Painting Her Dream to Life
Carol Gales

KaNiqsirugut News
June 2000

It is never too late to make your dreams come true. Just look at Joanne Swanson, now 47, who wanted to be a painter. She never even picked up a paintbrush until six years ago. Now her original works and prints are sold in galleries. She will soon be included on a website for select Native American artists. She has completed about 100 paintings of various sizes.

"I feel blessed doing what I do because I love to paint," said Swanson, a Norton Sound woman now living in Koyuk. "The icing on the cake is that itís selling and there are times when I canít believe it."

Swanson was born at fish camp on the Shaktoolik River. Her father was a Public Health Service sanitarian whose job took him around the region and gave him an income that allowed the family to buy books. Reading became "an escape of sorts" for Swanson, who found articles about Europe and imagined she was in other countries.

Swanson clearly remembers a childhood experience in which she believes God told her she would be someone special. She was seven at the time, picking berries alone one evening after her mother and sisters quit for the day and left for camp.

The thought came to her that she would be someone special. "I said, ĎNo, I donít want to be someone special,í" she remembers. Later she knew she wanted to be a painter.

She graduated from Unalakleetís Covenant High School in 1971 having never taken an art class. She entered college but soon quit. She later gained self-confidence through her marriage to Lee Eckels, a Ryan Air pilot.

"I sensed he saw possibilities and potential for my life," she said. "Like my present husband, he encouraged me in whatever my interests were at that time."

Eckels was killed in a plane crash in July 1980. Though shattered, Swanson entered Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage that fall as planned. She earned an education degree in 1985.

She married Chip Swanson, a Covenant Church minister, in 1990. A few years later, when the couple and their two children lived in Bethel, Swanson found she wanted to paint.

"But I canít start painting till I know how to paint," she told herself. So she spent the next year and a half reading about painting. In 1993 she bought watercolor paints and brushes at a garage sale. That December, as a gift for her husband, she did her first painting: A scene of people outside the Covenant Church in Unalakleet.

She did not paint again until the family lived in Wasilla for a year. When friends asked to buy some of her works, she knew her time had come.

"Then I knew, yes, Iím going to be an artist," she remembers. Swanson has been painting ever since. Between cooking and cleaning at home she may paint for just ten minutes or a whole morning. She is still searching for a style of painting all her own.

The hardest thing about painting, Swanson said, has been the lack of fellow artists to talk to. She now phones artists around the country for support.

Another challenge is dealing with the business side of selling her works, and with public recognition.

"Sometimes I want to live in a box and not let anybody know Iím an artist," she said.

A Native Alaskan expressing herself with watercolors, Swanson teeters between two worlds.

"I didnít have ancestors who were watercolor artists; I donít have that background," Swanson said. "Itís like living in two worlds that are worlds apart. My mind is off in the country picking berries and cutting fish. Meanwhile Iím at the desk and painting."

Swanson remembers a teacher who seemed amused that Eskimo children could learn. She, in turn, found his attitude amusing which made for an understanding between the two. She later read of European explorersí views of Native Americans as 'vicious savages,' and wondered if he, too, had read about that.

"We, like anybody else in the world, have talent," Swanson said. "We, like anybody else in the world, need to be challenged. We, like anybody else in the world, can learn. I think thereís a lot of talent in the villages, lots of potential, but itís not tapped."

Copyright © Carol Gales. Used with permission.