by Celina Tran
Sydney Swisher is an Illinois-based artist specializing in oil on fabric paintings. Her work has themes of nostalgia, familiarity, and home, and aims to transport the viewer to different times and places.
Against a backdrop of canvases and thrifted fabrics, sunlight spills into the room through a large window. In the background, two grey whippets are sleeping soundly on a sofa.
“I hope they don’t see a squirrel or anything,” Sydney Swisher laughs, pulling her knee closer to her chest. In the sunlight, her blonde hair looks almost golden, and her round glasses are threatening to slide off the bridge of her nose.
Swisher, who grew up in Southern Illinois, describes herself as a midwestern oil painter.
“My town has just under 10,000 people or something,” she says. “It’s a real rural place, so when I wanted to start painting there weren’t really any art stores around. I ended up just thrifting a bunch of fabrics and making my own canvases.”
She explains that she fell into painting on fabric through trial and error, but that it has become her niche, little thing. Thrifting materials from local stores has also allowed her to “pay homage to the people who once owned these fabrics and the memories they hold.”
Barney, photography, and nostalgia
Growing up with a kindergarten teacher as a mother, Swisher had access to all sorts of craft products. From glue feathers to rhinestones, she would keep her younger self occupied by making all sorts of things.
“Were you a Barney kid?” she asks. “I remember becoming instantly enamoured when I saw Barney doing crafts, so maybe it started there. I continued with all sorts of art as I grew up, and in High School, they gave me a class-block where I could just do whatever I wanted in the art room, which was cool.”
When college came, she realized she didn’t want to pursue Fine Art, though she has a minor in the subject. She explored TV, video, graphic design, and photography, but once the pandemic hit, Swisher felt compelled to return to her roots, physical art.
“The pandemic and working from home have allowed me to explore oil painting, which I just fell in love with. I’m a photographer too, so I’m often inspired by photography, dramatic lighting, and intense cinematic-type scenes - I really love Gregory Crewdson and Todd Hido’s work.”
Swisher says her photography elements often translate into her art. Often, she will even take a reference photo of a specific place and combine it with AI to prompt and create familiar places that don’t exist. This reference then becomes the base of her idea.
“Even though these places don’t exist, something about them feels homey, nostalgic even. Even though I base my work on the Midwest and domestic settings that mean a lot to me and my area, many people on TikTok say it reminds them of somewhere they grew up in completely different parts of the world.”
Swisher explains that by using generated, fake places as inspiration, her art forces the viewer’s brains to try to connect with their specific memory.
“I love when people feel nostalgic while looking at my paintings, sometimes it can even be bittersweet. Though the painting is the same, different memories are brought out in different people, whether you had a good or not-so-good childhood. I think it’s because we’ve all seen these domestic scenes, and they have to some extent shaped all of us,” she says.
“Sometimes, I wonder why we all have these same, specific memories or scenes, if you get me? It’s all based on my own surroundings, so why are we all relating at that level? It’s really interesting.”
How a TikTok ban might affect small creatives
In 2021, Swisher began to share her work on TikTok, posting everything from snippets of her process to the final product. Since then, she has grown a following of over 75,000 people.
“It’s just awesome, I never thought I’d actually get there,” she says. “It’s fun that people like my stuff, and I enjoy sharing it.”
Meanwhile, news of US states banning the app has swept the world. This comes after FBI director Christopher Wray expressed concerns about the Chinese government collecting data and controlling the algorithm of millions of users, potentially influencing operations. TikTok, however, has said that US user data is stored within the States, with backup redundancy in Singapore, and that none of the data is subject to Chinese law.
Since this interview took place, over half the states in the US have banned TikTok from government-issued devices. In Illinois, where Swisher is based, some state lawmakers have called for pieces of legislation that will prohibit the app on state government devices, though this has not been approved yet.
“I mean it sucks. TikTok is obviously where I blew up, and it’s going to affect a lot of content creators. It’s a bit of a bummer,” she says. “Of course, I’ll continue sharing my work on Instagram and stuff, but there’s just something about TikTok for small creators. The algorithm gets the content to the right people, which I think makes a big difference. But at least it’s been fun while it lasted,” she says of the ban.
On creative blocks and completing art
Swisher adds that though she enjoys sharing her art, she would continue to paint even if she didn’t have an audience.
“It’s like therapy, very soothing, probably also because I work with nostalgic memories and thrifted fabrics, which feel very homey and vintagey,” she says. “I also think it’s cool that I never truly know what the piece will look like until it’s done.”
As always, Erato asks its artists how they know they’re finished with a piece. Swisher pauses for a moment, before sighing.
“I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea,” she laughs. “I feel like I could look at most paintings I have “finished” and still add or change something. I’m really bad at finishing stuff, and imposter syndrome doesn’t help either.”
“I think I’m always so excited when I start a piece, then about halfway through, I get really frustrated and have to force myself to just keep going, or I’ll never finish it. Then, towards the end, things start to come together. I never feel totally satisfied, but we’re our own biggest critic, so I suppose that’s just something I need to work on,” she says.
Like every other artist, Swisher also finds herself stuck in a creative rut sometimes. To avoid creative blocks, she says to think up ideas for the next project before finishing the current one.
“It gets you excited about a new idea and forces you to finish your current one. I know I certainly need that kick in the ass sometimes,” she laughs.
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