Looking For A Good Buy In Outsider Art? Canada's John Swinton Might Just Fit The Bill

06/04/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016


I've been buying Swinton's art for years. I recognized it immediately as something worthy of investment. But before I get into all that, I do want to say, up front, that I don't know John Swinton (other than being a customer) and that I have no financial interest in his success. Just to be clear. I simply think his art is good and that it is poised well to increase in value - especially given the very reasonable prices it often sells for at auction.


John's art is original. I'd challenge anyone to argue this point. And, that pure originality is a huge factor in my determining this work as a good investment. Although I do recognize that not everyone buys art to make money, and nor should you. One should buy art because it speaks to them, because it inspires and invokes - or provokes, and because you can and want to live with the piece. It also doesn't hurt, however, to buy art that is original, from someone with a long history of production, and from someone who will sell work that doesn't break your bank. Again, John Swinton comes to mind. John has been at work seriously for over three decades and it shows.


Having had a relationship with John's art for some time, I decided to write to him and ask a few questions about what inspires this work and what he's all about. A bit quirky and bohemian, John nevertheless let loose on why he must paint and I'm glad he did. Here's the interview:

Michael Ernest Sweet: Why paint?

John Swinton: Is painting dead? It leaves some cold, superseded by more kinetic visual forms. No it's still smoldering. Sure it's materials in box diddled and put back in a box (frame) but it still warms, throws light, at times burns. It's worked for 60 thousand years, still works for me.

MES: What does it mean to you to be an "outsider" artist?

JS: Outsider Artist = can of worms. A category deemed by the cognoscenti to be above or away from standard historical view of artistic progress. All the greats to some extent were outsiders until accepted into the canon. I think that what sets the designation apart is that these 'outsiders' are not trying to be 'artists' but are people trying add to the world a piece of their own created imagination. Sacred Fools. Probably blasphemous and foolish to make yourself out to be one.


MES: Why be that, as opposed to a "regular" artist, what appeals to you about this designation?

JS: I don't want to be that. Few of us want to be labeled. Outsider is a flag of convenience used to mean nonacademic, the definition most people think of. I could say I'm naive, unschooled or low-brow but I'm trying to upscale a bit. I don't want to be 'regular' artist either.

MES: I see references to primitive art in your work, mythology too it would seem, what is it about these that inspire you?

JS: I crave the primal, the essential, the spiritual... Mythology is a route in. I believe in all the gods, of nature and the ones man made in his image.


MES: How long have you been painting?

JS: Off and on all my life I suppose, not just painting but making things out of wood, paper, leather and metal. I painted some groovy things at the end of the sixties, (all lost now thank goodness). Always drawing is what's important. After showing my drawings to a mentor (Raymond Verdaguer) he gave me the impetus to paint in earnest thirty years ago.


MES: I also notice that the nude female form is a favorite for you. I myself own a couple of these. I also notice that your nudes are rarely flattering. What's the story here?

JS: Haha. Another collector asked where I see all these nudes. Figure sketching is one of the few conventional art practices I follow. I few times a year I attend non-instructional life classes at a local community center ostensibly to improve my ham-fisted drawing chops but really to improvise on bare flesh. No, I don't aim to be flattering. It's naked humanity, blemishes and all that rings true. Truth is beauty isn't it?


MES: I think all of the pieces of yours that I own are on wood panels and in custom handmade frames. I think those features were big draws for me in my decision to add them to my personal collection. What attracts you to work with wood?

JS: I like to see my offspring provided with comfortable abodes to protect them. Wood is a living material, it usually adds to things. My paper works go out naked. I pray someone protects them under glass someday. I wish I could frame everything to my taste but it's overwhelming.


MES: Are there any outsider or folk artists from which you draw inspiration?

JS: A different one every day, often the anonymous. I'm a magpie so I borrow, but try not emulate anyone. It's not just alternate styles, I appreciate fine art but I do have an affection for children's art and feel an affinity for the mad,sad and bad. I'm inspired by brave tries and often pickup things that only have the smallest something.

MES: Why make art at all?

JS: Art speaks, Art lasts. If I can make some maybe I'll hear the echo.


MES: What influences from your early life have affected your art, either positive or negative?

JS: A career in the arts was never seen as a valid occupation in my job o' work family. It took half my life to shake that attitude. But we always had the highest respect for handmade or homemade. My folks were makers, homey or homely it was a value to take things in hand. I'm glad they gave me that.

MES: Thanks, John. I think my readers will really enjoy this work.

JS: Thank you, Michael.




John Swinton is a Canadian folk artist originally born in Saskatchewan, Swinton now resides in Vancouver. He is a self taught artist who tries to use recycled materials and draws from his anglo saxon celtic canadian roots, as well as his interests in mythology, folk beliefs and traditional crafts. See or buy his work at

Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @28mmphotos for updates about new feature blog posts, or to suggest ideas for future stories and interviews.