ARTS: Greg Swain’s frighteningly interesting approach

Greg Swain’s two floors of windows are both lure and beacon.

Stuck in the middle of one of the city’s many attempts to wrestle east downtown demographics away from bottle-pickers, the City Market Apartments building where Swain creates, north of Canada Place, is worth a story itself, later.

But the artist is certainly one of its key residents and especially important as a living example of the building’s original, if somewhat unfulfilled, mandate. These are my observations, incidentally – Swain and I just talked about art.

On that: Swain is Edmonton’s “skeleton man” – every worthwhile city has one, a painter or printmaker or batik artist or sculptor who uses the bones inside us that scare children to express humour or angst or revolution.

The tradition is more ancient than woodcut, and Greg picked it up on numerous trips to Mexico over the decades, where Dio de los Muertos is never too far away from anyone’s minds as one of the best parties of the year.

“A major influence would be Jose Guadalupe Posado, plus the whole Mexican experience,” he contextualizes.

But his figure work in drawings and paintings and prints isn’t always so stripped – when he throws layers of flesh into his vision it becomes buttery landscape, and often less abstract. Take the drawings he did for the upcoming Doctors and Derrieres, April 8 in the Annex at the Bay – a fundraiser for El Salvador. The nudes are centred and anatomically compelling. They glow with contrast (the woman among them less so, as if more humble in the dim light).

“I go back and forth in subject matter,” Swain explains. “At Harcourt House, in their annex, doctors and nurses come and pose for the artists. They’re the models. There’s anywhere from six to 10 artists, so over six different weeks, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Doctors and Derrieres has over 20 artists in it.”

Roger Garcia, who Swain used to live down the hall from in ArtsHab, organizes the event, now in its fifth year. All proceeds support Change for Children’s Emergency Social Health Fund, a community-led grassroots initiative in rural El Salvador providing health care in under-served areas. Since its inception, the fundraisers have brought in more than $30,000.

Swain also donated a piece to the Theatre Network fundraiser at the Sutton Place Hotel earlier this week.

The man obviously loves drawing from living figures. “It’s a great gig, because for one thing it’s free. If you’re an artist to get a model is at least $20 an hour. And to draw with a group of people is great. It’s like back to school.”

Swain graduated fine arts at Okanagan College in 1975, walking away with a couple scholarships. From there he went to Alberta College of Art in Calgary and “just basically headed off on my own.” He estimates making around 500 finished pieces in the past three decades, watching waves of Edmonton artists rise, move away or simply whither on the wall. “I have a lot of contact with the university through the whole printmaking division. Every year there’s more artists being pumped out, but every year there’s more who get fed up and quit,” he laughs.

“It’s a rollover. I said 500 pieces so I’ve quit 500 times. Haha! You hit lows. I don’t think I’ve ever quit, I just haven’t produced for a few months sometimes. But you either try something different or try and kick-start yourself.”

That may mean taking a long motorcycle trip – Greg rides a Honda CB 1000 Custom down the highways, “but I’ve got my eye on a BMW 1000. It’s looking good.”

Not surprisingly, Swain’s also become curious about circus culture lately, and has some plans in the mix. “I’d like to have a show in my studio, base it on freaks. I want to run away and join the circus,” he half-jokes. “That’s every little boy or old man’s dream. It’s about being the rogue.”


Next, he’s working on a series based on public food and street vendors all over the world. “You could go to any city on Earth and get a different picture of what street food looks like. And I’ll throw the odd skeleton into it, of course.”


Inevitable, the bones reappear. “Everybody’s got a skeleton,” he laughs. “It’s our common denominator.”