by Celina Tran
English artist Jessica Swift on hurting, creating, and dyslexia.
Jessica E. Swift is sitting on a grey couch in a tiny Leeds flat at the edge of a large window. As the very image of a young, contemporary artist, Swift wears straight-leg jeans and a vintage band sweater. Wild curls cascade down her shoulders. The natural sunlight reveals accidental strokes of paint on the phone case in her lap and remnants of dry clay around a fingernail.
“I could’ve sworn I washed this off,” she laughs.
Despite being an up-and-coming multi-disciplinary fine artist, Swift admits that her heart lies with sculpting. In some of her previous and upcoming exhibitions, including The Underrepresented (Online, 2021), In These Four Walls (Leeds Art University, 2021), And Now! (Online, 2020), So What Do You Do on a Fine Arts Degree (South Square Centre, 2022), Swift portrays several of her sculptures.
“I’ve never been as good at learning and doing things the traditional way. The best way for me to do, feel, learn, and create is by using my hands,” Swift says.
Throughout school, she remembers struggling with learning and often found herself frustrated at teachers’ disbelief in her difficulties. It wasn’t until she started Leeds Art University, where she recently graduated with a fine art degree, that Swift was diagnosed with dyslexia.
“Everything fell into place, I finally felt understood,” she says, “At first, I felt angry for not being believed when I was younger, but after a while I just felt incredibly proud of myself for finishing school despite everything, especially knowing I did it all myself.”
In an interview with Erato Magazine, the artist spoke about her inspirations, and emotions, and applying them to her art.
Erato Magazine: You’re a multidisciplinary artist, but are you looking to branch into a specific art type?
Jessica E. Swift: I love all of it, but my favourite is sculpting. I see myself as a sculptor, first and foremost, even when I make non-clay pieces. When I paint, I love working with textures and layers, like in The Three of Us (2022) where the paint layers add a sculpture-like feeling to the painting.
How would you describe your art?
Contemporary. Oh, and abstract, for sure. I very much like playing with fun shapes and colours. One of my previous sculpture collections, Useless Vases (2021), paired normal household objects, such as vases, with children’s sorting toys. I wanted to capture the attention of my audience’s inner child and playfulness while retaining the sophistication of mature art.
My work is also perfectly imperfect, in many ways. So many incredible sculptors and artists create the silkiest, smooth surfaces, and though I love that, I want my art to reflect me as a human being. I love the little bumps and marks that come with the creating clay sculptures, so I prefer to leave them in.
How has your art developed over time?
There are so many things going on, both in my personal and professional life, and I would like to think I draw unconscious inspiration from them. Not long ago, I went through a major change where I stopped talking to someone I’ve been close to for a while, and though it didn’t change my life much, I still think the experience and emotions made a mark on my work. I think all experiences do, whether it’s from seeing a fun shape on my way to the pottery classes I teach, from falling in love, or experiencing real hurt.
I wasn’t aware when I painted The Three of Us (2022), but upon reflection, I have realized that the painting might have been influenced by going no-contact with the person I mentioned previously. It’s all a part of growing up, I guess. Though I still like weird and fun shapes, but I think that my sculptures since Useless Vases (2021) have matured along with me in a way.
You describe your life experiences as an unconscious inspiration. Do you ever use your art as a form of escapism from said experiences?
Not long ago, I made little practise vases with my sister for a class I’m teaching. We played around with clay and listened to some music when she turned to me and said, “This is really relaxing, I get why you like it.” So, though my pieces might be inspired by strong or painful emotions, I do find the process itself very therapeutic. Maybe I just transfer all my feelings into the clay.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you as an artist?
Oh my god. During my first year of university, we were showing the class our work and I had displayed all my figures on this step ladder. Just as I was about to present, it all fell off the ladder and broke. It was really embarrassing. If it was a real exhibition, it probably could’ve hit someone in the head, so the experience has definitely improved my curation skills! I was given a step ladder to prepare me for my next exhibition, and it all gave me flashbacks.
What was a turning point in your life?
When I was little, my mum used to place this huge sheet on the floor that I would paint little flowers on, so I think it was always evident that I was meant to do something creative. However, it wasn’t until my teacher in college (upper secondary school) told me that I didn’t have to teach to make art that I realized I was going to be an artist. That was a pretty big turning point, I think.
I love the freedom of being an artist, I’ve not found anything else I’d rather do.
What are you proudest of?
In terms of physical art and creations, I’m proud of my terracotta sculpture series, Possession (2021). Because of my dyslexia, I’ve always struggled with the thought of possession when it came to writing, but when I was making these sculptures, the word “possession” kept entering my mind. Unlike words and language, these pieces are mine, in creation, ownership, emotion and inspiration - literally every way. In university, we often had to create work inspired by other artists, but Possession (2021) is all me. They are the embodiment of my possession.
If we’re talking general pride, however, I am proud of making my family proud. Not everyone is as fortunate to have such a supportive family, but they’ve never been anything but encouraging and proud.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Instagram: @jessicaswift_fineart @happy.home.studio
Facebook: Happy Home Studio
Pieces in order:
Possession (sculpture) by Jessica Swift
Home? (photography) by Jessica Swift
The Three of Us (painting) by Jessica Swift
Useless vases (scultures) by Jessica Swift
Possession (sculpture) by Jessica Swift