979,(above) was created with fire, sand, acrylic, variegated gold leaf and mixed-media on layered paper. While Swartz was an artist-in residence in Hawaii, she heard about and then visited the green sand beach and executed her fire-ritual at the site; ordering, disordering, reordering or life/ death/ rebirth; similar to the transformations that the earth goes thru after eruptions with the eventual rebirth.

“My art practice is a devotional activity, an intuitive journey and lifelong quest to transcend brokenness and create reconciliation, transformation and beauty. I focus on art’s potential for healing & unifying people, helping us to recognize the commonality of the human experience and our place in the cosmos.”

In 1980, Swartz traveled to Israel and visited ten historical sites as part of her series “Israel Revisited.” The series is a culmination of her exploration into the four elements and a reflection on influences of feminism, environmentalism and Jewish history. Each site was chosen for its connection to important female figures from the Bible. Red Sea #1 (above) honors Miriam, who, like her brother Moses, was considered a prophet and leader of the Israelites. Swartz painted and pierced the surface of a heavy rag paper, then covered it in soil and set it afire. She later reconstructed the tattered pieces in her studio, completing a personal cycle of life, death and rebirth.

In her series The Thirteenth Moon (below), Swartz was inspired by three revered eighth century Chinese poets: Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei. Her mixed media paintings visualize their poems to reflect the richness of their respective world views: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

Beth Ames Swartz grew up in New York City where she studied at the Art Students League in the late 1940s while attending The High School of Music & Art. Following she attended Cornell University for undergraduate school and New York University where she received her Masters. In 1959, at age twenty-three, she moved with her first husband to Phoenix, Arizona. There she was introduced to Action Painting, a spontaneous application of paint to the canvas, which she combined with her feminist interests to make expressions of her relationship with the Earth. She received the Arizona Governor’s Individual Artist Award in 2001 and was the subject of a Phoenix Art Museum retrospective and major monograph in 2002. The Veteran Feminists of America honored Beth in 2003 for her contribution to the arts nationally. Swartz’s work is in the public collections of National Museum of American Art (Smithsonian Institution), Jewish Museum, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Albuquerque Museum and many corporate and private collections. Her new website, coming soon! www.bethamesswartz.com

Featured Images: Above, ©Beth Ames Swartz, painting at the Red Sea, Israel, April 17, 1980; Transformations: Mica, Fabric & Lint Series, 1977, mixed media on paper, approximately 23 x 33 inches; Green Sand Beach #8, 1979, fire, sand, acrylic, variegated gold leaf, mixed-media on layered paper, 34 x 54 inches; The Red Sea #1 (Israel Revisited, Ten Sites),” 1980, Collection of Diane and Gary Tooker, included in the exhibition “Counter-Landscapes: Performative Actions from the 1970s – Now,” 2020, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona; Du Fu: A lonely moon turns among the waves (A line of cranes in flight is silent; A pack of wolves baying over their prey breaks the quiet; I cannot sleep because I am concerned about wars; Because I am powerless to amend the world), 2012, acrylic and paste on canvas, approximately 36 x 48 inches.

Watch the New Art of the American West film segment on Beth Ames Swartz from 1979:

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ecoartspace was conceived in 1997 by Patricia Watts in Los Angeles. In 1999, Watts partnered with east coast curator Amy Lipton, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of SEE, the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs in California. 2019 marked twenty years that Watts and Lipton have curated art and ecology programs, participating on panels and giving lectures internationally. Combined, they have curated over sixty art and ecology exhibitions, many outdoors in collaboration with artists creating site-specific works. They have worked with over one thousand artists from across the United States, and some internationally. Starting 2020, ecoartspace became an LLC membership organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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